Thursday, 21 May 2009

On Sexual Abuse

Many people awoke this week to the long anticipated results of the inquiry into child abuse at Catholic Institutions in Ireland dating back some sixty years. The report found that church leaders knew that sexual abuse was 'endemic' in boys institutions. It also found physical and emotional abuse and neglect were features of these institutions. Schools were run "in a severe, regimented manner that imposed unreasonable and oppressive discipline on children and staff". Following a nine-year inquiry investigated over a 60-year period about 35,000 children were placed in a network of reformatories, industrial schools and workhouses up to the 1980's. More than 2,000 told the Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse they suffered physical and sexual abuse while there. The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, said he was "profoundly sorry and deeply ashamed that children suffered in such awful ways in these institutions".

It has been almost twenty years since a similar inquiry was completed about sexual abuse within the diocese of St. John's Newfoundland. That damning report concluded that the patriarchal, clerical structure of the Roman Catholic Church created a climate that significantly contributed to child sexual molestation by priests. In all probability the abuses in Ireland will reflect the findings first reported in Canada in 1990 by A.W. Richard Sipe of The Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, as follows . . . . ."it is clear that the institutional Church is in a pre-adolescent stage of phsychosexual development. This is a period typically prior to eleven years of age in which boys prefer association with their own sex, girls are avoided and held in disdain, often as a guise for fear of women as well as of the own as-yet-un-solidified sexuality. Sex generally is rigidly denied externally while secretly explored. The rigidity extends to strict rules of inclusion and exclusion. Control and avoidance are of primary concern. A church stuck in the pre-adolescent stage of development is limited in its ability to cope with sexual issues and give sexual guidelines."

Unhealthy Ideas Concerning Power and Sexuality

Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who was appointed to a special commission in 1994 following revelations of abuse in his native country, recently stated "sexual abuse is first and foremost an abuse of power. It is an abuse of power in a sexual form. Unhealthy ideas concerning power and its exercise are always relevant to the question of abuse. Spiritual power is arguably the most dangerous power of all. In the wrong hand it gives the power to make judgments even about the eternal fate of another person. It needs a sign on it at all times saying, 'Handle with extreme care'. The greater the power a person exercises, the more need there is for checks and balances before it is used and accountability after it is used'".

U.S. Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer and advocate for those abused by priests, had this to say about the Irish abuse report: "The vicious sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual devastation inflicted upon these children was not accidental. It was systemic". And summarized the situation as follows: "The Church cannot and will not fix itself. The very reality of the systemic abuse in the Irish institutions (and elsewhere as well) reveals a deep disdain for people by those charged with leading the Church. There has been an abandonment of the fundamental values that are supposed to vivify the Church if indeed these values were ever really internalized by many in positions of power. There is something radically wrong with the institutional Catholic Church."

Sexual Abuse My Own Story

As a victim of sexual abuse myself, by a group leader, I feel somewhat qualified to provide some insight into this problem. Sexual abuse has many ugly and painful faces. Many victims have suffered and continue to suffer due to the hidden nature of the act. However, I believe we are on the verge of making a tremendous leap forward in bringing healing and understanding to this silent and hidden disease.

It is well known that the abuser, was often a victim of abuse themselves. The abuser was likely someone your family/community both admired and respected. And, finally the abuser is frequently a member of your own close family. It is due to this close association that the matter of sexual abuse has remained hidden and untreated for so long. When a problem of this nature is left secret or hidden it will take on a painful life of its own until it is acknowledged and correctly treated. However, when the solution is left or reduced to dollars and cents, and the original shame and guilt is left untouched the problem will remain. Such a victim of abuse, having been awarded a million dollars, will remain scarred unless treated professionally with compassion and understanding.

So far many people have talked about sexual abuse as though it were a modern day revelation. In my unprofessional and humble opinion that is not so. Sexual abuse probably continues to be the one of the most frequently occurring and emotionally damaging acts in human history! Again, due to its hidden and secret nature. We must learn to treat both the guilt and shame of the sexual abuse by exposing and calling it what it is. But it must be done with complete dignity and confidentiality.

The first step in treating the problem is to recognize that we have now made a giant leap forward by exposing the wrongs in these religious institutions. The second step must treat both the victim and the abuser. The third step must be to refrain from using the abuse as a weapon to wage war and revenge. This serves no one, least of all the victim. The fourth step must begin with education. We need to understand why some people are led to this kind of behaviour and why some become victims. Remember we are only on the first rung of a many tiered ladder to our understanding of sexual behaviour. Let us treat this painful issue with God given dignity and compassion. If we really want to help these victims we should not allow it to become an excuse for satisfying our hunger for news, revenge, labelling and continued accusations.

Perhaps we may eventually come to thank our institutions and those broken priests for bringing this 'scandal' to the forefront. If we allow ourselves to act with wisdom and compassion we will see that the victims and offenders can act as a shield by bringing this issue out of its dark past into a healing light. This will undoubtedly require a quantum leap of faith - but what if we don't?

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