Sunday, 4 April 2010

Ending Sexual Abuse Requires Education & Compassion

It is becoming increasingly clear why so many people have difficulty believing that sexual abuse could have happened within a sacred religious institution. At the same time some people seem to think that such an institution is beyond question because of the Roman Catholic claim of Papal Primacy and Apostolic Succession through Jesus himself.

A recent article by an Italian sociologist of religion Massimo Introvigne 'Moral Panic Flares Again' even dares to suggest that the problem is merely a matter of public and media exaggeration. Incredibly his sponsors prefaced the article by stating " Is priestly paedophilia a problem? Yes, says an Italian sociologist. Is it a big problem? No." If payouts to date in the USA of more than US. $ 2 Billion to the victims so far is not considered a big problem then readers may well ask "what is?" What Mr. Introvigne states about homosexuals is typical of the defensive statements being made by many supporters of the institution. Witness the recent comments by Cardinal Angelo Sodano calling it "petty gossip" or Pope's personal preacher, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa deferring to the accusations as being equal to anti-Semitic remarks. These statements do not help to bring healing to the real victims!

It seems that critics sometimes fail to see that this crisis is about the suffering of the victims and a culture that allowed it to happen! There is little doubt in most people minds that the Pope was personally responsible for directing any cover-up surrounding the sexual abuse cases. His efforts and directives to control the situation beginning in 2001 are well documented. This however does not remove the silence that took place for decades prior but the pain and shame these innocent children have suffered continues to this very day. Each new revelation of sexual abuse adds to their suffering. If the Church and the Pope are unable to handle their own embarrassment above the pain of those children who have suffered for years than perhaps they should resign.

In defence of the Church many people try to defer the problem elsewhere but seldom sympathize with the plight of the real victims. Instead, they attempt to make it seem as if the Church is now the victim. What a clear example of where our church stands today. The problem has been clearly identified by leading experts as systemic. Ask yourself "When will the Vatican announce that they are prepared to look inwardly?" Only then will true reform take place!

Let no one forget that sexual abuse of children is a worldwide problem and not just confined to the Catholic Church. It even happens in the best of families. As a victim myself I have done my best to grapple with the problem and have found tremendous solace in a lot of inspirational writings including the Bible. What I find so discouraging about our Church is its inability to deal with the current situation and accept its role in this situation. Instead, it has become defensive instead of pro-active. Almost like a child caught with its fingers in the cookie jar. Pope Benedict XVI continues to cling to the outdated model of sexuality taught by St. Augustine more than 1400 years ago. One only needs to read this saint's tormented experience with his sexuality. Since that time, especially in the last hundred years, there has been tremendous progress in our understanding of human sexuality.

This understanding has not only made it possible to address the question of sexual abuse but also for victims who have finally gained the courage to speak out.

What follows initially encouraged me to reflect on this most sensitive issue in my blog of May 2009. In view of the recent events it seemed appropriate to repeat it once again.

"Many people awoke this week [May 20/09] 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 Snipe of The Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, as follows . . . . ."it is clear that the institutional Church is in a pre-adolescent stage of psychosexual 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."

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 our 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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