Windows on the world


Thou Shalt Not Abuse

Last week the Pope finally admitted there was a problem and called a meeting for his thirteen American Cardinals.  The public had been outraged not just by the incidence of child abuse within the Catholic Church, but by the apparent collusion as suspect priests were moved to unsuspecting new areas.

Only five percent

Reaction has been divided.  There are those who refer to the good work done by the Church and quote statistics (only five per cent of priests offend, about the same percentage as found in the general population).  And there are those who claim the problem is larger; that abuse is not restricted to America; and that the Church is facing a crisis.

As always, it is not so simple.  To start with the statistics, family members account for two-thirds of reported child sexual abuse.  That means that abuse by members of the wider community is far less prevalent, at around 1.5%.  Along side this figure priestly abuse of 5% cannot be dismissed as society’s norm. 

The Wider Issues

The media tends to focus on the details of particular cases.  This undoubtedly helps with our understanding of the problem, but in looking for solutions wider issues need to be examined.  Human nature being what it is we are all guilty of abuse of some kind.  We hold positions of responsibility over other human beings.  From time to time the average person will turn that responsibility into power, and abuse it.  Parents, spouses, friends, teachers, managers, social workers, will all occasionally use discipline inappropriately or betray a confidence.  We abuse our own bodies with junk food and lack of exercise; we abuse the planet with pollution; and we abuse our lives with stress.  So who then would be the first to cast stones at some other abuser?

Nevertheless, we need to act against individuals who abuse habitually.  Whether the abuse is sexual, physical, mental, or a combination, vulnerable members of society need and deserve protection.  Whether that protection is best served by imprisonment or treatment is a moot point, which is why it is important to understand the bigger picture.  If we dispense with the myth of an external force of evil, we are left with psychological explanations of abuse.  If there is a deep-seated inability to distinguish between right and wrong, which must be the case with paedophiles (abuse pf pre-pubescents), or pleasure in inflicting pain, then prison might be the only solution.  But if, as is far more likely in the case of abuse of adolescents, the abuse is an attempt to compensate for a damaged ego, there is something for counsellors and therapists to work with.  An inadequate sense of self-worth can lead to a search for superiority, or even normality, through control, power, and self-gratification.

What all adults need

We all have emotional and physical needs that we satisfy (in the main) in adult relationships.  We need to give and receive love, sexual pleasure, admiration and respect.  Without healthy adult relationships neediness can turn into desperation.  A poor self image can result in a reluctance to risk being found wanting, or rejected, and so personal relationships are avoided in favour of business careers, vocations, or solitude.  For these people relationships with children are less threatening to their sense of inadequacy.  In fact, where quality family life is fast-disappearing children may well appreciate the attention shown them by the potential abuser.  A relationship can develop that both parties consider special.  If the adult uses his power over the child inappropriately he fails in the basic duty of care that all adults owe all children and becomes an abuser.  If he takes advantage of the special relationship to gratify his sexual urges he betrays the child’s trust and becomes a sex abuser.

Giving children a defence

This view is simplistic rather than comprehensive, but in is seeing it as one likely background to child sex abuse some measures can be identified.  Children need to feel safe within a family unit and to develop communication skills that come from adult attention and conversation.  They need a safe environment in which family members can talk openly about worries and things that do not seem right.  Parents need to be wary of encouraging friendships between their children and adults who seem not to have adult friends.  Schools and youth organisations need to profile applicants for well-balanced private lives.  And the Church needs to examine the role that priests play in society.

Duty of the Church

Those attracted to the Church might be on a spiritual mission of self-discovery, or they might have a spiritual need to serve mankind.  For the former, celibacy, solitude and vows of obedience and silence might be appropriate.  The latter will best serve if they are well-balanced, well-adjusted individuals.  For centuries the Church hid behind the myth that priests represented God on earth, that their religious training gave them power to rise above the sins of the flesh and speak purity and truth.    Most thinking adults recognise that priests are human beings striving to do God’s work ‘as they see it’, but it is well-nigh impossible for an impressionable adolescent to resist advances from such a being.  It is time for the Church to end the pretence and relinquish all claims of divine power for its priests.

Un-cloistered priests are of society, and not outside it.  What they bring to society is not the unequivocal word of God, but a spiritual dimension that can help give meaning to ordinary lives.  That spiritual dimension does not depend on vows, but on wisdom and compassion; and an ability to handle human emotions that is best served by leading a life that includes adult friendships, sexual partners, children and grand-children.  At last, the Church is preaching ‘Thou shalt not abuse’.  Now it must create an environment that does not foster abuse.

© Harvey Tordoff
April 2002