Written by Dr Ann Olivarius on May 31 2013
When the Australian government announced that it would establish a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Cardinal George Pell, Catholic archbishop of Sydney and Australia’s most senior Catholic, objected to his organisation being singled out by the media, claiming that the Catholic Church was not “the only cab off the rank” when it came to the sexual abuse of children.
Leaving aside his turn of phrase, on the face of it, his objections seem to have merit. Day by day it becomes clear that there have been incidents of sexual abuse in almost every type of institution which has any dealings with children. Catholic priests, protestant ministers of every description, Jewish rabbis, schoolteachers, Scout leaders, dance teachers, youth workers, television personalities – the list goes on and on. The Catholic Church is certainly not alone.
This, however, is only a superficial assessment of the situation. If one could imagine a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, a Jewish rabbi and a Scout leader, all committing sexually abusive acts identical in severity and frequency Cardinal Pell would, nevertheless, still be in error in claiming as he seemed to do, that the Catholic Church is no worse than any other institution in this matter.
All sexual abuse, whether committed by a member of an institution or by a private citizen, has some things in common. Sexual abuse is always an abuse of power and authority. It is always a betrayal of trust and it always committed with some form of duress. Often there is a simple use of greater physical power. Adults are always physically stronger than children and men are more often than not stronger than women. Physical strength is often the first line of duress used by abusers, but many other techniques are used: long-term grooming designed to convince the child that the abuser is his or her friend; claims that no one will believe the child if he or she tries to disclose, and threats to retaliate if the child tries to.
There are also common elements in the effect sexual abuse has on victims. Problems like adult sexual dysfunction, depression, low self esteem, the inability to form relationships, feelings of betrayal, powerlessness, shame and guilt are just a few of the burdens survivors of child abuse carry with them, usually forever. The infliction of all this injury on a person is most certainly a crime, regardless of who commits it.
When the crime is committed by a Catholic priest, however, the crime is compounded because of the very nature and structure of the Catholic Church. There are four interrelated reasons as to why this is so.
To begin with, the nature and structure of Catholic organisation and the theology surrounding priesthood in the Catholic Church means that its priests are not the same as leaders in other religious groups, even though they perform many of the same duties and roles. The Catholic Church has always proclaimed that priests are men set apart from other men (not to mention women and children), by virtue of the sacrament of ordination. The Church claims that ordination enables a priest to act as a representative of Christ (Note 1581 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1994) and that it possesses him of “the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself” (Note 1548 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1994).
Secondly, the Catholic Church vests in its priests the two most important elements of its life as a religious organisation, namely the power to celebrate Mass and the power to forgive sins in the name of God. Both of these powers are fundamental to the very existence of the Church. The Mass is seen as the only means whereby Christ or God can be present to the people through the consecration of bread and wine and only priests have the power and authority to perform this consecration in the celebration of the Mass – so without priests there can be no Mass and without the Mass there can be no church. The mainstay of Catholic teaching is the doctrine that humans are sinful creatures who require God’s forgiveness in order to avoid an eternity of suffering. For a Catholic, remorse and determination to do better in future, no matter how sincerely felt and adhered to, are not enough for the remission of past sins – what is also needed is the intercession of a priest. Only a priest has the power to grant absolution from the effects of sin. Thus through the authority to celebrate Mass and the authority to grant absolution from sin priests are vested with the astounding power to control access to God, and to speak for God.
Thirdly, the Church has buttressed the power and status of its priests by creating around them an aura of mystery and inscrutability. So, priests have traditionally lived apart from the ordinary people, and they have dressed differently and their difference has been justified and reinforced by mandatory celibacy. Indeed, celibacy is seen as an almost superhuman power over sexuality which in itself gives the priest extra authority and mystique.
The Catholic Church’s teachings about sexuality is the fourth element which makes sexual abuse by Catholic priests a more heinous crime than abuse by other categories of leaders. Catholics are taught from a very young age that outside of marriage sexual activity of any kind, in thought, word or deed is mortally sinful. In addition homosexuality is seen in traditional Catholic teaching as being an abomination in God’s eyes.
This then is the nature of Catholic society. In its pure form, it is hierarchical and deeply unequal with the clergy being invested with the political and spiritual power to determine whether an ordinary person will or will not be saved, and these powers are overlayed with the strongest possible prohibitions against any kind of sexual activity outside of marriage.
All sexual abuse is horrifying but it is not hard to imagine the extra layer of horror felt by a young Catholic child if the abuser is a priest. Here is a man who, in the mind of the child is Christ’s representative on earth asking or forcing her or him to do things which this very man probably rails against from the pulpit on a regular basis. It is not hard to imagine the complete physical and emotional paralysis that such an event would occasion, but that is just the beginning. The church has encouraged the child to think that the priest can do no wrong so childlike reasoning would therefore say that these obviously wrong activities must be the child’s own fault. Not only that, but by his actions the priest has condemned the child in her or his own mind to eternal damnation for he has effectively blocked off access to the only thing which the child thinks can provide salvation, namely confession and absolution. How could it be expected that a child would be able to confess to her or his parish priest the acts which have been committed with the very man behind the screen, or to someone who almost certainly knows the abuser and will naturally be his ally? . In most churches, but especially in a small community the supposed anonymity of the confessional is a farce. The argument that confession is not made to the priest but to God because the priest is acting in persona Christi, is really not very helpful either. If the priest is acting in persona Christi, in the confessional it is reasonable for a child to assume that he was also acting in persona Christi when he was committing the abuse.
When a Catholic child has been abused by a Catholic priest he or she is left to deal not only with the physical and emotional wounds which every abuse victim faces but also with a sense that they have been abused and abandoned by God himself. If one believes the theology and doctrine it is hard to imagine a worse condition. Many victims have described their experience as “soul murder”. This conviction, of course, leads to an even more troubling thought — because it is possible to believe that if one’s soul is already dead and condemned to hell for all eternity, the death of the body is a very minor step indeed. It is little wonder that so many victims of Catholic priests have committed or attempted suicide.
This is why Cardinal Pell is wrong and disingenuous when he claims that the record of the Catholic Church in matters of child sexual abuse is no worse than many other organisations. The perpetration of the abuse in a Catholic context carries with it an overlay of theological, spiritual trauma which is exclusive to the Catholic Church.
There is, however, one more level of extra culpability for the Catholic Church. It is now common knowledge that the upper echelons of Catholic hierarchy systematically denied or covered up abuse by priests for decades. Even if the priests themselves did not understand the full spiritual horror of the abuse they were committing (and it is hard to imagine how that could be), any bishop to whom this abuse was reported should have had a sufficient grasp of Catholic theology to know that this apprehended “soul murder” was an unavoidable outcome of the physical acts. To that extent, those bishops who covered up or denied the abuse are accessories to this extra layer of crime, which is exclusive to the Catholic Church. It is to be hoped that they will be held culpable and accountable.