RELIGION, POWER AND CHILD ABUSE GO HAND IN HAND
By Brian Mark Hennessy
A mother named Kausar Parveen struggles through tears as she remembers the blood-soaked clothes of her 9-year-old son, raped by a religious cleric. Each time she begins to speak, she stops, swallows hard, wipes her tears and begins again. Her son had studied for a year at a nearby Islamic school in the town of Kehrore Pakka in Pakistan. In the blistering heat of late April, in the grimy two-room Islamic madrassa, he awoke one night to find his teacher lying beside him. “I didn’t move. I was afraid,” he says. The cleric lifted the boy’s long tunic-style shirt over his head, and then pulled down his baggy pants. “I was crying. He was hurting me. He shoved my shirt in my mouth,” the boy says, using his scarf to show how the cleric tried to stifle his cries. He looks over at his mother. “Did he touch you?” He nods. “Did he hurt you when he touched you?” ”Yes,” he whispers. “Did he rape you?” He buries his face in his scarf and nods yes. Parveen reaches over and grabs her son, pulling him toward her, cradling his head in her lap.
Sexual abuse is a pervasive and longstanding problem at madrassas in Pakistan, an investigation has found. It is pervasive – from the sun-baked mud villages deep in its rural areas to the heart of its teeming cities. But in a culture where clerics are powerful and sexual abuse is a taboo subject, it is seldom discussed or even acknowledged in public. It is even more seldom prosecuted. Victims’ families say that the Police are often paid off not to pursue justice against clerics and cases rarely make it past the courts, because Pakistan’s legal system allows the victim’s family to “forgive” the offender and accept “blood money.” The perpetrators of the abuse, therefore, are rarely criminalized in the Courts.
Investigations have found hundreds of cases of sexual abuse by Islamic clerics reported in the past decade, and officials suspect that there are many more within a far-reaching system that teaches at least 2 million children in Pakistan. The investigation was based on police documents and dozens of interviews with victims, relatives, former and current ministers, aid groups and religious officials. The fear of clerics and the militant religious organizations that sometimes support them came through clearly. One senior official in a ministry tasked with registering these cases says that many madrassas are “infested” with sexual abuse. The official asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution; he has been a target of suicide attacks because of his hard position against militant groups. He compares the situation to the abuse of children by priests in the Catholic Church.
“There are thousands of incidences of sexual abuse in the madrassas,” he says. “This thing is very common.” Pakistan’s clerics close ranks when the madrassa system is too closely scrutinized, he says. Among the weapons they use to frighten their critics is a controversial blasphemy law that carries a death penalty in the case of a conviction. “This is not a small thing here in Pakistan — I am scared of them and what they can do,” the official says. “I am not sure what it will take to expose the extent of it. It’s very dangerous to even try. That’s a very dangerous topic,” he says. A tally of cases reported in newspapers over the past 10 years of sexual abuse by clerics and other religious officials came to 359. That represents “barely the tip of the iceberg,” says Munizae Bano, executive director of Sahil, the organization that scours the newspapers and works against sexual abuse of minors.
The above heart-wrenching report was written by Katthy Gannon and Kehrore Pakka of the Pakistan News outlet of the Associated Press. For those readers who were abused in childhood by clerics of the Catholic Church, the ingredients of the abuse – the vulnerability, fear and shame of the innocent child in juxtaposition with religion, power, threats, cover-up, lack of apology and blood money in exchange for silence – will all have familiar echoes. It is easy to understand why it was that the anonymous official had made a comparison between clerical sexual abuse in the Islamic madrassas and the schools and seminaries of the Roman Catholic Church.
Kausar Parveen, the mother of the boy struggling to hide his mental and physical pain through his tears, will have a chance, at least, to help her 9-year-old son overcome his trauma simply because the boy’s blood-stained clothes were visible evidence that something horrendous had happened to him. With her love and care and his trust in her, she may be able to help him to overcome at least some of the psychological damage that has been inflicted upon him so early in his childhood. That is small comfort, however, and only the best prospects in the circumstances. For those children whose abuse remains uncovered, life is more difficult – because, often in silence and alone, child victims of sexual abuse face secondary trauma in the long process of the critical path to disclosing the events that had taken place.
Often, when victims of abuse try to tell their stories to the clerics responsible for their wellbeing, they are in fear of the consequences of their disclosure. It may cause them the trepidation of being disbelieved and induce them to produce hesitant, unconvincing, incomplete and even partially retracted descriptions of the events. Such assumptions are often well-founded for it is common for victims to be assaulted with counter-charges of disbelief and blame – and that further inflicts upon them the curse of their rejection. Their expectation of help and comfort may reap only negative responses such as charges of lying, imagining, complicity and even their manipulation of the adult abuser.
Such damaging abandonment of the child by the very adults who are critical to their recovery constitutes re-victimisation and can result in deep-seated and permanent responses such as self-blame, self-hate and alienation. That sense of rejection will be increased proportionately to the child’s degree of expectation, trust and help that they had anticipated from the person in whom they had confided. Hence, it is not uncommon that the very fear of such rejection inhibits the disclosure of the trauma a child is suffering to anyone. From then on the child may take the wrong options and descend into a state of secrecy and helplessness. The last hope for such a child is that in later adulthood they begin to unravel the damage and find themselves able to speak out, but, that does not always happen.
I feel a deep and poignant care for the son of Kausar Parveen as he faces his future. Worlds apart from where he and his mother struggle to unravel both the present and the future trauma that they will re-live again and again, I recall the lifelong, internal conflicts of so many of the boys who were abused by Catholic clerics at the Comboni Missionary Order’s seminary at Mirfield in England. Some of those boyhood friends still wrangle in their hearts and minds over the events of abuse that was perpetrated against them half a century ago by priests whom they trusted implicitly. Betrayal by an adult – one that a child had admired and sought to emulate – is a mentally debilitating and spiritually cancerous injury. It creates a bitterness that cannot be sweetened by time alone. Indeed, whilst the clerics of the Catholic Church remain concerted in their abject denial of the truth – such denials can be life-threatening.