shaken to the core

There has been awful news coming from Ireland this week – the Commission into Child Abuse in Roman Catholic institutions was released after nine of years of study, and the results are completely shattering. In summary it reports that over a period of at least 60 years “sexual abuse was "endemic" in boys’ institutions. It also found physical and emotional abuse and neglect were features of institutions. Schools were run "in a severe, regimented manner that imposed unreasonable and oppressive discipline on children and even on staff".” About 35,000 children were placed in a network of reformatories, industrial schools and workhouses up to the 1980s. More than 2,000 told the Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse they suffered physical and sexual abuse while there. And one of the worst things is that the Church leadership knew that this was going on and did little or nothing to stop it. Furthermore, the Christian Brothers have successfully sued to prevent the names of the criminals to be published, and to limit liability of their organization. I have no idea how they managed to pull that off, but it is cowardly and repulsive.

These children were subject to emotional, spiritual, physical and sexual abuse over years, treated like criminals and slaves and denied the most basic of human comforts and legal rights.

Another aspect of this which is truly repulsive has been some of the reaction of Church leadership. There have been some who have spoken about their sorrow, but they are rather feeble-looking compared to the following.

Consider, for example, what retired U.S. Catholic Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, who has himself been accused of child abuse, had to say: “We all considered sexual abuse of minors as a moral evil, but had no understanding of its criminal nature. [I] Accepted naively the common view that it was not necessary to worry about the effects on the youngsters: either they would not remember or they would ‘grow out of it’.”

Or this quote – it’s from 2002 in response to the Boston abuse scandal, but it has been quoted in response to this case too. Fr. Roger J. Landry said “No matter how sinful a priest is, provided that he has the intention to do what the Church does — at Mass, for example, to change bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood, or in confession, no matter how sinful he is personally, to forgive the penitent’s sins — Christ himself acts through that minister in the sacraments.” So it’s about intention, not about actions? Maybe there’s a theological case for that, but when the actions are systematic abuse, you may be on shaky ground.

The president of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue, had this to say:

Reuters is reporting that “Irish Priests Beat, Raped Children,” yet the report does not justify this wild and irresponsible claim. Four types of abuse are noted: physical, sexual, neglect and emotional. Physical abuse includes “being kicked”; neglect includes “inadequate heating”; and emotional abuse includes “lack of attachment and affection.” Not nice, to be sure, but hardly draconian, especially given the time line: fully 82 percent of the incidents took place before 1970. As the New York Times noted, “many of them [are] now more than 70 years old.” And quite frankly, corporal punishment was not exactly unknown in many homes during these times, and this is doubly true when dealing with miscreants.

Regarding sexual abuse, “kissing,” and “non-contact including voyeurism” (e.g., what it labels as “inappropriate sexual talk”) make the grade as constituting sexual abuse. Moreover, one-third of the cases involved “inappropriate fondling and contact.” None of this is defensible, but none of it qualifies as rape. Rape, on the other hand, constituted 12 percent of the cases. As for the charge that “Irish Priests” were responsible, some of the abuse was carried out by lay persons, much of it was done by Brothers, and about 12 percent of the abusers were priests (most of whom were not rapists).

The Irish report suffers from conflating minor instances of abuse with serious ones, thus demeaning the latter. When most people hear of the term abuse, they do not think about being slapped, being chilly, being ignored or, for that matter, having someone stare at you in the shower. They think about rape.

By cheapening rape, the report demeans the big victims. But, of course, there is a huge market for such distortions, especially when the accused is the Catholic Church.

I think that’s worth examining, while you lift your jaw from the floor at the hubris and insensitivity. Firstly “hardly draconian”, and using when they happened. Bear in mind that this wasn’t happening to kids in school who could go back to their parents and complain (although that would be bad enough). This was happening to children in institutions run by the people who were abusing them. There was no escape. The fact that there was lack of attachment and affection makes it even worse. These children had no families apart from the people in authority who treated them like dirt.

He seems to defend the fact that only 12% of the abuses were actually rapes, rather than the other deeply inappropriate conduct. Considering how many children were abused – a few thousand – I think that’s an insanely high amount. One commenter I read today said it was like the line in Father Ted: "We’re not all like that. Say if there’s two hundred million priests in the world, and 5% of them are pedophiles– that’s still only ten million!" I don’t know what Donahue is trying to get at here, but it’s not pretty.

Then there’s the comment by outgoing Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor: “He said, rather controversially perhaps, that a lack of faith is ‘the greatest of evils.’ He blamed atheism for war and destruction, and implied it was a greater evil even than sin itself.”

And another evil apparently is being gay and wanting to get married – the Catholic Church in Maine is being investigated by the US Inland Revenue Service because they are accused of violating tax rules by helping a referendum campaign aimed at repealing the state’s new same-sex marriage law. So at least we’ve got our priorities straight. Let’s also not forget the little girl in South America who was excommunicated a few months ago because her father had raped her and her mother arranged for her to have an abortion because her life was in danger because of the pregnancy.

Anyway. I apologize for ranting at you, reader, but I sort of needed to get it off my chest. I knew that there were many shady things going on in the Church, following the abuse scandals here in America, but this somehow takes things to a different level. It just seems so much worse. And I have to wonder, where was God in all this. I would imagine that at least some of these poor little kids prayed for help, prayed for release from their nightmares. I’m aware that it was actual humans committing the abuses, not God, but they were part of God’s Church and you would think they were lead by scripture, and assume that they prayed too. But the help didn’t come, and clearly many faith leaders are continuing to demean the victims.

One Response to “shaken to the core”

  1. Paul says:

    Well said. Murphy O’Connor is hardly my favourite person; he has also said that atheists are less than human (http://scienceblogs.com/evolvingthoughts/2009/05/if_you_dont_believe_what_i_bel.php), which is historically the sort of talk that provides cover for all manner of atrocity.

    If you can find a copy of ‘The God Squad’ by Paddy Doyle it’s well worth a read; he explains the routine abuse that he suffered as a child that, while not as bad as many, is deeply upsetting. It’s also the best account I’ve read about what it’s like to be a child in hospital for a long time (I spent that part of the book nodding with recognition on every page).

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