Priests are the new abuse victims
Needless to say, I had to wade through the reports on child sex abuse in the Irish Catholic Church, and reports on child abuse in a general, international context. I wouldn’t blame anyone for downing vodkas when reading those reports. Still, the Catholic Church, the abusive priests and the laissez-faire handling of the cases did not relate at all to the Catholic Church that I know and love. What if I had never known the Bride of Christ, and were not a practising Catholic? What if I read the reports and experienced the media hysteria in isolation? Than like so many others in our society, I would think that the Catholic Church was a hospital ward for the sexually depraved. My experience of the Catholic Church would be solely dictated by salacious media coverage. And fatally, that may be the only experience many will have of the Catholic Church.
Many of our contemporaries are conditioned to believe that child abuse is a standard feature of life in the Catholic Church. And that the Catholic Church and child abuse are metaphors for each other. To address the many misconceptions about child abuse in our society, The Carmelites in Kensington organised an information evening on this exact subject.
Present at the meeting was Fr. Matthew Blake, Fr. Ian Matthews and a large room full of parishioners. Fr. Matthew, like me, is from Cork, and he opened the discussion by frankly stating that child abuse is not a recent phenomenon, but a sad fact of human history. Fr. Matthew reminded us that St. Patrick in the early centuries was a victim of abuse when, as a young boy, he was captured by the Irish and enslaved for six years. To follow, psychologist Franca Bren delivered a lecture where she gave a very good overview in 'broad lines' of 'the complex area' of child abuse. Franca Bren detailed child abuse as falling into four chief areas: physical, emotional, sexual and neglect. Some integral research findings were woven into her presentation; that abusers come from any section of society and may be of any racial or professional background. She profiled three types of abusive personalities, 'the aggressive abuser' and 'the fixated abuser' and 'the regressive abuser'. The 'fixated abuser' is the most insidious abuser in that they are usually very law-adiding, function very well socially, and are most likely 'to pick vulnerable children' and 'groom' them. Another characteristic of the 'fixated' is that they may stop abusing for several years at a time, leading others to think they have been 'cured'. She further embellished the sinister profile of the fixated abuser in that they may be attracted to joining a religious order because the ‘status’ of being a priest and the ‘trust’ that others put in them may give them pretexts for finding victims.
To focus on child sex abuse as perpetrated by religious figures, Franca Bren noted that a wide range of research findings from male religious communities (including many religions) found that 1.5 - 5% of the members of religious communities could be abusers. 'So it is by no means exclusive to Catholic tradition' she noted, and Fr. Matthew added that 'one case is still one case too many.' To centre on the abused, Franca Bren detailed how in most abuse cases, more girls are abused than boys, but in the case of children abused by clergy, the statistic available is that 80% of the abused were boys.In finishing her presentation, Franca reminded us of Pope John Paul II’s words from 2003 that ‘there’s no place in the priesthood for those who would harm the young’.
Fr. Matthew invited those in attendance to ask questions, and rather suddenly an elderly man alongside me started to rant at the priests present. He shouted, ‘because of the abuse committed by priests, the name of Catholics has been dragged down in society! Father I could have given that presentation when I was in a Catholic school. I knew there were little boys being fondled by priests when I was seven and away at Catholic boarding school!’ Turning his attention to Franca Bren, he fumed ‘whatever the priests are paying you to give this talk – it’s too much! It was boys who were abused and therefore I as a man should be giving this talk. Girls were not abused. You should not be giving this talk!’
I shot my hand up, and said ‘thank you Fr. Matthew and Fr. Ian and Franca for holding this evening. It’s an opportunity for Catholics to come together and get practical information and put the crime of sex abuse into a global context. In response to my fellow parishioner who spoke abuse that happened in his school…’ I said and nodded to the man on my right. ‘I would like to say that as a young Catholic I come into contact with many priests, and none of them are abusers. You can’t label them all as abusers; it's simply not true. I try in my own way to go to Mass each day, and meet many saintly priests. We must look at the whole picture and see that the abuse victims in the media glare, at present, are those that were abused by priests. Why aren’t those who were abused by their fathers, brothers, uncles and visitors to their homes in the media gase continuously? Does it mean that child abuse does not exist elsewhere? Or that all other abusers, non-priests I mean, have stopped abusing? As Catholics we need the irreplaceable role of priests, but retaliating against all priests, haranguing all of them as being child abusers, and hen-picking them like the liberal media is to be guilty of the abuse of priests.’
A very lively discussion got underway. A teacher in the group expressed the opinion that the reason the reported cases of abuse is decreasing is because ‘there’s so much sexual permissiveness and so many barriers dropped’ that the lines between abuse and sexual experience are increasingly blurred. Another lady felt aggrieved that ‘you wouldn’t put an alcoholic in charge of a pub or into a wine tasting session. Why were paedophiles put to work with children?’ We were given an information sheet with a host of websites and contacts where we could seek further information, including details of organisations that help the abused.
The irate gentleman who had earlier shouted at the priests rushed into the discussion again, and this time referred to a sermon given at Sunday Mass, April 12th. Giving a grievously unfair description of the priest and his sermon, the man insinuated that the priest was guilty of ‘covering up for other priests’, merely because the priest had announced that there would be an information evening. Thankfully, many parishioners in the room turned to the man and said that they had been at the same Mass, and that the priest was not guilty of ‘covering up’ just because he had announced that there would be an information evening.
I resisted the temptation to call the man a bully. I said to him, ‘that is an outrageous accusation to make.’ Why he believes taking out his troubles and twisting the words of a sermon will do any good to anyone is beyond me. Nonetheless, in my everyday existence, I witness a creeping acceptance of bullying behaviour towards priests, be it the priests who are spat at or be it those priests called ‘child abusers’ whenever they walk down the street. But it does confuse me that there are a few individuals who are very impassioned about seeking justice for abuse victims, and speak so much about the agonies endured by abuse victims, yet at times feel it their right to publically strike out (and in an abusive tone and manner) at good and holy priests. It’s not consistent that they can argue that there must be an end to all abuse, but then torment priests.