The sexual abuse of children: why is it so common in religious communities?

Don’t get me wrong: the sexual abuse of children is not confined to people with a religious background (revelations about such abuse dating back at least fifty years from all around the world confirm that this is so), but, when such abuse is perpetrated by people with religious convictions, it can seem far more shocking (even today) because people with religious convictions allege that they act in ways which accord with those of God/gods/the supreme being/the divine, or in line with ethical/moral standards that are often deemed “better than” or “superior to” those of people devoid of faith.

Although attention in recent times has focused in particular on the sexual abuse of children within the Roman Catholic Church (globally) and by Pakistani Muslim males (both in Pakistan and here in the UK), even a cursory search on the internet reveals that such abuse has been confirmed in all major and many minor expressions of religious commitment. However, it would appear that certain characteristics must prevail within a religious group for the sexual abuse of children to be MORE LIKELY to occur than in other religious or non-religious groups. The characteristics most often identified are as follows. The sexual abuse of children is more likely if the religious group:

  • believes that small biological differences require that males and females assume markedly different roles within the family, the faith group and wider society;
  • frequently segregates the sexes;
  • does not act with sufficient vigour to stamp out the physical and sexual abuse of women;
  • has unrealistic expectations of what it means to be a boy or a girl and a man or a woman;
  • thinks it is better that parents have male rather than female children;
  • provides males with all or most authority roles, certainly within the religion, but frequently also within the family and wider society;
  • grants to religious authority figures esteem/respect/power which cannot fail to make many such figures feel that they are either “better than” or “superior to” members of the laity, for want of a better word;
  • requires or encourages celibacy among some or all its religious authority figures;
  •  is secretive or evasive about aspects of its beliefs and/or practices, and/or seeks to preclude from some of its significant events or places of importance people who are not members of the group;
  • begins to train its religious authority figures when they are so young that they have not been able to address their sexual needs in a way that is healthy/mature;
  • allows religious authority figures to spend time alone with children;
  • places great emphasis on doing things the way things have always been done (e.g. “It is important that we remain true to our long-standing traditions, no matter how bizarre or irrelevant such traditions may be/may seem to be”);
  • feels it is a mark of shame if families have children with special needs/disabilities and therefore tries to hide such children from public view;
  • believes “improper” conduct by children and young people, perhaps especially female children and young people, brings shame on the family/community, with the result that such children and young people are told to keep quiet about “improper” behaviour, even if they are the victims and not the perpetrators of such behaviour.

Although a wealth of hard evidence about the sexual abuse of children now exists, I will share only some of the most revealing I’ve come across, that which derives from Marie Keenan (her monumental work entitled “Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church”, OUP, 2012, is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the matter because many of her conclusions about the Roman Catholic Church apply to other religious communities). Despite focusing on the sexual abuse of children in the Roman Catholic Church, Keenan writes that:

While sexual abuse by Catholic clergy is clearly a significant problem for the Catholic Church, other churches and religions as well as professional groups have recorded similar problems, although not to the same extent.

Children near Mus, eastern Turkey

Children near Mus, Turkey

When Keenan turns her attention to such abuse within the Roman Catholic Church itself, you can see how some of the points I list above come to the fore:

(The incomplete data currently available) give us a sense of the emerging picture (about the extent to which clergy engaged in abuse), although the (known) numbers are likely to reflect a serious underestimation of the problem… There is no evidence to suggest that sexual orientation is involved in the sexual abuse of minors… In the John Jay study (USA), priests ordained in the early 1970s were more likely to have been accused of sexual abuse of a minor than priests ordained in any other period. Approximately 10% of priests ordained from 1970 to 1975 had allegations of abuse made against them, with a significant decline thereafter… To date, child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy has emerged almost exclusively in First World nations, and yet it is highly likely that… the abuse… (has) occurred in developing countries too (Keenan suggests this is so because, in developing countries, “there is disparity of power between the clergy and the laity, with more economic dependence of the laity on Church officials, less active journalism, and less well-established law enforcement and legal frameworks”)… Some contemporary writers argue that Church history shows a persistent fear on the part of the Church authorities of sexual contact between men and boys… The earliest Church council for which there are records (Elvira in 309 CE) has 81 canons, of which 38 deal with sex… There is now sufficient literature available on the subject of abuse by Catholic clergy to suggest that… the Catholic Church hierarchy in Ireland and the United States had knowledge of sexual abuse by clergy from the 1960s onwards… Official Catholic teaching with regard to sexual morality is informed by deductive methods of reasoning that privilege law and “nature” over the human person, leading to absolutist distinctions between right and wrong, with no room for grey areas… Several commentators, themselves priests or former priests, argue that the inadequate theology of sexuality serves to make sexuality into something dark, secretive and troublesome for many clerical men… Hoge (2002) reports that 10% to 15% of American priests who had been ordained five years or less had resigned from active ministry. The major reasons given by these young priests for their resignation were isolation and loneliness. Celibacy was the reason given by about one-sixth of priests for leaving the priesthood… 10% of priests are approached sexually during the time of their theological studies and up to 50% of clergy are reported to be sexually active at any one time… The silencing of issues and the lack of debate are two of the features of the hierarchical system of power and control that lie at the heart of the governance of the Roman Catholic Church… During the pontificate of John Paul II, theologians, teachers, priests, brothers and women religious, identified by the Vatican to be in dissent, were silenced and censured by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, (later) Pope Benedict XVI… Institutions can display an institutional instinct that makes their first priority the enhancement of the organisation and the reinforcement of the organisation’s authority… Secrecy within the Roman Catholic Church is one of the impediments to growth for its clergy creating an environment in which it is impossible for clergy to be open and honest… Clerical culture must be seen as a third broad feature of the Church that has helped to create an environment conducive to child sexual abuse… Clerics are presumed, by clergy and laity alike, to form an elite group within the Church; they are superior to the laity because of their ordained status and their celibate commitment. They are also seen to be closer to God… One symptom (of clericalism)… was an attitude that it was sinful to make any unkind accusation against a priest.

Keenan goes on to reveal that, while Vatican II emphasised “the theology of the Church as the Church of the People of God, with all Church members sharing in the ministry of Christ”, power and authority resides, nonetheless, with the clergy, thereby establishing ambiguity of a substantial and significant nature. She is also at pains to emphasise how formation within the seminary takes insufficient account of the social, psychological and sexual development of seminarians by laying far too much emphasis on their “spiritual and intellectual” development. Moreover, institutional life “is said to breed dependency and a type of illusory security”. These factors “create a template for clerical culture, clerical masculinity and clerical living that was problematic for many”. Add to this that some seminarians had themselves been abused as children (and then in the seminaries where they trained), and it is obvious that the Church itself must carry a considerable measure of responsibility for the actions of the priests who engaged in the abuse of children. The nature of the Roman Catholic Church, its teachings, its hierarchical organisation and its practices, condition priests to imagine that abuse can be undertaken. For some, abuse was undertaken as some sort of “compensation” for the sacrifices they had made, and the effort required, to be a “good” Catholic priest.

Wow. One is tempted to say, “End the celibate priesthood immediately and, as soon as possible thereafter, ordain women as priests.” These two actions alone should go an enormous way toward making it far less likely that the sexual abuse of children will occur again in the Roman Catholic Church, certainly to the degree that it has for perhaps the last 1,700 or so years.

In a sense, however, the real challenge is this. How many other religious groups must take action to substantially reduce the sexual abuse of children, and how many other religious groups must engage in precisely the same reforms that are currently required within the Roman Catholic Church?

Children in Urfa, eastern Turkey

Children in Urfa, Turkey

By the way, Keenan is not alone in linking celibacy to the sexual abuse of children (although she is at pains to emphasise the obvious, that not every celibate priest has engaged in such abuse). In Australia, a nationwide enquiry into child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy and others (the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse) has been going on for a long time and, as it becomes apparent how common the sexual abuse of children has been by Roman Catholic priests and others, a completion date for the enquiry is pushed ever further back. However, look at the following December 2014 article in “The Australian”. The Roman Catholic Church itself thinks that celibacy could have played a role in such abuse:

For the first time, the (Roman Catholic) Church establishment within Australia says “obligatory celibacy” may have resulted in the abuse of thousands of children and that priests should undergo “psycho-sexual development” training as a result. In a report to be released today, they also criticise a culture “geared to power over others” and call for “greater clarity around the role of the Vatican and its involvement with the way in which Church authorities in Australia responded to abuse allegations”.

By publicly acknowledging the potential role of celibacy in this way, the report sets an international precedent. Issued by the Australian Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council, whose supervisory group includes the archbishops of Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Canberra and Adelaide, its findings are in stark contrast to a recent US study that said celibacy could not be blamed for the epidemic of abuse.

The dominant religious denomination in Australia, Catholicism is unique among the mainstream Christian churches in demanding its priests and other religious leaders take a vow of celibacy, entirely renouncing sex. Francis Sullivan, the council’s chief executive, said the Church must now examine “how individuals who have chosen to be celibate, how they can remain healthy and not begin acting out of a dysfunctional sense of self. We’ve got to ask the question about whether celibacy was an added and an unbearable strain for some,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that celibacy needs to be eradicated – let’s not turn the Church on its head – but we are saying you can’t have an honest and open discussion about the future without having an honest and open discussion about celibacy. We are placing celibacy on the table.”

The council’s “Activity Report” also details its involvement with the ongoing Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse over the past two years. The commission has held eight separate public hearings into the Catholic Church to date, including into the operation of its “Towards Healing” and “Melbourne Response” protocols for dealing with reported abuse. It is examining more than 160,000 Church documents, including material provided by the Vatican itself, while commission figures released this year suggest abuse took place at more than 700 different Catholic institutions nationwide.

Further public hearings, including one into the Diocese of Ballarat, are expected to take place over the next two years, with Mr. Sullivan expecting the Church ultimately to be the subject of about one third of the commission’s inquiries over its five-year term.

Today’s report identifies a culture of “obedience and closed environments”, as well as the way potential candidates for the clergy were selected, as playing a potential role “in the prevalence of abuse within some orders and dioceses”.

“Obligatory celibacy may also have contributed to abuse in some circumstances”, it says, and that “ongoing training and development, including psycho-sexual development, is necessary for priests and religious (figures in the Church)”.

While critics outside the Church and a number of individuals within it have linked obligatory celibacy to child abuse, this is the first time the Church’s leaders have come out publicly to make the connection. In doing so, they mark a radical departure from the findings of the five-year “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010” report presented to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2011. “It is not clear why the commitment to or state of celibate chastity should be seen as a cause for the steady rise in incidence of sexual abuse”, that report’s authors found. “The most significant conclusion… is that no single psychological, developmental or behavioural characteristic differentiated priests who abused minors from those who did not”.

The Australian report is unique in its open criticism of “the impact of clericalism, which can be understood as referring to approaches or practices involving ordained ministry geared to power over others, not service to others. Church… leaders, over many decades, seemed to turn a blind eye, either instinctively or deliberately, to the abuse happening within their diocese or religious order, protecting the institution rather than caring for the child”, it says.

Children in Urfa, eastern Turkey

Children in Urfa, Turkey

If you are devout, you will know better than most whether the sexual abuse of children is taking place in your religious group. If you are uncertain, check how many characteristics above (in my list of bullet points, in points raised by Keenan and/or in the article in “The Australian”) typify your religious group and, if more than half a dozen do, ask searching questions about what goes on when most people avert their eyes and ears. We owe it to our children. We can prevent further sexual abuse of children simply by being a little more vigilant and critically aware than we currently are.

P.S. All the photos above feature children and young people in Turkey and, obviously, I hope that none of them have suffered abuse, sexual or otherwise. But the abuse, sexual included, of children is extremely common in Turkey, as even a cursory trawl of the internet will reveal. On 11th November 2011, the Turkish “Hurriyet Daily News” ran an article which revealed that:

At least 250,000 minors have been sexually abused in Turkey over the past decade, with 7,000 raped in 2010 alone, according to a prominent researcher.

As for the Roman Catholic Church and the problems it has with child sexual abuse by clergy, the news below from the USA sounds as if there will be more delay before the victims of such abuse secure redress for all their suffering past and present. What follows comes from “The Guardian” newspaper:

The Roman Catholic archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis filed for bankruptcy protection on Friday, saying it is the best way for the church to get as many resources as possible to victims of clergy sexual abuse.

“We’re doing the right thing,” the Reverend Charles Lachowitzer told the Associated Press in an interview in advance of Friday’s filing in the US bankruptcy court. “This decision reflects the end of a process of putting victims first.”

The archdiocese is the 12th US diocese to seek bankruptcy protection in the face of sex abuse claims. Church leaders have said for months that bankruptcy was an option, as the archdiocese faces the potential for dozens of lawsuits by victims of clergy sexual abuse. Those lawsuits would be put on hold while the bankruptcy case is pending.

Minnesota lawmakers created a three-year window in 2013 for victims of past sexual abuse to file claims that otherwise would have been barred by the statute of limitations. Since then, the archdiocese has been sued roughly two dozen times, and it has received more than a hundred notices of potential claims, according to Joe Kueppers, the archdiocese’s Chancellor for Civil Affairs. It is unknown how many of those notices will develop into lawsuits before the window expires in May 2016.

Charlie Rogers, an attorney working for the archdiocese, said the mission of the church and its day-to-day operations will continue through bankruptcy. Parishes and schools, which are incorporated separately from the archdiocese’s central office, should not be affected.

Pamela Foohey, an associate professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, said filing for bankruptcy can be a smart move, and ultimately help victims – as long as they are treated fairly. But not all bankruptcy filings have gone smoothly.

The archdiocese of Milwaukee’s bankruptcy has dragged on for four years as attorneys fight over who should get paid and how much. But in Montana, the Roman Catholic diocese of Helena sought protection only after working out a deal with victims beforehand – that deal was approved by a judge earlier this week.

The archdiocese has already addressed issues that have bogged down other bankruptcies, including implementing a new system to protect children and disclosing thousands of pages of church documents and the names of accused priests. As a result, Rogers said this bankruptcy can focus purely on financial restitution to victims.

Lachowitzer said he hopes parishioners see the bankruptcy filing as necessary to move the archdiocese forward and close “a horrendous and tragic chapter in the life of the church.”

Children in Cengilli near Kagizman, eastern Turkey

Children in Cengilli, near Kagizman, Turkey

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