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I recently signed up at our parish in Maine to take communion out to the sick and those in nursing homes.  In addition to a lengthy application form, I found I had to attend a session on keeping our children safe, and keep up with a program called VIRTUS that gives us monthly readings on how churches can prevent sexual abuse of children in connection with Church-related activities.  On the basis of my own experience and that of others I know, their approach has struck me as wrong-headed in many ways.

The picture that emerges in these readings is one that engenders fear and distrust.  We, the virtuous parents, must be vigilant at all times to protect our children against sinister people stalking around, trying to worm their way into the children’s confidence in order to sexually exploit them. Staff who are nice to the children and friendly to their families are, perhaps, only “grooming” them to get access to them.  A “white hats” and “black hats” vision of reality, for sure. 

We need to think in a more nuanced way about the problem if we are to make progress.  Some would-be cures themselves generate serious problems.

Although there are people who prowl around specifically trying to recruit children into pornography or sex trafficking, most sexual molestation of children happens within the extended family and the close circle of friends who are around the children often.  These relationships can spring up spontaneously rather than being premeditated, and there may be genuine loving feelings on the part of both child and adult.

Using the same word, “abuse”, for improper sexual behaviour and for violence (beating children, for example) is misleading.  The term “sexual abuse” has been used so vaguely that it covers widely different offenses.  Giving a child a little pat on the buttocks (while improper and unpleasant to the child, no doubt) is in a different category from sneaking into his dormitory and sexually assaulting him in the night.

Sex, as we all know, has many dimensions and can be expressive of many different things – dominance, tenderness, emotional neediness, desire to comfort the other, longing for offspring (a single mother I know described it as “baby fever”). There are men who become addicted to sex with under-age girls, sometimes to their own horror and surprise.  One man I know says “a weakness I didn’t know I had” suddenly took him over. 

Lust can flare up under the influence of alcohol. A friend of mine had an alcoholic father who raped both her and her sister when drunk, but when he later overcame his alcoholism he was horrified and repentant for what he had done. A man who has no self confidence may find a child easier to handle than an adult woman. A man whose father behaved inappropriately toward his daughter may internalize this emotional pattern.  A girl who has lost a father by divorce or death may be in need of an older man as a father figure, and the man may steer this in an improper direction.  A child who has been prematurely sexualized within his or her family may behave provocatively toward an older boy or man.   White hats and black hats approaches are deaf to the subtleties involved.   Every story is different.

The VIRTUS literature says that children seldom or never lie about sexual abuse.  This is simply false.  Of course they do.  Jealousy or anger can motivate them to do so.

Children who are raised to fear that adults are after their bodies all the time, come to realize that they can destroy an adult by accusing him or her of sexual abuse, and may decide to use that power to hurt someone they are angry at without fully realizing how extensive the consequences are. A man I know of befriended the troubled son of the family he rented a room from while a student.  When he announced he was getting married, the boy (who was sexually attracted or emotionally attached to the man, and watching a lot of pornography) accused him of various lurid sorts of abuse, and, as a result of an improperly conducted trial, he was sent to prison. He is, to my knowledge, still in prison, despite efforts by his friends to get a fair retrial.

The root of the matter is that the powerful feelings sexual abuse understandably arouses makes it hard to think clearly about it. Given the hysteria about sexual abuse, such charges have been used for political purposes. Although most of the cases of clerical paedophilia are very old, they have been used by those hostile to the Church to discredit it.  Liberal Catholics use it to bash conservative Catholics and conservatives use it to bash the liberals. 

Paedophilia accusations are sharply down in terms of numbers now because people know more about it.  We need to keep in mind, however, that back in the 1950s and 1960s, and perhaps 1970s as well, when a lot of sexual abuse was going on throughout society, the common opinion was that making a big fuss about intra-familial or intra-communal sexual abuse would only harm the child more.  The damage it did was not realized; nor was the fact that such behaviours tend to become addictive, so that giving a priest another chance if he repented and went to confession seemed like the charitable thing to do.

Programs that are so zealous about preventing abuse that they make it impossible for children to ever be alone without at least two adults present neglect the fact that sometimes a child may need to speak confidentially to an understanding adult. Also, simple physical affection becomes suspect.  I have a friend who drives a school bus. He is a very kind, grandfatherly person and one of the children came up to him one day and said, “Mr. Bryant, would you give me a hug.” He had to reply, “I can’t hug you but you can hug me.”  I wonder what the child made of this odd response.

I, and many of my friends, grew up with paedophilia in our families. My closest friend said her stepfather was constantly trying to get her to sleep with him. Another friend, my regular tennis partner, was sexually abused by her mother. I was subjected to highly improper sexual behaviours by my father, whose own father had molested his daughter. So programs that designate parents as the “safe adults” that the child can go to would have been no use to us. Fine for making the parents feel virtuous, but no help to the child.

Calling in the police and hauling the offenders in these cases off to prison may have been the right thing to do, but this is not immediately obvious. Having therapists, social workers, lawyers and police jumping into the complicated family dynamics that feed into sexual misconduct of these sorts is something a child might hesitate to do. It would seem like betraying his or her family. And the child may hesitate to get the guilty person in trouble.  A woman I know who was sexually molested and impregnated by an extended family member refused to tell her parents who had done it because she feared her family would kill the man. “I didn’t want his blood on my hands,” she said. Something should have been done to stop the behaviours in question, but what?

The role of prayer and forgiveness in recovering from these sorts of misuses of power should not be neglected. Stoking the fires of anger and self-pity, and going through life thinking of oneself as a victim helps no one.  We do have to pick up and go on and Jesus will help us if we cry out to him.

Celia Wolf-Devine is a retired philosophy professor. See also her blog Progressive, Pro-Woman, Pro-life.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is a New Zealand journalist with a special interest in family issues. She began her working life as a secondary school teacher but always fancied the life of the scribe. Too late, she...