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Sin, crime and pedophilia

Attitudes towards abuse have shifted, but not far enough

  • Myron J. Pereira, Mumbai
  • India
  • February 5, 2013
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There are at least three ways in which Catholics have looked upon wrongdoing, and each corresponds to the dominant attitude in society at the time. All however, are also in a way related to the pedophile crisis gripping the Church.

In medieval society, where religion was a powerful influence, to do wrong was to break God’s law, to offend against God, to commit a sin.

Catholic moral theology of yesteryear went into contortions trying to define whether a sin was ‘mortal’, ‘venial’ or merely an occasional failing.

A mortal sin shattered the state of grace in one’s soul, kept one from officially receiving the sacraments, and could be absolved only by a priest in the sacrament of confession. A penitent who died with an unforgiven mortal sin deserved eternal hell fire.

Generations of Catholics have been brought up thus, and even though they may live in a modern, secular world, their attitudes have been “sacramentalized” – indoctrinated with a piety based on repetition, anxiety and intercession.

But with society becoming more secularized, it is courts of law -- not the Church -- that decide what wrongful behavior is.  Wrongdoing is no longer seen as a sin against God, but as an offence against society -- in other words, a crime. The greater the crime, the more severe the punishment: capital punishment, sometimes with torture, for the most heinous or simple imprisonment or a fine for petty offences.

One major issue that has arisen in legal jurisprudence, however, is the culpability of the wrongdoer. Ever since Freud, men and women have wondered about the validity of their “free choices.”  In this, modern social sciences play their role, particularly sociology and psychology.

As the culpability (and so, moral responsibility) of the criminal is called into question, wrongdoing today is being seen more as an illness (of mind, emotions or temperament) than as a conscious choice to do wrong. The wrongdoer therefore is given rehabilitative treatment, and failing this, is sometimes removed from society for life.

Let’s apply the above to the cases of pedophilia among the clergy.

For a long time in the Catholic Church, sexual offences were seen primarily as offences against God and so required contrition, confession and repentance. They were not seen as offences, and as such, as crimes to be reported to and be acted upon by a secular authority (the police, for example). In this, the whole social dimension was absent.

In fact it was considered below one’s dignity for a “consecrated person,” such as a priest, to submit himself to the police, or to the laws of the state. A priest was “above” all that.

This is why so many pedophile priests would make several rounds of confession to various priest confessors in rotation, all the while protected by the veil of anonymity.

Not only did they not recognize their wrongdoing as a crime, but only as a sin against God, many didn’t even see it as a sickness which required professional help. So enmeshed is the Catholic Church in a culture of denial where sex is concerned, that no public discussion can even be contemplated on this issue. It is simply forbidden by Church authorities. After all, open discussion on sexuality and celibacy would utterly destroy the image of "angelic purity" and "the consecrated life" which generations of churchmen and women have created for themselves; a veritable “structure of deceit” in the words of Church historian Garry Wills.

What is said about pedophilia among the clergy will also apply, conditions being present, to the sexual exploitation by the clergy of women in the Church – young women, married women, religious sisters. This is a vast subterranean cesspool, which has never been acknowledged or accepted by Church authorities, much less handled with justice, competence and transparency.

Will the recent upsurge of public opinion in this country in favor of the sexual protection of women impinge upon the attitudes of Catholics too? It remains to be seen.                  

 Myron Pereira is a Jesuit priest and media consultant based in Mumbai. 

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