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Victims of sexual abuse require justice

Anything less will further erode confidence in the Church and its representatives

  • Virginia Saldanha, Mumbai
  • India
  • February 20, 2012
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The eruption of cases of sex abuse of children in the Church in the Western world, and the widespread awareness that was created about this problem thanks to the attention given to the problem by the media, triggered the raising of women’s voices about clergy sexual abuse.

The news of a symposium, “Towards Healing and Renewal”, organized at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome was welcomed with hope because it focused not only on the abuse of children but of vulnerable adults as well.  The Papal message emphasizing that “healing for victims must be of paramount concern in the Christian community and it must go hand in hand with a profound renewal of the Church at every level” was encouraging.

Speaking on behalf of the Church in Asia, Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila was characteristically humane.  He pointed out two aspects in Asian culture that could trigger and conceal abuse and allow it to be overlooked not only by the victims themselves, but their community and families as well.

Women’s learned subordination to patriarchal authority cripples their response to various situations of oppression, especially in the area of sex and sexuality.  A priest mediates God to his victims and wields power of divine authority. His position is manipulated to get access to and abuse victims.

Religious teaching on the position of a priest and woman’s sexuality reinforce her feelings of guilt and consequent silence in situations of sex abuse by priests. The victim is left confused and silent because she tries to reconcile her experience with her learned image of a priest. She feels that it is her sin not his, that she is the proverbial temptress, that she has crossed the boundaries. She is forced to suffer alone.  Unfortunately this is being used to deny the existence of sexual abuse of women in the Church and to classify it as consensual sex.

Women are asking if consensual sex is possible between persons of unequal power. It is imperative that the Church begins to reflect deeply on the way women have been socialized in the Church and how that socialization leaves them vulnerable to abuse.  The Church has to listen to women.

An important point that Archbishop Tagle touched upon was the understanding of celibacy, and he called for “a serene but comprehensive consideration of the matter.” This is absolutely necessary, especially when people are questioning the whole idea of the celibate priesthood in light of sexual abuse by priests.

The Church is looked up to as the moral compass in society. Vulnerable people approach priests with the confidence that they are safe with a “man of God,” as they believe that his celibacy sets the boundaries for his interaction with them. When a priest violates those boundaries, it demonstrates a breach of trust and people feel betrayed.

 

The recent resignation of Malen Oriol, the leader of the female branch of the Legionaries of Christ, is an example of this breach of trust. It is reported that over 400 consecrated women have left the organization since the revelations of sexual abuse by their leader broke in 2009.

Several religious women who have experienced abuse and came up against a wall when trying to get justice have not only left their congregation but left the Church as well.

The abuse of a child, youth or woman of any age is a violation of the rights and dignity of the human person. Victims carry scars throughout their life and experience consequent maladjustment in relationships.

The pastoral responses recommended by Archbishop Tagle are deeply compassionate.  He advocates care not only for the priest who has hitherto been the only focus of the Church, but for the victim, the community and other innocent priests as well.

Most victims have expressed a deep desire to ensure that the priest will not have the opportunity to reoffend.  The community is pained when the Church is seen to put greater effort into hushing up the sexual behavior of priests rather than focusing on dealing with the root of the problem. The community needs to see that justice is done to the victim and efforts are made at restoring the faith and confidence of the victim as well as of the community.

Archbishop Tagle rightly points out: “If we do not take the right steps, if we do not communicate empathy, the community might conclude that the Church is tolerating these kinds of behavior, or the Church simply does not care for them. Then their wounds become deeper.”

He makes some important recommendations for the pastoral care of the offending priest, the first being to help him “understand and evaluate his situation.” For various reasons a priest may resort to outright denial. He needs help to face up to his actions of abuse. He then has to be helped “to discover whether he has the capacity for celibate living.” These are important decisions that have to be made in the course of his therapy.

Sending the priest away for a year or two until everyone forgets about the problem does not help the priest or the community.  In most cases when he reoffends, the community feels completely betrayed.

Attention must also be given to priests who are faithful to their vows but are looked at with suspicion, especially when others’ skeletons are tumbling out of their respective closets.

Lastly, the formation of priests and religious men and women has to include a comprehensive understanding and a mature handling of sexuality in all situations.

The bottom line is that any guidelines must include mechanisms that take all sexual abuse seriously and are oriented toward ending the problem.  Right from receiving and processing complaints through to the process of healing and pastoral care for all concerned, the Church will retain credibility only when justice is seen to be done.

Virginia Saldanha is the former executive secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Office of Laity with responsibility for the Women’s Desk. A freelance writer, she has a diploma in Theology for Laity from the Bombay Diocesan Seminary and is a woman activist working in India
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