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Paedophilia in the Church in Asia

Feudal structure of Church leads bishops to think they are successor of apostles

Paedophilia in the Church in Asia
Father Desmond de Souza, Goa

January 20, 2012

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The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences recently concluded a closed-door meeting to address growing concerns in Asia over sexual abuse within the Church. Father Lawrence Pinto, executive secretary of the FABC Office of the Clergy, invited “cardinals, archbishops, bishops and formators” to discuss “letters from different quarters of the Church [showing] that paedophilia has already become a considerably serious problem in Asia.” In his controversial book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Christ (2007), the retired auxiliary bishop of Sydney, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who coordinated the response of the Catholic Church in Australia to revelations of sexual abuse from 1994 to 2003, discussed the pertinent question of sexual abuse in the Church. His reflections on his experience are revealing and invaluable. Child abuse in the community is most likely to occur when three factors come together: an unhealthy psychological state, unhealthy ideas concerning power and sex, and an unhealthy environment or community in which a person lives. Psychologists admit that there is much more about the phenomenon of sexual abuse that is still not understood. But Bishop Robinson believes that the way these three factors – psychological state, ideas and environment – interact on each other produces the murky world out of which abuse arises.

  An unhealthy psychological state

There are two types of paedophile: the fixated and the regressive. The former is solely or at least overwhelmingly attracted towards minors and not towards adults of either sex. The latter is more common and fits the category of priests and religious offenders. They are basically either heterosexual or homosexual but for a variety of reasons are tempted to offend with minors. The regressive paedophile begins with free choice but eventually lives somewhere on the border between free choice and compulsion. In almost every case there is evidence of careful selection and preparing the victim, planning the circumstances with care to ensure that the victim does not reveal to others what has happened. So it cannot be dismissed as a sickness for which the offender is not responsible. Clear evidence shows that they were responsible for their actions. The one mitigating factor is that even though they most sincerely do not want to offend again, the urge to do so is so powerful that without outside help they are unlikely to resist it. The truly important thing, as in other addictions, is to resist the first crime, because the urge to repeat it becomes more powerful.

Unhealthy ideas concerning power and sexuality

All sexual abuse is first and foremost an abuse of power in a sexual form. Spiritual power is arguably the most dangerous of all. If the dominant image of how the priest or religious should act is governed by control, no matter how benevolently one’s ministry is carried out, an unhealthy domination and subservience will be present. Closely allied to this mystique of the priesthood, is an inability to accept failure and vulnerability. Priests and Religious believe they must be perfect and when it is unattainable, they must at least appear to be perfect. This breeds an unhealthy attitude of inability to admit failure or weakness and a covering up of faults that do occur. The ‘messiah complex’, the idea of being called by God personally to fulfill a certain mission is the worst case scenario. They see themselves as above rules that apply to ordinary mortals including moral rules. In such cases, if sexual abuse does not occur, some other form of abusive behavior will. This attitude is strengthened by the expectations of others, which may cause them to display a level of perfection that they know they do not possess. Dalliance with the mental attitude that anything goes is a very dangerous territory that can lead to one or other form of sexual abuse.

An unhealthy environment or community

Traditional seminaries and novitiates, in varying degrees, have many attributes of an unhealthy environment: a single-sex environment, the absence of parents and other nurturing figures, the ‘other sex’ as a threat to a vocation rather than as a positive and essential influence on adolescents, and the absence of any positive preparation for a celibate lifestyle. The impersonal nature of the institution can cause a sense of emotional isolation, accentuated by an emphasis on the intellectual and spiritual, at the expense of human development. Priests in parishes live more and more on their own. They are stressed and overworked and their profound human needs are not being met. There is often little opportunity for effective ‘debriefing’ on the stresses they meet in their jobs. There are few checks and balances on the exercise of power by priests and religious and a lack of accountability. The result is that although sexual abuse may occur in only some cases, these three unhealthy elements have negative effects on all priests and need to be addressed. “Through all this I came to the unshakable conviction that within the Catholic Church there must be a profound and enduring change… on the two subjects of power and sex,” Bishop Robinson concluded. The Church authorities must be determined to confront the problem rather than manage it via an obsession with secrecy.

Human and systemic causes for the obsession with secrecy

What are the human and systemic factors that lead very intelligent, well-educated and prayerful leaders of the Church, to be so obsessed with secrecy? One explanation is that bishops consider themselves the head of the family and try to protect their household by damage control even when a family member is culpable. Damage control in these circumstances – to keep the abuse from the media so as to avoid scandal – is the usual mindset of a bishop and his core advisors. So the welfare of the institution takes greater priority over the welfare of the victims. But the feudal structure of the Church makes the bishop consider himself as the successor of the apostles. He is commissioned by Christ to safeguard the faith and mission of the Church. So he has the onerous and sole responsibility to decide on what is to be kept secret for the good of the Church. In the last analysis, the expectation of the Pope is that the bishop provides good pastoral leadership, sound doctrinal teaching and adequate administration of the patrimony of the diocese. Understandably, no bishop wants any problems, let alone scandals, that might attract the attention of the Vatican and undermine his reputation as a model bishop in the eyes of the Pope. For some bishops, this image may lead to being transferred to a more prestigious diocese or even an appointment in the Roman curia. Such ambition for approval of the “boss,” and upward mobility within the hierarchy of the Church, should not be totally discounted among men of the cloth, at any level in the Church. Redemptorist Father Desmond de Souza formerly served as the executive secretary of the Office of Evangelization in the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference. He was closely associated with the Churches in Asia from 1980 to 2000. He is now based in Goa.    
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