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Sexual abuse of boys and cover-up

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“I have been deeply disturbed by information which has come to light regarding the abuse of children and vulnerable young people by members of the Church of Ireland, particularly by priests and religious orders. I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way the Church in Ireland dealt with them.”{{more}}

(Extract from Pope Benedict’s letter to Irish Catholics read out in church last Sunday).

Pope Benedict XVI, Head of the Catholic Church, has acknowledged widespread sexual abuse of minors by Irish priests and “grave errors of judgement” by the Church in handling reports of such scandalous behaviour. In a letter read out at mass in the Cathedral in Dublin last weekend, the Pope deemed such acts as “sinful” and “criminal” and called on those responsible to atone for their deeds.

His letter and public acknowledgement came in the wake of a global scandal after revelations of such misdeeds in several countries. In Ireland itself, two government-backed investigations have revealed the sexual abuse of over 15,000 young Irish boys as late as this decade. In the USA, the Catholic Church there has had to pay out over US$2 million in lawsuits to compensate victims of sex abuse; in England, where hundreds have been found to be so abused, Church authorities have tried to cover up, transferring known paedophile priests from parish to parish, and in Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Mexico and Brazil, sex sandals have rocked the Church.

The Pope himself has not escaped accusing fingers for it has been revealed that investigations into his former diocese of Munich in Germany that allegations of sexual abuse of minors have been pouring in “like a tsunami”, in the words of one social worker, with over 120 cases on record, mostly out of a boarding school run by Benedictine monks.

Whilst some might view these revelations as salacious gossip, and others seize upon them to try and denigrate the Catholic Church, they have greater social and historical significance and implications. Though the evidence is now surfacing publicly, rumours of such dark deeds have been whispered for hundreds of years. Not just in Europe or North America either, the Church in the colonies is far from blameless. Indeed slavery and colonial rule are rife with examples of sexual abuse of minors, the plantation being a breeding ground for such atrocities. What made it more reprehensible, first was the fact that some of these acts were committed by priests themselves, taking advantage of their position of trust, and, worse, that the Church as a whole, whenever such acts were discovered, tended to sweep it under the carpet and to protect the offenders by benign transfer to another diocese. The shameful acts simply continued there.

This gave rise to a whisper campaign which was unfair to the reputation of many innocent young boys who were either “altar-boys” or decided to follow priesthood as a calling. Many were unfairly branded as having been partners of the “Father”, as the priest was called. Others were not so lucky, having to endure the lustful excesses of homosexual priests. I know of one young man, whom I used to teach at the Bishop”s College, who complained to his mother of sexual harassment by a particular priest. His mother’s response was not only to scold him severely but also to take him to the priest to confess for such wicked accusations against “Father”! Needless to say, the priest took this to be an open licence to fondle the youngster at will.

The psychological damage to those, not only abused, but witnessing the whitewashing of such crime, must have been tremendous. One Irish victim, now a grown man, and still a Catholic, spoke poignantly of his feelings, as follows:

“It was not being raped by a priest at the age of 14 that shattered my faith; it was the realization that the Catholic Church had willfully, knowingly abandoned me to it, the knowledge that they had ordained the priest who abused me despite knowing he was a paedophile and set him free to abuse with near impunity, ignoring all complaints.”

With Child Abuse Month approaching, and with the reports of sexual abuse of minors climbing in numbers, it would surely be useful to take the opportunity offered by such a high-profile admission of the crime to peep in our own society. Most times, when we speak of sexual abuse, we refer to young girls. We must continue to deal with those offences very firmly indeed, but there is the even more hidden one of sexual abused of young boys. For in a situation like ours, for a boy to admit being so abused is like pouring a lifetime of scorn on himself. So the tendency is to keep silent. If the abuser is in high social standing, like a priest, then it is real hush-hush business. How are we to help such victims? How to deal with the abusers?

It is good that Pope Benedict is now admitting such sin, even though he does not go far enough in admitting the role, not just of the Church of Ireland, but the entire Church, and the societies which it underpins in such despicable behaviour. The Catholic Church needs to take an enlightened look as to whether the practice of celibacy of priests is not contributing to such errant behaviour on the part of some priests. It is discussions like these, on the effects of sexual abuse of young boys, by priests, teachers, social workers or whomsoever, in which we should be engaged, rather than in futile condemnation of same-sex marriage and consensual acts by adult males. We may find it socially unacceptable, but there is a greater danger that we must confront, the abuse of our young sons.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.