Wednesday, 20 May 2009

No need to be polite - child abuse in the church

Yet another shocking – but tellingly not surprising story about child abuse in the Catholic church; this time in Irish children’s homes. Not the behavior of individual wayward priests, but systematic institutional abuses covered up for generations.

These scandals seem to be approached as if they were management issues; as happened when Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor was criticized for covering up abusive priests in his former diocese. As if they are on a par with the directors sweeping a misappropriation of funds under the carpet. Or when a government department hushes up negligence and incompetence. As a result, simply saying sorry and then doing a bit of an organizational review and maybe some remedial PR is seen as making it good.

But what we are talking about in the Catholic church is something much worse than either of those examples; and not just in the nature of the scandals, or in their scale. The uncomfortable truth is that there is causal link between the abuses and the underlying belief system itself. This is not often said, because of the ‘politeness’ that apparently surrounds religious belief. As an ex-catholic Atheist I have no such squeamishness – so here goes:

1.Original sin and guilt:
The idea that everyone, even the unborn child bears an inherited burden of guilt because they are the product of sexual intercourse, itself emblematic of man’s fall from God’s grace in the garden of Eden. That’s going to give you some pretty distorted views about sex, and about the upbringing of children. In any other circumstances, a psychiatrist would have a field day with anyone holding such views.

2. The notion of a priesthood:
The idea that there is a body of people who have been chosen by God and consequently have some sort of special authority. That’s a pretty special kind of power; in other circumstances - the theocracies of Ancient Egypt or the Aztecs, or in the modern-day, the Taliban of Afghanistan or the Branch-Davidians of Waco - we would talk smugly about wacky cults beyond the comprehension of civilized rational minds.

3. The concept of noble suffering:
The idea that bearing earthy suffering is a source of God’s grace that will somehow earn credit in an afterlife. Apart from many other types of weirdness, this gives us some pretty disturbing sado-masochistic imagery: like a lot of medieval art or Mel Gibson’s Passion Of The Christ. If secular equivalents of these had been found in the basement of a suspected serial killer they would doubtless be used as evidence of a deeply disturbed mind.

4. Priestly celibacy:
Perhaps not a fundamental belief but a practice shaped by the above beliefs. Throw in vows of obedience and again we are back to the psychiatrist’s chair again – a whole special kind of submission /repression/ power complex that flies in the face of the most basic biological imperatives.

This is not supposed to be an anti-Catholic rant – so I should qualify it by saying that growing up I knew many decent, sincere and well-intentioned Catholics (blah blah blah). My point however is that child abuse in the church is not an aberration, it is intrinsically linked with Catholic belief, and politeness should not inhibit is from telling it how it is:

To paraphrase Philip Larkin:
They fuck you up; your God and church
They may not mean to, but they do.

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