Monday, 15 February 2010
Abuse and avoidance
Here we go again. The twenty-four Irish bishops are in Rome this week to meet with the Pope concerning the fall-out from the Ryan and Murphy reports. This morning, a spokesman for the victims or survivors of child abuse was on the radio, calling on the Pope to see to it that all the bishops mentioned in the Murphy report should be made resign. As I write this, I’m looking at a list of the most popular stories on an Irish news website and there in the top five I see a picture of the ominous-looking Fr Brendan Smyth with the tag ‘Child abuse monster Father Brendan Smyth ruined my life’. That tag summarises much of the reporting on child abuse in Ireland. Newspapers in particular catalogue the vileness in detail, with no effort made to analyse the nature of the problem or what might be done to address it. All cries of disgust and indignation, no rational consideration of what the Catholic Church and Irish society is facing.
So a few points that should be factored in to discussion but hardly ever are:
1. Our society completely rejects the notion of adults engaging in sexual activity with children – and rightly so, in my opinion. However, there have been and are societies where sexual activity involving children is viewed in a very different way: the most obvious example is the society of Ancient Greece.
2,. Child sexual abuse – in fact sexual abuse of anyone, I believe – is a cruel and contemptible crime. But it isn’t, as we so often hear people say (and as Gerry Adams said on TV on Friday night) , the worst conceivable crime that could be committed against a child. Ask yourself: would you rather your child was killed than sexually abused? I wouldn’t. Would you rather your child was mutilated – had his/her hands or nose lopped off, say – than sexually abused? I wouldn’t. Vile though sexual abuse is, we do our rejection of it little service by classifying it as the worst conceivable thing that could happen.
3. The present scandal involves members of the Catholic clergy and their sexual abuse of children. However, (i) there is no study which shows that Catholic priests have a higher rate of such offences than clergy in any other denomination or in the general public. In other words, a link between celibacy and abuse remains to be established. (ii) Some 6-8% of Irish adult males are believed to be child abusers; the Murphy Report showed almost exactly the same figure for priest abusers or alleged abusers in the Dublin diocese.
4. Since most charges of child sexual abuse against Catholic clergy relate to crimes committed decades earlier, guilt or innocence is established solely on the testimony of those making the charge. Does the absence of any other kind of evidence - material evidence for example - mean that certainty beyond reasonable doubt is assured in cases where clergy are convicted? I ask in honest ignorance.
5. Children and adults sometimes lie. Catholic clergy, I’m confident, sometimes lie when charged with child sexual abuse. Equally, those bringing charges, I’m confident, sometimes lie about the occurrence of abuse.
These are five points which, as I say, I’ve rarely if ever seen or heard discussed in a public forum. They don’t change the fact that child sexual abuse was perpetrated by members of the Catholic clergy, and that what they did was horrible and weakens immeasurably any pronouncements by the Catholic Church concerning sexual morality: of all sins, we feel a particularly deep contempt for hypocrisy. But if there’s to be renewed discussion of child sexual abuse in Ireland by Catholic clergy, it would help if such discussion would include attention to the five areas above, and would do so in a rational rather than in a mob-mentality way.