Child abuse and the Church

In recent years more openness about sexual matters has led to society suffering from sexual overload; the extra-marital affairs of public figures no longer rate so highly in the newspapers’ must-read category, especially when those public figures routinely shrug off their sexual adventures; but an institution that condemns such behaviour can supply those attention-grabbing headlines when its members transgress.

The media coverage has led to a ‘sex scandal Church’ slot that must be filled, leading to even greater reader demand, and the ‘spin’ is reminiscent of the self-serving reports of lax clergy that smoothed the path of the English Reformation, and lurid Protestant tales of Victorian times, such as The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, which purported to reveal routine sexual abuse of nuns by Catholic clergy in Canada.
Nonetheless the scandal of clerical abuse is not a media invention, centring on the hushing up of sex offences and the moving on of offending priests, only for them to reoffend elsewhere. The courage of victims in speaking out, only to have their agony increased by not being believed, is unspeakable. They have a right to be angry. Hundreds of cases of abuse have given the impression that a great number of priests are paedophiles, while in reality a small number of prolific offenders have committed thousands of offences going back decades. Ironically it is thanks to our more ‘open society’ that we now realise how naive it was to believe that paedophiles could ‘repent’ in the spiritual sense, or be ‘cured’ in the secular sense through counselling. Paedophiles are plausible liars, persistent, cunning and unscrupulous; they put all their energy into getting access to children, seeking out especially vulnerable victims and grooming them for abuse. Thousands of cases have come to light in all Christian denominations, in all faiths and none, in the police, in teaching and in social work, in voluntary organisations working with children, and they have given us considerable insight into the modus operandi of offenders. Back in the days when cases of clergy abuse first emerged, few Catholics could comprehend how someone could go through the lengthy vocational training required just so they could sexually abuse children. Now it is clear that such individuals have done exactly that; in the wider community they have groomed whole families, or formed sexual relationships with women, just to get access to their children; they have even sired children simply in order to abuse them. In possibly the worst known case, the Austrian Josef Fritzl imprisoned his own daughter in the basement of his house in order to abuse her.
The world of the paedophile is a secret world, in which old offences are gloated over and new ones planned, but nowadays they can link up with like-minded individuals on the internet, leading to extensive paedophile networks that demand ever-younger victims – babies too young to speak.
It is sadly ironic that the media focus on cases of abuse in the Church gives the impression that everyone grasped the enormity of this issue, inevitably tarring the vast majority of wholly innocent clergy with the brush of paedophilia; however, back in the 1970s magazine articles claimed that such offenders were mostly sad, pathetic cases who did little more than offer friendship to lonely and neglected children; paedophile groups, despite their avowed aim of legalising ‘trans-generational’ sex, even gained acceptance with the National Council for Civil Liberties.
Such libertarian campaigns spearheaded the deconstruction of traditional views on sexuality; ‘taboos’ were dismissed with demands for ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’; ‘greater ‘openness’ elbowed out the time-honoured British approach of ‘not in front of the children’; this led to people having difficulty in believing that paedophilia existed; while failing to protect some of the most vulnerable, the lack of openness may also have prevented the spread of the problem to some degree. Now, in the most bizarre twist of all, as the Church is being indicted for the crime of child sexual abuse, and public anxiety about paedophiles grows, the Government is mandating sex education in schools from the age of five, which will include explicit details of adult sexual activity. Sex education that normalises same-sex relationships and provides children with information to help them access abortion and contraception has been claimed to lower the numbers of teenage pregnancies; in reality, it has increased youthful sexual activity; worse, it will make children much more vulnerable to sexual predators, for if trusted authority figures can break down their natural inhibitions on such intimate matters, their immature sense of judgement will find it harder to know whom to trust. No doubt, too, the resultant increase in sexual activity will be seized upon as a vindication by those who claim that it is natural for children to have a sex life. This new, politically correct form of child abuse, in practice ignores the age of consent, itself the outcome of vigorous campaigning in Victorian England against child prostitution.
During the 1920s and 1930s my father spent much of his childhood in the Workhouse and a variety of children’s homes (none of them Catholic) and said he had never come across this sort of abuse. Although it undoubtedly occurred, since the 1970s there has been an explosion of paedophile activity: by the year 2000 police estimated a quarter of a million Britons were paedophiles; police figures reveal over 21,000 recorded sexual offences against children in the year ending March 2009, though these are incomplete; many victims are too young to speak. The Multi-Agency Public Protection (MAPPA) reveals that in the year 2007-08 there were 3,351 registered sex offenders in the London area alone; MAPPA is charged with “managing sexual, violent and other dangerous offenders” – an admission that, despite official enthusiasm for shorter and non-custodial sentences, the chances of reforming paedophiles are very slim; now they are ‘in the community’, and this year the probation officers’ union Napo reported that some ‘online’ paedophiles have been given very short prison sentences or even community service, thus escaping rehabilitation courses.  
No other institution has provided as many schools, hospitals and orphanages worldwide as the Catholic Church, but the UK’s reliance on state provision of social services has not helped it escape the modern paedophile plague: at the same time as predatory priests were abusing children, so were social workers in Britain’s local authority children’s homes; in what has been seen as the worst case of institutional abuse in Scotland, in one children’s home in the 1970s and 1980s in Dumfriesshire, 47 young people suffered physical abuse, including sexual abuse; the perpetrator was jailed in 1996 and ex gratia payments are now being offered to victims by the relevant local authority. England has even produced its own version of the Fritzl case, in which a man repeatedly raped his daughters, the tell-tale signs of incest ignored by those in authority.
None of this means that the Church should be ‘let off’ for allowing the vile scandal of the sexual abuse of innocent children to be swept under the carpet; on the contrary we must insist that those most closely involved do not avoid taking responsibility, thus casting a shadow on the vast majority of innocent clergy. The Church will always be condemned - Jesus warned: ‘Alas for you when everyone speaks well of you! This was the way their ancestors treated the false prophets’ (Luke 6:26) – but she should not give valid cause for scandal, thus tarnishing her credibility when speaking out on vital ethical issues.
(May 2010. A version of this article appeared in the Catholic Times newspaper.)