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News Item: Pope Circles the Wagons

The Catholic Church as Non-Protecting Parent

Recent revelations about the Catholic church’s handling of reports of sexual abuse in Germany [1] and the United States [2] highlight its insensitivity to the welfare of children.  Even when victims have had the courage to report the assault, and even when psychiatrists warned that the priest in question should not be allowed to work with children, the church chose to ignore the recommendations and reassigned the priest, enabling more harm to children.

The same dynamic operates in the incestuous family where one parent abuses the child(ren) and someone else, often another parent, ignores all indications of the danger to the child(ren).

Usually the motivation to turn a blind eye relates to the parent’s own experiences of abuse;  not being able to touch one’s own pain makes it difficult if not impossible to see another’s.  Pretending everything is fine means not having to take actions that would create conflict within the family.  Denying the truth maintains a façade of normality, saves face, and avoids confrontation and even criminal charges.

When children are sexually abused, they manifest their distress in nonverbal ways.  At one extreme, they become withdrawn, even mute (flight/freeze).  At the other, they act out aggressively (fight).  Or their behavior combines elements of both.  Then, because of their reactions, they become the problem and are often targeted for additional abuse.

The reactions of the hierarchy of the Catholic church puts it in the role of the non-protecting parent;  it refused to act on evidence of the grave harm to children perpetrated by its representatives, choosing instead to serve its own need to avoid scandal.

Frank Bruni summed it up well in a piece for the New York Times [3] when he described how a priest in Ireland handling a report of abuse had the two victimized boys sign a pledge of silence:  “It is doubtful that pledge helped them heal…It certainly did not safeguard other children…But it served a purpose and illustrated a priority: to insulate the church from outside interference and condemnation.”

Bruni goes on to explain how the church views the crime of sexually assaulting children as first and foremost a sin, to be atoned for and forgiven.  By focusing on what to do with abusive priests in order to avoid scandal rather than on how to safeguard children, the church has continued to demonstrate its lack of concern for children.  Not reporting to the authorities known sexual abusers also places the church outside the law of many lands.

What is scandalous for the church has been devastating for children and yet little has been written recently about the long-term effects on them.  It’s way past time to consider the damage done, take responsibility for it and offer restitution.  And since sexual abuse remains a danger for all children including in their churches, a system needs to be put in place that encourages them to come forward when a priest does something that troubles them.  Children should be seen, heard, believed and protected.