Sunday, 28 March 2010

Hey, priest, leave those kids alone!

I’m sure you’ve all come across the jokes about catholic priests abusing alter boys, and I’m sure you’re all aware that, in recent weeks, these jokes have been revealed to be largely based on fact. The best jokes are always based in reality, which is then ridiculed, taken too far or misconstrued. The facts in this case, however, are probably too chilling to joke about in good taste. It started in Ireland, where reports published last year revealed the extent of child abuse, and more worryingly, the extent to which it has been covered up. Since then the rot has spread across Europe and America, with more and more allegations of abuse and cover-up coming out of the woodwork. So far the main response of the Catholic Church has been to send out an apology and mumble something about not interfering with secular prosecution, when it seems to me hard to argue against excommunicating the abusive priests, and severely punish those involved in covering it up.

The allegations against the priests are universally sickening. For years, hundreds, probably thousands of young, vulnerable boys were systematically abused by people in authority. Often these boys had no-one to turn to and were too afraid to speak out. What was done to them has left them traumatised for life in many cases. The worst thing is that the many senior members of the Church knew that this was going on and turned a blind eye, even helped to cover up the appalling abuse.

Priests accused of abuse were moved onto a different parish so they could continue their abhorrent activities elsewhere. Reports to authorities within the Church were largely ignored or dealt with in such a way as to favour the priest, not the victim. The pope himself has been dragged into it, facing allegations of ignoring accusations of child abuse against priests in Wisconsin. It seems that child abuse is not only something done by sick individuals abusing their power over young boys, but something which has become institutionalised within the church. Rather than trying to face these allegations and accusations head on, the church has, for years, tried to cover them up and pretend they didn’t exist. They’ve put the interests of the Church ahead of those for whom the church is responsible. They seem to care more about an abstract concept; the church, than the individuals who make it up.

It is ironic that of all the institutions it is the Catholic Church which is awash with allegations of sexual deviance, the very same institution which prides itself in the celibacy of its priests and the specialness of sex, which must be exclusive to the marriage relationship. The Catholic Church prides itself on being a moral authority, especially when the issue of sex is involved. It is deeply ironic and also very disturbing that the world’s most sex-obsessed institution and the one so keen to give unbreakable rules to everyone, no matter how impractical, is the one rife with sexual deviance.

I’m not sure this is entirely surprising though. Can we really expect that people abstain from sex for their entire lives? Sex is not only something which we are hardwired to want as animals; it is also the greatest act of love one can partake in. That Catholic Church’s long time fear of sex and something which is to be avoided by those most holy is born of a misunderstanding of sex as a necessity for reproductions and little else, and has led to appalling sexual abuse of vulnerable people. Priests who abuse young boys are undoubtedly evil, but the Catholic Church should look very hard at itself in order to see why such abuse is rampant in such a supposedly celibate group of people.

That is for the long term. In the short term the church should excommunicate anyone who is guilty of child abuse and hand them over to the civil authorities for punishment. It’s my hope that very few of them ever get to see the outside of a prison ever again. The church must also look very hard at the process for dealing with such allegations. It cannot continue to put the credibility of the church ahead of the wellbeing of its most vulnerable; it must face allegations of abuse honestly and critically. Anyone involved in the mass cover-up, yes, even the Pope, must be punished for what they have done. I’m sure the church has internal means of punishing people who have sinned; they should use them to show the world that they do not accept child abuse. Overall, as a result of this scandal, the church has a lot to answer for and must hold itself accountable, or be held accountable by everyone else.

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