Thursday, March 03, 2016
Things were different then
I have been keeping half an eye on Cardinal Pell's appearances before Australia’s royal commission into institutional responses into child sexual abuse, after 20 hours of questioning it has now ended. I haven't been watching the on-line video streaming, I have been reading the press reports.
There is an assumption, not just in Australia but elsewhere, including here, that we can judge the past by today's standards and with that there is a an assumption that our attitudes to children has always been what it is today.
Thirty years ago women who were raped simply didn't report it. I remember one woman who did and told me that her experience with the police in the UK was a like second rape. They interrogated her as if she herself was guilty. They wanted to know about her sexual history. They wanted to know the ways in which she might have provoked her assailant, how she was dressed, they even wanted to see her underwear and enquired about why she should want 'sexy' (their word) underwear rather than anything else.
If she had pursued her claim, and the assault had come to trial, in those days she would have had to make her claim in open court, without any reporting restrictions. Her assailant's lawyer would have been able to interrogate her, again revealing her sexual history. In this situation lawyers were aggressive and always shifted the guilt from the man to the women. Newspapers delighted in sexual revelations. For most women rather society than offering sympathy, there was the assumption 'that there is no smoke without fire'. For a 'respectable women' reputations still mattered and a reputation could be easily lost and mark her and her family for the rest of her life. Simply, respectable women did not get raped and respectable people did not know women who were raped,
Now, perhaps the law has changed and many suggest that now an assailant has to prove his innocence but it changed because the law was previously so unfavourable to women.
As with women even more so with children; victims were simply not believed, and sexual abuse was simply not understood. In the Church especially, there was certainly a culture of 'cover-up' this has come under scrutiny but there was also a great deal of sexual naivete on the part of clergy. Many clerics I suspect dealt with their own celibacy by simply trying not to think about sex, by being a-sexual. It was a virtue the result of a spirituality of sexual purity
In the new age of 1960's sexuality Catholic clergy were encountering a new world totally beyond their experience and in many ways at odds with all they believed and were trained in, they were like rabbits in headlights. There was practically no study and very little was written about sexual abuse before the tsunami of accusations that broke in the 1980s in the Catholic Church. The Church had always dealt with such failings by dealing with the perpetrator, it was treated, as everyone says, like alcoholism, as a moral disorder, a spiritual weakness, a breaking of vows. There was a sense that if a period of prayer and reflection didn't work, then often a period as military (or industrial) chaplain might.
In the case of Cardinal Pell surprise was expressed that although he was a Consultor in his home diocese of Ballarat he was oblivious to child abuse in the diocese, I can understand this, I can well imagine that Fr X was discussed but not as a child abuser but in terms of upsetting people and 'various' complaints being received, of being someone who had difficulties with celibacy, even as a malevolent influence on the young but without actually describing what he was doing with children. If the issue was broached at all, like theology manuals of the time it would be couched in the most oblique of terms. The Church of a generation ago tended to see itself as a 'just society' where even the worst of sinners had the right to protection, and where he had the right to have his reputation protected be protected from scandal and certainly if protecting the reputation of the Church was also served.
The Church of course always saw itself as 'merciful', and like every other group in society failed to acknowledge the victims of the pervert's sin. The Church had the problem of not knowing how to deal with its own who had fallen. One consequence has been that bishops in the past saw themselves as fathers of errant sons, now they see themselves as managers with insurance and PR liabilities. I suspect too that there was more than a certain discretion about a matter that was deemed to be more properly dealt with in the internal forum.
What amazes me with the accusations against the Cardinal, and others, is that victims expected the Church to act when they themselves chose not to go the either the police or social services. There was an assumption that somehow the Church had the power to deal with someone that was above or beyond the law. The truth is of course that the social services of the time would have acted in an even less sympathetic way than the Church and the police most probably would have taken no action or treated a child in the same way as they treated women who were raped.
We find it easy to forget that children were treated with what we consider today extraordinary violence. George Ratzinger admitted 'abusing' children in his choir school, he gave them a 'clip round the ear', my music teacher thought little of doing the same. In my own school boys visited the headmaster rarely, few came away without receiving a few strokes of the cane. In the gym there was scarcely a lesson in which a boy was not 'slippered'. It was part of the culture. At Eton at the time, as in most of our more exclusive schools, not only did masters beat but so did senior boys. In working class families, if a child was beaten at school it would not be unusual for the father to apply the same punishment, "because you must have deserved it". In universities, as in the military, 'hazing' freshman with beatings or even sexual humiliations was part of the culture. Physical and sexual abuse, are obviously not the same but they do tend to go hand in hand, as too of course does psychological abuse. The culture was abusive, and far from child centred. Even in medicine procedures in which an adult might receive anaesthetic children often given to children without it. There was a sense that children get over these things quickly, they have a different pain threshold or they forget quickly.
Cardinal Sodano famously dismissed the clerical sex abuse as media fabrication, perhaps there is some truth in this, perhaps the most politically astute act of Pope Francis was to distance the Papacy by appointing a Commission to deal with it for him, rather than take it on himself. Australian abuse victims are asking for a meeting with him, whether he will grant their request is unlikely, he hasn't met with those who have complained about Cardinal Daneels or the countless victims from Los Angeles who complained about Cardinal Mahony's cover-up and he has been positively dismissive about case brought against the Chilean Bishop Juan Barros who he himself appointed as bishop of Osorno. At best they will be met by Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, head of the papal commission.
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