Some news travels slowly…

May 23, 2006 in Media

Media coverage of sex abuse cases is unjust Clerical sex abuse is no arguement against celibacy, argues Edmond Grace SJ. Clerical cases make up only a small percentage of the total problem, though you couldn’t tell this from media coverage.

Some news travels slowly, especially news about sexual abuse of minors which does not involve priests and religious. Take, for instance, a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Education, entitled ‘Educator Sexual Misconduct,’ by a Professor Charol Shakeshaft. It was published in June 2004, but I’ve only come across it recently with the help of the Jesuit journal. America. The Preface to the report includes the following: ‘The overwhelming majority of America’s educators are true professionals [and]… The vast majority of schools in America are safe places. Nevertheless, we must be willing to confront the issues that are explored in this study.”

Those issues include Professor Shakeshaft’s judgement that, according to the most accurate data available, ‘nearly 9.6 percent of students are targets of educator sexual misconduct some time during their school.’ This misconduct will range from sexual comments to touching to rape; on over two thirds of these cases the misconduct will involve some kind of physical contact. Professor Shakeshaft is also of the opinion that these findings underestimate the extent of the problem.

If these findings do not bury once and for all the insidious notion – it does not deserve to be called a theory – that pedophilia is bound up with the supposed shortcomings of the celibate lifestyle, then we are up against invincible prejudice. The assumption underlying this prejudice is that celibacy, like pedophilia, is a perversion but, of course, there is nothing perverse in the coverage of child abuse by California’s sixty one largest selling newspapers in the first six months of 2004. During that time they ran 1744 stories about sexual abuse in Catholic institutions and four about the same issue in public schools.

Nor was there anything perverse in a recent RTE news item reporting on the grief caused to children by the Sisters of Mercy in the 1960s by their practice of not hugging them, when child protection guidelines today lay down exactly the same requirement. It would seem that RTE’s humanitarian concern about yesterday’s “cruelty” does not extend to today’s “best practice.”

These crassly partizan attitudes may be a cause of grief to myself and many others, who have chosen to live a life of vowed celibacy, but we know the life we have chosen and the time in which we have chosen it. We are able to make our own decisions.

The same cannot be said for children whose stories are ignored by those who are intent on turning the issue of pedophilia into a means of broadcasting their hatred for the Catholic church. There is no denying the hypocrisy of church ‘supporters’ when they swept the issue under the carpet in the past, but today, when people flaunt their anger at ‘Catholicism,’ they forget that the Pharisees had two vices. We are reminded ad nauseam about their hypocrisy and of how the church is supposedly riddled with it.

The other vice of the Pharisees – self-righteousness – is probably the more vicious of the two. Self-righteous people give themselves a license to hate in a way which hypocrites do not. Self-righteous people love to silence their opponents by shaming them, which explains why church haters greet the deeply felt – and freely admitted – shame of Catholics today with undisguised glee. Their concern is not with justice but with using a just cause as an instrument of humiliation. You’d never guess, from looking at press coverage of this issue, that 3% of child abusers are religious ministers and teachers, while 97% of abuse takes place within neighbourhoods and families. Once there is an opportunity to strike out at the “iniquities” of the Catholic church, who cares if those who remain most vulnerable are left to one side?

A few years ago, after preaching a homily on the issue of the sexual abuse of children by priests and religious, I had a thought provoking experience. I had encouraged people who had been sexually abused to come forward either to myself or to one of my fellow priests or to phone a help line. Afterwards a woman approached me and what follows is her story:

“Father, I was abused as a child, but not by a priest, by a member of my family. Once, at a meeting of people who were sexually abused, I got up and told my story. There was silence. Not a word from anyone. They had all been abused by priests and nuns and brothers and they were embarrassed by the likes of me. I sat down and promised never to tell my story in public again.”