Just a Little Common Sense

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Abuse in Catholic Organizations is a Deep-Rooted Structural Problem

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The abusive nun

"Never Again!"

The media generally limits itself to refer to the whole business as ‘abuse’, and while that’s technically correct, there is a need to clarify this very abstract term. So what, exactly are we talking about when we speak of ‘abuse’ in catholic organizations? It’s not just molestation, which is what most people think of in this context, if they do permit themselves to think about it at all.
What the victims had to go through is far from being limited to sexual abuse. There are people all over the world who are now finally finding the strength to unveil the horrors of their childhoods in christian care homes, and the stories emerging are simply shocking. They were kept in solitary confinement for days on end, drugged, raped, deprived of sleep and of food, used as forced labour, beaten, humiliated, and even forced to eat their own vomit.
Take a second to let that sink in, take a second to imagine. Once we’ve established an understanding of the situation, we can move on to discuss the causes.

Another thing that is worth noting up front is that most cases of sexual abuse of children have little to do with actual paedophilia. The perpretators often pick children as substitute-objects, simply because they are available, easy to manipulate and intimidate, and thus easy to silence. Children get abused because they are helpless, even if they are not the primary sexual preference of the culprit.
So, let’s take a look at what is causing the enormously high rate of abuse in catholic institutions. There are many factors that play into this, and in the catholic church they all converge. Here I will discuss four of the most important ones.

While paedophilia is not the main problem, it is a contributing factor here that deserves to be mentioned. The key point here is that the way the church presents itself is likely to attract social misfits and especially people with sexual disorders. This is not a simple process and takes a few lines to explain, so bear with me. The first thing one needs to understand is that sexual deviants aren’t soulless monsters. Other than their serious sexual malfunction, they are normal people. They aren’t paedophile by choice, and I strongly doubt they enjoy being what they are. Even if it’s somewhat unpleasant, put yourself in the shoes of an adolescent male who realizes that he gets turned on by children; and that as he grows older, the age-gap only gets larger and larger. It must be a painful process to realize you are part of a group that is despised by society unlike any other, that you are on your way to become one of those creepy strangers that your mommy always warned you about. You know perfectly well that if you ever tell anybody about your urges, you’re socially doomed. You will instantly lose everything, job as well as friends and family, even if you haven’t committed a crime yet, and are still in control of your urges. Nobody will even pity you. Now what do you do if you don’t have the strength or the money to consult a shrink? You turn to God. It seems the obvious choice: The church promises forgiveness for even the worst of ‘sins’, it promises acceptance, and most importantly, the custom of celibacy seems to promise that these are people who are in control of sexuality; who know how to defeat the urges that torture you. The same effect works on social misfits and people with other sexual disorders: When people are your main problem, turning to a human consultant for help seems counter-intuitive. Religion is the obvious alternative.

This may well be the most important factor. It is especially important concerning the cases of violent, non-sexual abuse, but also plays a big role as a contributing factor in cases of rape.
Here we get to discuss an extremely interesting part of human psychology, namely that absolute authority itself seems to have a destructive effect on the human mind. There are a number of novels and movies based on the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in wich twenty-four selected students were randomly separated into ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Guards’, and got to live in a mock-prison in the university basement. The roles were adopted beyond expectation, and the experiment quickly got out of control. Two prisoners broke down early, the experiment was completely stopped after only six days rather than the two weeks that were originally planned.

The experiment quickly grew out of hand. Prisoners suffered — and accepted — sadistic and humiliating treatment from the guards. The high level of stress progressively led them from rebellion to inhibition. By the experiment’s end, many showed severe emotional disturbances.[…] Guards forced the prisoners to count off repeatedly as a way to learn their prison numbers, and to reinforce the idea that this was their new identity. Guards soon used these prisoner counts as another method to harass the prisoners, using physical punishment such as protracted exercise for errors in the prisoner count. Sanitary conditions declined rapidly, made worse by the guards refusing to allow some prisoners to urinate or defecate. As punishment, the guards would not let the prisoners empty the sanitation bucket. Mattresses were a valued item in the spartan prison, so the guards would punish prisoners by removing their mattresses, leaving them to sleep on concrete. Some prisoners were forced to go nude as a method of degradation, and some were subjected to sexual humiliation, including simulated sodomy. […]
Several guards became increasingly cruel as the experiment continued. Experimenters said that approximately one-third of the guards exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies. Most of the guards were upset when the experiment concluded early. (Source: Wikipedia)

Remember that these were normal students, who previous to the experiment showed no abusive tendencies whatsoever. Also important to note is that the supervising staff, including leading Professor Philip Zimbardo were so immersed in the Experiment that they did not notice things went seriously wrong. The experiment wasn’t stopped until grad student Christina Maslach, who was introduced to the experiment to conduct interviews, objected to the conditions of the prison and questioned the morality of the experiment.

Prisoner in Abu Grahib

Prisoner in Abu Grahib

Of over 50 outsiders who had seen the prison, she was the only one to do so. The conclusions of the experiment remain controversial, and the mechanisms that change people in such dramatic ways are still unknown. Although it has been noted that the advertisement for which the potential subjects applied was worded in a way that might have pre-selected for people with violent tendencies, I think it is safe to say that the situation plays a very important role in human behaviour. This conclusion is also supported by various other experiments on the topic of authority, behaviour and obedience, such as the Milgram Experiment. For another example of what kind of atrocities normal people become capable of when placed under emotional stress and given absolute authority, please remember the Abu Grahib Prisoner Abuse Scandal.

Another problem lies in monotheistic ideology itself. In catholic theology especially, misfortunes are readily accepted either as deserved punishment for own shortcomings, or as a divine test of one’s faith. It therefore fosters an attitude of stoic endurance and inactivity rather than an active desire to change the situation for the better; at the same time, the doctrine of forgiveness and the view of Humans as being generally weak and ‘sinful’ provide an easy rationale for failures of self-control. ‘The mind is willing but the flesh is weak’ is an expression of this. Humans are to be blamed for their shortcomings, but at the same time these shortcomings are part of the divine master-plan and serve a divine purpose. The struggle the human experiences in the process is intended by God and therefore good in a purifying way.
Rationalizing is normal behaviour, and on a trivial level we do it every day – such as subconsciously convincing ourselves afterwards that a choice we made was the right one. The problem here is that the catholic belief system makes rationalization a lot easier for criminals by giving them an excuse (sinful nature), promising them forgiveness and providing the imaginary frame of a divine plan that works in mysterious ways, in which everything has its purpose and finally leads to a good end, giving them the reassuring feeling that all is good, everything’s already being taken care of by powers greater than themselves.

This is the one point that is exclusive to the catholic church. Due to the immense importance of the public perception of the clergy to the success of the belief system as a whole, the catholic church actually evolved effective mechanisms to cover up internal scandals and deal with them out of public sight. Being perceived as a moral authority is the churches most powerful remaining PR-tool, so it is little wonder that they will try to protect it at any cost, including making the victims sign vows of silence. The Pope himself was involved in covering up for abusive priests, and in doing so has repeatedly put the good of the ‘Mother Church’ above the well-being of children. By offering Cardinal Bernard Law a position in the Vatican, he has essentially granted him sanctuary from American law. There are many such stories to tell, but I’ll stop here and leave the talking to Christopher Hitchens, who is a lot better informed and a lot better versed than I am. Here’s Bill Maher interviewing him:

Hitchens has also written a lot of excellently researched articles on the topic, most of them published on his page on Slate, Fighting Words.

Let’s summarize. The churches doctrine of forgiveness and its indirect assertion of having control over human sexuality make it extremely attractive for young paedophiles, sexual deviants in denial, and other social misfits – to whom it appears to be the only place in which they can expect to find both acceptance and help. In entering the church, they enter an absolutist system, and as they progress through the hierarchy, they will at some point likely be given a post in which they will have some contact to children. This is especially ture in rural areas where they might be the only priest in charge of their flock, with no possibility to avoid contact with kids even if they tried to. Being placed in -and trusted with- the charge of a large number of people, some children, some older than oneself, causes much emotional stress, as the paedagogic skills that priests are given in seminary are insufficent and out of date. Needless to say, for paedophiles the stress gets amplified by the closeness to children. This emotional distress with a position of great authority is a dangerous mixture with extremely high potential for desaster. This of course is where the churches authoritarian approach to education often backfires, leading to all kinds of physical and mental abuse.
The theology now provides a way of rationalizing whatever actions have taken place, from the occasional slap in the name of discipline all the way up to sexual molestation, rape, and torture. At the same time, they must notice that their actions are not followed by serious consequences – ‘therapy’ or relocation being pretty much the worst they have to fear as the huge and powerful catholic church shields and protects the poor sinner with exclusive understanding of the situation. The high ranks of the church may view this protection as a political necessity, but to the priest the absence of consequences must seem like an approval from God – A reinforcement of the idea that all their struggles have a place in the greater picture, and that their deeds are met with forgiveness.

Abuse is likely to occur in all constitutions that have an authoritarian approach to education; In the catholic church the added factors of theology and a high rate of paedophilia, plus the protection of the immensely powerful organization work together to produce the worst possible result. Luckily, the church does not have the power anymore to burn their critics at the stake as they used to. Other than that, little has changed. Now is the time to demand apology and justice, and compensation for the victims. We must not let the pope decide who’s a criminal.


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  1. […] the matter into the spotlight of public attention about a year ago. I’ve written before about why exactly abuse is such a wide-spread phenomenon in the church, but one point in particular is worth being […]

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