Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist
Sexual Abuse

There are numerous instances of individuals who have had authority in a religious or other environment and who have abused that authority. Often this has taken the form of physical and emotional abuse, such as beatings or humiliation in front of peers. Less commonly, but still far too often, it has taken the form of sexual abuse, both heterosexual and homosexual in nature. This was, and still is, bad enough in itself, but there are many instances of senior religious supervisors being accessories to such abuse.

It is well documented, for instance, that some bishops would relocate pedophile priests to other parishes rather than have the police investigate and lay criminal charges against the priest, but by knowingly doing so, surely the bishop is just as guilty of abuse as the priest is for what happens to the children in the new location. Yet it is unheard of for a bishop to be charged with conspiring to pervert the course of justice or as an accessory to rape, buggery or sexual assault, depending on what the priest being protected by the bishop actually did.

In the past, it has very obviously been that just being an important individual in a powerful religious organisation has given an unacceptable level of protection and a shield against criminal laws. This is a disgrace, and clearly should not be so. Professing to believe in a moral god and requiring others to follow specified moral precepts, then behaving in a thoroughly immoral manner which violates those same precepts should not result in protection and immunity, but it most certainly should result in strong condemnation both as a facilitator of sexual predation and as a hypocrite.

Whether it is wise to require priests to live an unnatural life free of both sexual activity (chastity) and of companionship in marriage (celibacy) is not the issue. Whether they are married or not, whether they are sexually frustrated or not, no person in authority has any excuse for satisfying their sexual lusts at the expense of children. While it is often said that the incidence of sexual abuse by priests is largely due to them being forbidden to marry, that may not be the overarching factor and may just be an excuse to avoid dealing with the real problem. Allowing priests to marry might reduce the incidence of sexual abuse, but it would almost certainly not eliminate it. It is not uncommon that married and sexually active people sexually abuse children. It is also true that many chaste priests never sexually abuse children, and live a completely chaste life, free from sexual activity. The reality is that those with a pedophile bent would want to engage in sexual activity with children despite their circumstances, whatever they may be. This must be obvious since sometimes children are sexually abused by priests or ministers in organisations which do not restrict them from marriage. However, any such restrictions are the business of the organisation and its members, not the state or its citizens in general. Any sexual abuse by those people, however, is the business of the state and they should be prosecuted fully as the law requires.

The important issue is that criminal behaviour should result in criminal charges and sanctions. Priests should not be immune, and anyone, bishop or not, who protects them should be charged as a co-conspirator or accessory. Everyone is equal before the law, so nobody, no matter what their position in society, should be protected from the law. There must be an onus on all members of society to report sexual abuse of children to the police, subject to severe sanctions if they fail to do so. This should include all members of religious hierarchies in all churches.

Sexual predation in a religious environment is particularly heinous as it flies directly in the face of often stated moral precepts. Religious officials present themselves as protectors of the innocent, so using their position of authority in moral matters to commit immoral acts, sometimes violently, is anathema. The same can be said about parents and teachers, or anyone else in a relationship with a child which makes the child dependent on that person. Sexual abuse in such relationships must not be tolerated or excused in the least, not for the abuser, nor anyone who seeks to protect them.

In the case of religious organisations, protection of the abuser may be provided to protect the reputation of the organisation involved, rather than to protect the abuser as an individual or out of a misguided sense of friendship. This is sometimes because of the likelihood of having to pay financial compensation. This is not acceptable and is not a valid excuse for failing to report sexual abuse, especially of minors. The law should criminalise such protection and severe penalties applied on conviction. Any organisation which protects abusers with the intent of preserving its reputation in society should be charged with a criminal offence. There is no reason why senior officials in an organisation who were responsible for establishing, continuing or taking advantage of an environment which endorsed that kind of protection for abusers should not bear some of the responsibility for the criminal acts which took place. At the very least, those who knowingly participated in providing the protection from prosecution should bear responsibility for their actions and be criminally charged with an appropriate offence as well as being seen as co-abusers in any further incidents. Being at arm‘s length from the criminal act should not enable them to avoid responsibility for the consequences of the organisation‘s supervisory oversight and their own behaviour.

Religious groups are not the only ones who must deal with these problems, and the underlying principles should apply equally to other groups as to them, whether schools, clubs, sports teams or any other. It is extremely unfortunate that a few pedophiles in a large organisation can have such a damaging effect on a whole group, whether it be priests and ministers, teachers, parents, or simply men in general. It is necessary to keep in mind when talking about these kinds of events that pedophiles and other sexual predators are a small, opportunistic minority and that while the majority may be male, women may also be among them. These people are not the norm in any organisation and some perspective is needed.

It should also be pointed out that while sexual abuse is an extremely serious issue and concern, it is not the only form of abuse that can take place. Abuse can run the gamut from simple acts of bullying to inflicting serious psychological and physical trauma, and exists in many forms. All of them can have a serious negative effect on children‘s minds and being subjected to any form of abuse can lead to lifelong social and functional problems.

A common form of sexual abuse is by a parent. This is usually, but not always, the father. Even if it does not involve actual penetration it is still abuse. Even if it does not involve any sexual or bodily contact it is still abuse, since when a parent makes it obvious that they see their own child as a sexual object who could satisfy them sexually it is inevitably psychologically traumatic for the child. This particular type of abuse violates the fundamental needs of a child to trust, rely upon and respect both parents and if they have it proven to them that they cannot do that then the psychological damage can last for the remainder of their lives and may cause significant aberrant behaviour.

In cases of parental sexual abuse it is almost always presumed that the father is forcing sexual activity on his child or stepchild. The default assumption is often that the mother is not aware of what is happening. Both assumptions may be false. Women also can sexually abuse those in their care. If we have learned anything from the Carla Homolka case, surely it must be that women are quite capable of being active and willing participants in criminal sexual activity and that they may blame their co-criminal in a self serving attempt to save themselves, claiming that their relationship was abusive. Our society is loath to presume that women, who are seen as the fundamental basis for nurturing in families, may be involved in exploiting their own children. This is a holdover from the Victorian past, when men were assumed to be poorly controlled sexual animals and women were presumed to be innocent Madonnas socially compelled to submit to the degrading sexual appetite of the husband in order to continue the human race. That‘s women in polite society, of course. Women in impolite society were often considered to be readily available prey, with lax or no morals, to be exploited by any who chose, an attitude that is still common, unfortunately.

Most people today would acknowledge that those attitudes should not reflect our society nor our biology. Both men and women are sexual creatures, albeit each with a different focus. In fact, there is such a wide divergence in sexual preferences among men and women, which may or may not overlap to varying degrees, that any general statement is as likely to be incorrect as to be correct. Since that is the case, we should stop these default assumptions that accused males must be mainly responsible for the crime and accused women must not. This attitude is often shown in cases where both husband and wife are involved in sexual exploitation of a child. It is extremely common for the wife to claim that the husband dominated her so much that she had no choice but to help him from fear of the consequences to her own safety if she refused. Alternatively, she may claim she did not know what was being done to a son or daughter since she was in a different room when it happed, asleep.

Of course, both of those scenarios are quite possible and in cases in which they are the courts should show an appropriate degree of leniency. One may ask, though, what the courts would do if it were a case of torture and murder rather than the sexual exploitation of a child. Would they accept a woman‘s plea that her husband forced her into murder, or would they consider the crime to be so egregious that they would have required her to resist doing what was demanded of her even at the risk of her own safety?

What duty of protection does a mother have to her children? Does her duty to protect her children exceed her right to protect herself from harm? If a child were to fall into a river, should we expect the parent to jump in to recover the child? If a dog attacks a young child should a parent be prepared to put themselves between the dog and the child in order to protect them? How do we balance the obligation for parents to protect their children from harm against their instinctive concern for their own safety?

In the context of sexual abuse we should ask what degree of protection a mother is obligated to give to a child being raped repeatedly by her father? Is it greater than her own wish to be safe? Can she legitimately turn a deaf ear to the pleas of her child if she is afraid for her own safety? Can she legitimately actively participate in the rape out of fear for her own safety?

I have always found it difficult to understand how a mother could be unaware that something was bothering a child when they are being sexually abused by their father. If it happened in the same house, while the mother was there, we are expected to believe that two thin sheets of plaster and a few wooden studs are sufficient to absorb all sounds of a rape. We are also expected to believe that the child then voluntarily hides their distress so effectively that the mother doesn‘t have an inkling that anything is wrong, and does so day after day for an extended period of time, sometimes several years. Surely, any child in this situation with the slightest degree of maternal support available would let their distress show.

I suppose there must be cases where the mother genuinely does not know and does not notice her child‘s distress, a situation that may reflect the poverty of their family‘s relationship dynamics, but surely there are not so many cases as to be the norm, as we would have to believe if the number of defendants using the argument were a true reflection of the state of mother-child relationships in Canada.

Society should expect that parents, both of them, have a duty to protect their children from harm. That should include an obligation to do whatever they can to stop another person, whether it is the other parent, another relative or anyone else from sexually abusing a child in their care even when disclosing the abuse would causes themselves harm. This duty should be made as close to absolute as it can be. In cases where the parent does not carry out their obligation, the onus should be on them to justify why they failed to do so and to explain why they should not be held accountable for their failure.

Let me make one thing really clear. I am not excusing men, nor attempting to diminish their responsibility for these acts. Whether they are fathers or not, when they sexually abuse children, or adults for that matter, their criminal behaviour should be punished severely. Punishment should not be just for the physical acts themselves, but also to reflect the psychological damage that such intense betrayal brings about in the victim.

My point is that women who participate in the same criminal activities as men should be punished to the same degree as men. They should not be able to use society‘s reluctance to believe that mothers could be willing participants in child sexual abuse to lessen their responsibility for criminal activity involving their children. Our society in Canada requires equality between the sexes in all things, but in this area we have obviously not yet reached the stage when we can say we have it.

Previous page Home page Secular Articles Religious Articles Next page