The Danger of Conflating Sexual Abuse With Abuse of Power


National Catholic Register, 23 March 2019

COMMENTARY: The February summit of bishops at the Vatican signaled a turning point in how the Church is framing sexual abuse.

The organizers of the recent sexual-abuse summit at the Vatican expressed satisfaction that the unprecedented meeting of bishops from around the world constituted an important turning point.

That is to be understood in terms of effecting a change of mindset that will produce concrete reforms. Yet the summit may also mark a turning point in how sexual abuse itself is understood in the Church — with a shift away from sex itself toward abuse of power.

While some countries, like Canada and the United States, have had protocols for handling allegations and prevention measures in place for quite some time, the summit made it clear that all local Churches are to have those in place. One concrete result from the summit is that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will produce a vademecum (guidebook) that all bishops can follow for handling allegations of sexual abuse against clergy.

Those kinds of measures garnered most attention. But perhaps more important was a shift in how the Church understands the phenomenon of clerical sexual abuse itself.

The summit, in its preparation and its execution, took pains to downplay the sexual aspect of sexual abuse and to emphasize the abuse aspect, namely the abuse of power.

“It is difficult to grasp the phenomenon of the sexual abuse of minors without considering power, since it is always the result of an abuse of power, an exploitation of the inferiority and vulnerability of the abused, which makes possible the manipulation of their conscience and of their psychological and physical weakness,” Pope Francis said in his closing address to the summit. “The abuse of power is likewise present in the other forms of abuse affecting almost 85 million children, forgotten by everyone: child soldiers, child prostitutes, starving children, children kidnapped and often victimized by the horrid commerce of human organs or enslaved, child victims of war, refugee children, aborted children and so many others.”

Sexual abuse of minors is to be understood as analogous to starving children and abortion, all an “idolatrous sacrifice of children to the god of power, money, pride and arrogance.”

The emphasis on power is significant for three reasons.

First, it shifts the focus of attention away from sexual morality and the virtue of chastity.

In the preparations for the summit, it was clear that three topics were completely off the table: priestly celibacy, homosexuality in the priesthood, and sexual misconduct with adults. That was partly tactical. It was thought that a more narrowly focused meeting would be more likely to achieve the “concrete” actions that Pope Francis demanded at the summit’s outset.

But the shift away from the sexual dimension of sexual abuse also means that an affirmation of the traditional Catholic sexual ethic — on fornication, adultery, contraception and homosexual acts — can be avoided.

An emphasis on power can put the Church in a less conflictual position with secular society; it is less controversial to speak of sexual abuse as of a piece with child trafficking, rather than to question the effect of liberal sexual mores infiltrating the priesthood.

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