Thursday, 25 March 2010

Thoughts on abuse

I wrote this last year but in view of this week's news, and of the new allegations regarding the pope (the full history of which is yet to unfold), it seems right to publish it again.

Child abuse is one of those traumas so extraordinarily singular that it leaves one grasping not only for words but to find any entitlement to talk about it. Thank God, I never suffered it, though I know those who have. Sometimes they suffer the consequences all their lives, and in a handful of cases, they bring their lives to an end because of it. Compassion itself seems inadequate here, not by lack of empathy but because it is impossible to know the suffering - to passus cum - caused by such transgression of a human being, whose very world is wrecked often by those who have defined it for them. This is as near as anyone can get, if it were possible, to casting another freewill into mortal sin. No wonder Christ said it would be better that a millstone be tied around the necks of those who scandalize the little ones of God. Of course it is also true that abusers sometimes begin as the abused, in a colossal chain of unstinting misery known to God alone. How our own sufferings seem small in the lights of these scandals.

What leaves me, however, in a similar state of incomprehension are the strategies of those who have been, with the best of intentions, covering up child abuse by priests in the Dublin diocese for several decades. Complaints only started coming to light of course in the 1980s and 1990s, but whether we look at more recent incidents or those that were happening as long ago as the 1930s (cf the Ryan Report on child abuse published in May) - and Lord knows how long before that - it is not modernism which has brought this about (though it might have compounded it) but clericalism. By clericalism, I mean not only what the Irish State is now acccused of, in having deferred to the Catholic Church in Ireland in this matter. By clericalism, I mean also the type of churchmanship that serves lower moral considerations at the cost of higher ones. I mean especially the kind of churchmanship that can conceal the sins of the clergy but not, at the same time, punish them with severity. Of course, there is the issue of the private forum. We do not know what penances have been imposed under the seal of confession.

But how can that be enough? Did these people never realise that eventually cesspits have to be cleaned out? That you cannot keep shoving transgressions against immortal souls into the limited space of a nation's mortal psyche? Some spiritual plumber was needed, some moral sanitary engineer, who could have predicted the lamentable outcome. For eventually some blockage always forces the shit back up the pipe, and here we are today, knee deep in decades of foul-smelling, mind-numbing fecal matter, studded with the souls of children loved by God and wrecked by men.

Neither do I buy the line that we didn't really know what pederasty was truly like four or five decades ago. Scandal of the young is specifically and graphically described by Christ as a sin deserving of the worst punishment. What edition of the Bibile were they reading not to have understood that?

Perhaps one of these complacent clerics muttered the kinds of bourgeois reassurances which made Léon Bloy fulminate against the bourgeoisie so much: least said, soonest mended; let's draw a veil over that; it will all be forgotten in a little while. Or perhaps they said something like, 'Well, they were only Christ's words' ...

Like the priest who was preaching on the day John Berryman, the alcoholic American poet and life-long depressive, turned up at church, trembling with the DTs, anxious to put his life right after decades of chaos; he'd been going for a little while apparently. That day though, the priest was preaching about the constraints of celibacy. Citing the words of Christ that there are some who make themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of God he railed against the faithful who put the clergy on such a pedestal. 'They were only Christ's words,' he said. Berryman, rising to his feet, clutching a rosary, sweating, and shaking in anger, shouted out, 'Only Christ words?' And stomped out the door ... later to throw himself off Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.

Berryman's life was marked early on by the suicide of his father. I wonder if parental suicide doesn't have a similar effect to child abuse. For what is parental suicide, or indeed child abuse, if not the wrecking of a child's certainties about the goodness of the world? What is parental suicide or child abuse if not the destroying of what is, for the child, the most powerful symbol of God's providence, if not an initiation into an absurd world? Confession makes priests and bishops more insightful about human motives and tendencies than anyone can imagine. The Catholic Church invented psychology long before Freud or anyone else. But how did these Irish churchmen (not to mention those elsewhere) get child abuse so badly wrong? How did they fail so categorically when the stakes were so much higher than the reputation of the clergy? When the stakes were immortal souls made in the image and likeness of God? God save us all from the unintended consequences of our own complacency.

You cannot serve God until you've lost your reputation, said Saint Teresa of Avila. That is a lesson the Irish Church - and the rest of us by association - have to learn.

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