The UK’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, set up in 2005 because of serious concerns that some organisations had failed and were continuing to fail to protect children from sexual abuse, has, this week, published its “Child Protection in Religious Organisations and Settings Investigation Report”. It’s not good news. The report said that there was no doubt that the sexual abuse of children takes place in a broad range of religious settings. Evidence was taken from 38 religious institutions, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Methodists, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism and nonconformist Christian denominations and evidence was found of “egregious failings” in all of them. And this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg as the report recognised that many instances of abuse are never reported. There’s little doubt, I think, that while abuse is endemic in society (even child on child abuse), it seems worse that it should happen in religious communities because of a hypocrisy that “purports to teach right from wrong yet fails to protect children”.
It so happens that I’ve recently read a book by Derek Scally called ‘The Best Catholics in the World’ in which he struggles with the abuse in Ireland where he was brought up. It was a challenging read for me as I could recognise some of the traits in the Irish Church reflected in my own childhood experience of religion, though I was brought up in Scotland. I had a good experience of religion but now recognise the dangers in religion, highlighted by Scally and reflected in the Investigation into child sexual abuse. These need to be taken seriously.
It was recognised by both Scally and the report that in all faiths and religious communities religious leaders have significant power and influence. They act as advisers and confidantes in a context of trust and openness that can be abused. They give sermons, interpret the scriptures, they are thought to be knowledgeable about their faith, their word is taken as the truth, their advice as correct and trustworthy. From an early age, believers are taught to show deference and respect, and obedience is seen as a virtue. Scally talks about an excessive deference that can blind people to abuse happening in their community, not wanting to report it, and even blaming the victim when they do. It’s this deference that can keep people conforming to a way of life and accepting truths unthinkingly. It begins in childhood but can lead to immature religious believers.
Religious communities, especially those in authority within them, are guardians of the morality of their members, including sexual morality. Indeed, it would seem that some religions are a bit obsessed by sex and sexual propriety. And the guardian of that propriety are mainly women and if they ‘fall’ so to speak they can bring shame on their families and neighbourhood. This was certainly the case in Ireland which has had to face up to the abuse that took place in mother and baby homes as well as ‘the laundries’ –where young women were kept in prison- like conditions and worked long hours in laundries which were used by public bodies and organisations and supported by the government. Both these institutions were run by religious sisters and the regime was severe and punitive. While state institutions could send women who were thought to be promiscuous to these homes, families did so too, ashamed in many cases at the dishonour brought on them by their daughters’ behaviour. Ireland, Scally suggests, had internalised what it had been taught about right and wrong and had too much deference for authority. Shame triumphed over love and girls and women were blamed for what had befallen them, even if it had been the result of rape or abuse.
This is of course all about control, something religion is good at. It reflects a fear, I think, of women who are seen as responsible for upholding the honour of the family and community and therefore must be controlled. All religions do this and do it in different ways – through threats, confining women to the home, denying them authority, demanding a modesty of dress not demanded of men, public punishments, even honour killings. Women are always the ones to suffer and be blamed while men go scot-free. And while there may be many people who disagree with this attitude it can be difficult to speak out against a prevailing custom or an internalised culture. Often it is much easier to conform.
Books like that of Derek Scally’s and the report from the child sexual abuse inquiry are damaging, embarrassing and shaming for religions. It shows them in a very bad light, but it is good that this evil is brought to light and now spoken about. It is a call for all members of the Church and other religions to look honestly at themselves and their attitudes, to become aware of their priorities and in the words of Fr Michael Paul Gallagher, quoted by Scally, to know that “the simple truth is that love is more important than explicit faith”. Would that not bring about a revolution in faith?