Rev Wale Hudson-Roberts explores the sensitive issue of child abuse, and looks at how the Church should treat the victim and offender
His quiet disposition, sharp mind and depth of spirituality endeared him to a wide range of people. For those not in the know, his retirement came as a shock – a bolt out of the blue. He was respected by legions. Yet still, the sex and child abuse scandals that erupted under his papacy will be among the many things for which he is remembered.
For the many people whose childhoods and adult lives were wrecked by sexual and physical abuse at the hands of the Roman Catholic clergy, Pope Benedict XVI is an unloved pontiff who will not be missed.
Even though churches were angered at the extent of the Catholic Church’s paedophilia, it was the Pope’s inability to stand up to reactionary elements in the Church, and its determination to keep the scandals under lock and key, that further fuelled deep-rooted anger. But, let’s face it, the BBC’s response was no different. At what point did they know about Savile’s heinous behaviour? And why did they bury the evidence? I am uncomfortable about writing about paedophilia – a so-called psychiatric disorder, characterised by primary or exclusive sexual interest toward children. But in a world that thinks little of stretching morality, such conversations have become necessary.
In some countries, paedophilia is acceptable. In Afghanistan, for example, older powerful men boost their social status by keeping boys as sexual playthings. British officers, fighting in Afghanistan, requested a study into Pashtun sexuality, to help them get their heads around the sexual behaviour of the locals, because young male soldiers were being propositioned.
The practice of ‘bacha bazi’ – or ‘boy play’ – is known throughout Afghanistan. It is where pre-pubescent boys are widely admired and used as sexual toys. This practice is regarded as paedophilia in most countries – and a criminal offence – but in Afghanistan, a country regarded as culturally-progressive by some, this behaviour has become acceptable. Most people would surely hope that other countries do not embrace Afghanistan’s ungodly views but, as we know, sexual assaults on children are on the increase both in this country and abroad.
With leading ministers, such as Eddie Long, (pictured) accused of coercing four young men into sexual relationships; priests thinking they have a licence to abuse children, and journalists racking up unparalleled evidence, you could be forgiven for believing that sexual abuse on children has reached unprecedented levels.
Recently, a South African cardinal, who helped elect the new head of the Catholic Church (namely, Pope Francis), has described paedophilia as a psychological illness and not a ‘criminal condition’. He maintains that children can become paedophiles because they have been the victims of past abuse, and cannot be regarded as criminally responsible for their actions in the same way as ‘somebody who chooses to do something like that’. But where do you draw the line? That a murderer with a highly dysfunctional past should not be found to be criminally responsible for their actions? Paedophilia is what it is: the intentional and ruthless abuse of the image of God in another human being – a child of God. How evil is this? Surely, no matter how dysfunctional the offender’s past, proportionate punishment must be considered?
I cannot imagine the pain and feelings of isolation that abused children experience. It must be a private hell as they battle against feelings of inferiority and rejection. Such feelings can live with the offended for their entire lives. Building walls of distrust and suspicion towards men and towards those in authority; and women, plagued by insecurity, troubled by their sexuality, and struggling with long-term relationships, are just some of the recurring symptoms suffered by those who have been abused. Even a one-off experience can leave a lifelong legacy with wounds that barely heal.
This is where the place of the Church is essential. It can bring succour and immense healing to the sufferers. But the Church must be willing to talk about these matters so that, when such a situation appears, it is adept at expressing itself, and brings care in words and actions to the wounded. The fact that these are emotive and complex issues, which usually evoke the most passionate of responses, should not be a reason for churches to shy away from discussing child abuse. But, in terms of putting in place preventative strategies, every church should have a Child Protection policy, and encourage child protection training for its staff. Granted, this may not prevent child abuse, but it certainly makes it less likely and, if it does surface, information should be at hand to help address the situation.
Communicating ‘every child matters’ is also very important. Having first class youth groups and championing children and young people can help communicate this. When a child and young person feel valued and secure, they should be less reluctant to speak out against any wrong done to them. If, however, they feel undervalued in church, a part of the church’s ‘fixture’, so to speak, some children can feel that abuse is something they deserve, and do not report an offence in fear that they are labelled a liar, reinforcing their low self-esteem.
Yet the South African Cardinal’s suggestion, that whilst providing pastoral care for the offended we should not forget the offender, is right. It is easy to shout punishment for the offender and to make their lives a misery. It is important that we do not forget that the offender is also created in the image of God, loved and cherished by God. We do well to encourage the judicial system to roll out justice.
And for the Church of Christ, whilst continuing to protect its little ones, to do what it should do best and sometimes does do: to show mercy and love to all people, namely the victim and the offender.
Rev Wale Hudson-Roberts is the Racial Justice Co-ordinator for the Baptist Union of Great Britain