Eric Hodgens. Child Sexual Abuse – A Cascade of Victims.

Feb 28, 2016

The sexual abuse of children creates many victims – and many levels of victimhood.

Cultures, including ours, have rules about sexual activity. Cultural deviations from what is considered normal meet a range of cultural responses from approval to acceptance, to disapproval, to condemnation as immoral or, finally, criminalisation. Our culture has a minimum age of consent for sexual activity. It criminalises sexual activity with children. Many states have laws of mandatory reporting.

The western world learned an extraordinary amount about paedophilia during the last quarter of the 20th century. At the start of that quarter most knew that it happened – but little else. It was an area of bewildered gossip. The grapevine of certain professional groups such as school officials, scout leaders, caring professionals, including priests, carried distasteful stories of confreres but with little hard evidence and detail. There was very little professional psychology research on the subject

By 1985 the penny was dropping for those professionally involved. By the turn of the century the professional research was vast and the man in the street was both aware of paedophilia and shocked at its extent.

The psychology profession distinguishes between paedophilia (the attraction to pre-pubescent children) and ephebophilia (the attraction to young adolescents).


  • is a sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children;
  • is widespread;
  • is a psychological disorder;
  • is irreversible – resembling an addiction;
  • has a devastating, life-long effect on its victims often including depression, chemical dependency, inability to trust and difficulty in forming adult relationships, suicide;
  • is not merely a moral offence but a crime.

The allied offence of sexual abuse of adolescents, though distinct from paedophilia, is abuse if the subject has not consented or is under legal age or is overwhelmed by the status rank of the abuser. This, too, occurs; often in a social context which has a duty of care such as a school, youth organization or church.

Molested children are the primary victims often carrying the scars for the rest of their lives. That victimhood is compounded when they are not believed or, worse, are accused of lying. The image of a little kid being accused – even beaten – for reporting abuse is horrifying.

Those responsible for the child become secondary victims when they keep the matter quiet out of a sense of shame or because the perpetrator has community status or for fear of community backlash.

As community awareness of the extent of the offense became clearer, social anger against the perpetrators grew. This was compounded when offenders gained access to children because they were officials of institutions with a duty of care for children entrusted to them – churches, schools, youth organizations. But, in a sense even the perpetrators are victims – victims of the compulsiveness of their desires compounded by institutional circumstances which will be outlined later.

Officials of institutions where abuse happened often covered up the offences in order to protect the institution’s reputation and assets. They pleaded “not guilty”, putting the onus of proof on the victims.

Caring institutions thus played false to their primary purpose – the care for the child. As awareness of the extent of institutional offending and the extreme nature of the devastation caused to the victims grew, so did public anger. The Churches came off worst in this. Of all institutions they were committed to the care and protection of the weak and here they were inflicting a second trauma on their victims by mounting a legal defence. This legal approach brought even more opprobrium on the Churches.

In the face of a corporate scandal today’s accepted wisdom is to admit the fault, open the whole matter to public view, apologise sincerely, take effective steps to remedy the causes and offer some form of compensation. The alternative of secrecy in the hope that it will go away fails in today’s open society.

The Church still carries the baggage of a time when, as the established Church, it could enforce secrecy and control the means of communication. The transparency and accountability expected of contemporary government, businesses and NGOs is not the policy of the Catholic Church. Its system of governance is still monarchical and its processes mostly officially secret. Internal Church scandals, especially sexual ones, are to be processed secretly. This was reinforced by a specific papal decree in 1922. Bishops dealing with delinquent clergy were over a barrel when faced with state laws of misprision or mandatory reporting. And, as with most institutions, old habits die hard.

Cardinal Law’s “We have our own way of dealing with these things” led to disaster in Boston. The European Church and its Latin derivatives such as South America still have not learned that lesson. See how Pope John Paul II lionised Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, fundraiser extraordinaire, but a notorious sexual abuser. Look at the Karadima case in Chile. Look at the Vatican’s most recent school for new bishops where Mgr. Tony Anatrella, an expert in psychology, told them that they need not necessarily report priests who offend. Look at the many bishops who project the image of a hard-nosed company man rather than that of a caring pastor – God’s disciplinarian rather than Jesus’s disciple.

Clerical privilege is another hangover from the days of the established Church. The revolutions of the 17th and 18th century limited the power of king and church. Clerical privilege, by which clergy could be prosecuted only in Church courts, not secular ones, has gone. But a mentality of clerical exceptionalism still remains, particularly in Europe and Latin America. Seminaries still institutionalise clerical exceptionalism with their segregated and live-in training.

Mandatory celibacy of the priesthood is another example of clerical exceptionalism. It underscores the otherness of the priest. But the price is endemic hypocrisy. It is very difficult for any person to spend a whole lifetime without some sexual activity. Richard Sipe estimates that about 50% of celibate clergy go through some period of forbidden sexual activity. If and when such action happens, guilt is compounded by the need to live a lie.

Celibacy is not so strong a deterrant for those with sexual attractions which are socially not acceptable. Their desires are socially unacceptable in any case. This skews the population of applicants for priesthood but sets up an even more disastrous scenario if there is later failure.

The mid 80s were a watershed in our general understanding of the abuse of minors – both the phenomenon and its extent. Then, as the 21st century dawned public awareness and anger at official, systemic cover-up came to boiling point. The film “Spotlight” has documented the watershed moment when the Boston Globe exposed systemic Church cover up. Now we had another type of victim – the officials seen as embodying this corporate failure. They were victims of the hubris of themselves or their institution. Cardinal Law was run out of Boston in the wake of the Spotlight expose. The hubris of Pope John Paul II in rewarding Law with a plum appointment in Rome threw petrol on the flames of public anger. Now Cardinal Pell is experiencing the same with Australia’s Royal Commission.

So many victims. Lives ruined. Institutions fractured. Hope shattered. Faith lost. And real closure a distant dream.

Eric Hodgens is a Catholic Priest who writes a bit.

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