Special Reports / Church and paedophilia

Social consequences of priestly paedophilia

Marcin Król · 1 October 2013
Priests in Poland (and abroad) who commit a sin of paedophilia become perpetrators of the greatest evil. Obviously, some priests have lovers, drink to excess and do many other indecent things, which, as reprehensible as they are, cannot be compared to child abuse.

I agree that that the number of paedophiles in the Church is probably fractional, but the problem remains serious. A priest who is not immediately and strongly condemned for this horrible sin can sully the whole Church with an irremovable stain.

But let’s set the considerations of sin aside and focus on the social context. Sexual abuse of minors, though treated differently in different legal systems, is always subject to penalty. Under the strict law of the US state of Mississippi a sexual relationship with a minor, either with or without her/his consent, carries a sentence of up to 30 years in prison. And a minor is any person under the age of 18. From the Polish perspective, it is a surprisingly severe penalty, but it follows from the unimaginably traumatic consequences of such acts. And I am talking not only about psychological consequences suffered by an abused child and then by an adult, but also about social impact and social context.

We are not aware of what happens to a family who suspect that their child has been abused by a priest, a family living in a village or a small town. Our society has undergone major changes and loosened its mores – an unmarried woman with a child is no longer stigmatised – but a priest can still get away with paedophilia.

Even if the child decides to tell his/her parents about the sexual abuse committed by the priest, and the parents are reasonable and sensible, such a confession will immediately give rise to various doubts and uncertainties. What behaviour should be regarded as scandalous: explicit sexual satisfaction or maybe the very act of stroking erogenous parts? And more importantly: firstly, what to do if the priest denies the abuse (which is almost certain); secondly, who to go to with this information when the police would rather avoid disputes with the priest and the provision of social care is non-existent; thirdly, how to respond to other people’s judgments?

Even if we do not care about our neighbours’ opinion, in reality we have to take it under consideration, because our neighbours will meet our children (and us) for many years. That’s why, on the one hand, people in a village like to gossip; on the other hand, nobody shares personal life details. When we hear or read about scandals in villages or small towns and we cannot understand why the neighbours were unaware of the whole situation, we should recall the principle of the village “omertà”. Paradoxically, members of a forced community behave more cautiously and feel a stronger aversion to openness.

Furthermore, a suspected person is always stigmatised. An abused child will always be treated in line with the principle: “where there’s smoke there’s fire”, especially if the offence was committed by a priest. In the Polish village in the back of beyond, we can observe the phenomena known from American novels and films. These are the iron-clad rules of closed communities.

Thus, a priest is allowed to believe that he enjoys impunity and – as shown by experience –has to flagrantly violate social rules to be at least admonished by his bishop. The Church strains the principle of presumption of innocence, while each aspect of its activity resonates with sex. Bans and non-compliance with the bans. The Church does not understand sex and is simply unable to distinguish between reprehensible conduct and scandalous acts which humiliate another human being. And in the village environment, whilst the authority of a parish priest may be diminishing, the fear of suspicions in the local community most certainly is not. Because the Church takes advantage of the village in all possible ways, even in terms of sex.