Between 1995 and 1999, 21 of the 5,600 Catholic priests in England and Wales were convicted of offences against children. In 2010, there were 83 sex abuse claims relating to 103 victims and 92 alleged abusers. The advice given by the new Chair of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission to combat this problem? Invite them to a football game or give them a glass of wine.
Baroness Scotland became Chair of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission in March of this year. Upon her appointment, she commented that “Safeguarding is at the heart of the Church – knowing that you are in a safe place where you will be respected; listened to and free to become part of a loving community…” Well, that seems nice enough. Except it’s not the abused children and their families that Baroness Scotland wants faithful Catholics to shelter in their “loving community”. It is, in fact, paedophilic priests.
The “fairly lonely existence” experienced by Catholic priests, said the Baroness, could be contributing to the sexual abuse problem within the Church. She went on to say that priests “need friendship and comfort and someone to have a glass of wine with and watch the football or whatever it”. Commenting on the responsibility of the community for Catholic priests, she added, “That is something that people sometimes forget. It is a two-way process.” The former Attorney General also said that the sexual abuse figures are “very shocking and painful for those who love the Church.”
It seems to me that even those whose role within the Church is to prevent and manage cases of crimes against children remain woefully ignorant of the causes and methods of prevention of sexual abuse. I find it disturbing that the person deemed to be the Church’s best hope for combating this issue can come up with no greater plan than ‘take them to a football match’. Apparently this is the level of insight you get from three years as Attorney General. Well, yeah, give me a fancy title and a top position in the UK’s Catholic Church, and I could have come up with something to absolve the priests of responsibility too.
This is exactly how rape culture works. Shout about how if Little Miss Rape Victim hadn’t dressed like a slut she wouldn’t have been raped, and you make yourself feel better. Because you don’t dress like that, and you don’t drink too much, or walk home alone, or dance like that, or talk like that, so you can’t possibly ever be raped, can you? Problem solved – you can sleep peacefully again. But it just doesn’t work like that. Sexual abuse isn’t about how lonely you are, any more than rape is about what the victim is wearing.
It’s a comfortable lie we tell ourselves; that we can eliminate child sexual abuse by identifying that one elusive factor that unites all offenders. Baroness Scotland thinks she’s found it: it’s the loneliness, she cries, it must be the loneliness! But just like reassuring ourselves that we don’t dress like that so we can’t be raped, we cannot allow ourselves to become convinced that, so long as we invite the local priest around every few weeks for wine and a football game, we have eliminated the possibility that he could become an abuser.
Arguing that priests abuse because they are lonely is taking away their responsibility for their actions. Sure, it might be that isolation is contributing factor (so too might compulsory celibacy) but priests are not stubborn dogs or young children. Being lonely doesn’t make priests abuse children, as the Baroness’s glaring over simplification suggests – they’re big boys who need to be held accountable for the atrocities they commit. When I’m peckish I don’t grab a small child’s ice cream cone; I find some money and buy myself a sandwich. If a priest cannot exercise the same self control when it comes to his sexual urges, he has no place in civilized society.