Magazine article Free Inquiry

Religion's Real Child Abuse. (OP-ED)

Magazine article Free Inquiry

Religion's Real Child Abuse. (OP-ED)

Article excerpt

In the wake of the current scandal over child abuse by priests, I received a letter from an American woman in her mid-forties who was brought up Roman Catholic. She has two strong recollections from when she was seven. She was sexually abused by her parish priest in his car. And around the same time, a little school friend of hers, who had tragically died, went to hell because she was a Protestant. Or so my correspondent was led to believe by the then-prevalent doctrine in her church. Her view now is that, of these two examples of Roman Catholic child abuse, the one physical and the other mental, the second was by far the worst. She writes:

Being fondled by the priest simply left the impression (from the mind of a 7 year old) as "yucky," while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear. I never lest sleep because of the priest--but I spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would go to Hell. It gave me nightmares.

I am sure her experience is far from unique. And what if we assume a less altruistic child, worried about her own eternity rather than a friend's? Odious as the physical abuse of children by priests undoubtediy is, I suspect that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of having been brought up Catholic in the first place.

Happily I was spared the misfortune of a Roman Catholic upbringing (Anglicanism is a significantly less noxious strain of the virus). Being fondled by the Latin master in the squash court was a disagreeable sensation for a nine-year-old, a mixture of embarrassment and skin-crawling revulsion, but it was certainly not in the same league as being led to believe that I, or someone I knew, might go to everlasting fire. As soon as I could wriggle off his knee, I ran to tell my friends and we had a good laugh, our fellowship enhanced by the shared experience of the same sad pedophile. I do not believe that I, or they, suffered lasting or even temporary damage from this disagreeable physical abuse of power. Given the Latin master's eventual suicide, maybe the damage was all on his side.

Of course I accept that his misdemeanors, although by today's standards enough to earn imprisonment followed by a life sentence of persecution by vigilantes, were mild compared to those committed by some priests now in the news. I am in no position to make light of the horrific experiences of their altar-boy victims. But reports of child abuse cover a multitude of sins, from mild fondling to violent buggery, and I am sure many of those cases now embarrassing the church fall at the mild end of the spectrum. (2) Doubtless, too, some fall at the violent end, which is terrible; but I would make two points about it. First, just because some assaults by pedophiles are violent and painful, it doesn't mean that all are. A child too young to notice what is happening at the hands of a gentle pedophile will have no difficulty at all in noticing the pain inflicted by a violent one. Phrases like "predatory monster" are not discriminating enough, and are framed in the light of adult hang-ups. Second (and this is the point with which I began) the mental abuse constituted by an unsubstantiated threat of violence and terrible pain, if sincerely believed by the child, could easily be more damaging than the physical actuality of sexual abuse. An extreme threat of violence and pain is precisely what the doctrine of hell is. And there is no doubt at all that many children sincerely believe it, often continuing right through adulthood and old age until death finally releases them.

It will be said that the Catholic Church no longer preaches hellfire in its full horror. That depends on how upmarket is your area and how progressive your priest. (3) But eternal punishment certainly was the normal doctrine dished out to congregations, including terrified children, back in the time when many of the priests now facing expulsion or prosecution committed their physical abuses. …

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