Reclaiming the Sacredness and the Beauty of the Body: The Sexual Abuse of Women and Children from a Church Leader's Perspective

By Coles, David | The Ecumenical Review, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Reclaiming the Sacredness and the Beauty of the Body: The Sexual Abuse of Women and Children from a Church Leader's Perspective


Coles, David, The Ecumenical Review


Pope John Paul II's recent summoning of United States cardinals to the Vatican for an emergency meeting to discuss sexual abuse by priests and religious was a clear recognition of the seriousness and extent of such abuse in the church. Media coverage has focused on a few examples of paedophile priests and the scandal of some church leaders in not only covering up their offences, but also in arranging new ministry appointments for them. Indeed, in some cases they have been able to continue abusing children while holding successive ministry appointments over many years. In a recent Time Magazine article (4 March 2002) Andrew Sullivan writes about the scandals currently hitting the Roman Catholic Church, especially in the archdiocese of Boston, where it has been revealed that more than 70 priests out of a total of less than 700 have been accused of the sexual abuse of children.

The truth is that sexual abuse and exploitation of women and children has been taking place in a wide range of churches for centuries. What is new, in Western society at least, is that sexuality is no longer regarded as a private matter, but has become an acceptable subject for public discussion. In the Western churches issues of sexual ethics such as contraception, birth control, abortion, reproductive technologies and sexually transmitted diseases have long been widely discussed in church consultations and meetings. The issue of sexual abuse in the church, however, is only now becoming publicly known and the way this is happening is potentially damaging to the church.

Church leaders, cardinals and bishops find themselves being challenged by legal action and media attention as they are called to account for what is happening, or what has happened in the past. There has been an attempt to contain sexual abuse complaints in the private domain precisely at a time when public awareness of sexual abuse demands a more open public recognition of, and response to, such misconduct (or indeed, in some cases, criminal behaviour). Some church leaders have failed to recognize the widespread occurrence of such abuse and, perhaps due to a sense of shame, have suppressed reports of it. Even worse, in efforts to suppress public scandal they have minimized the effects of such abuse on women and children, sometimes blaming the victims for what has happened.

In some countries, sexual abuse has reached epidemic proportions. Merle Longwood reports that "though the figures on the prevalence of sexual abuse are constantly changing, particularly with increases reported in the number of males estimated as victims, research estimates that about one in three to four women and one in four to seven men have been victims of sexual abuse as children".

Sexual misconduct by clergy who have exploited adult parishioners in the course of pastoral ministry has also become a matter of public concern in the church. I am aware that in earlier decades it was common practice for such clerical "indiscretions" to be dealt with informally by bishops or other church leaders. Sometimes the clergyperson concerned would be given a verbal warning or, in more serious cases, moved to another parish or an alternative appointment. There was often no formal process to deal with the complaint in order to ensure justice and pastoral care for the complainant, nor was there a process to ensure that the legal rights of the respondent were protected.

My personal experience of this problem

As a bishop ordained in 1990, I was not prepared for the demands that would be made upon me in dealing with cases of sexual misconduct by clergy. In 1990 I inherited a very serious case in which, a year before, a senior priest allegedly engaged in sexual exploitation of at least 12 women, and probably more, over a period spanning more than 20 years. Although this priest was immediately removed from all offices he held in the church, resigned from his appointment, and has not held any ecclesiastical office since, this case has continued to occupy a huge part of my time and energy. …

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