By Robin Darling Young
professor of theology, University of Notre Dame
A recent catch-phrase among anti-abortion Catholics goes: “What will you say to the babies?” It refers to the ancient belief that aborted infants will see harsh justice done to their selfish parents on Judgment Day- already in the second century, the Apocalypse of Paul pictured parents in hell judged by the souls of their babies. Updated for the abortion polemic, this question asks not only parents, but all voters, how they would justify their vote for a “pro-abortion” politician such as Barack Obama.
This Holy Week the question has an unintended association. What will the Roman Catholic Church say to the “little ones” about whom Jesus is reported to have told his disciples “If any of you scandalize one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)
Its defenders, Pope Benedict XVI among them, claim that the Church is judged unfairly; that the problem is widespread; that the New York Times and other publications are part of a conspiracy to destroy the Church. These noisemakers hope, perhaps, to change the subject.
Charges and counter-charges about who knew what and when, whether or not bishops or even the pope should resign, bitter controversy among lay Catholics, and Church defensiveness are shaping much public discourse on this matter. Throughout all this, Catholics are ignoring the core of the problem: that children were raped.
As anyone raped as a child can attest, there are three chief elements in the event. The first is the relationship between the rapist and the child. This is often one of trust, or at least gullibility, with respect to the person who desires sex with the child. Often manipulation occurs, if the action is not an act of brute force. The child is coaxed, played with, fondled and finally penetrated – often literally, and always psychologically.
The second element is the sexual act itself. Adult rapists want to achieve coitus with the small bodies of children. Often since they know this is wrong, they can also enjoy the thrill that they might now, or one day, be discovered. They can enjoy the thrill of domination, and the temporary bliss of coupling. They can enjoy their betrayal of the Church in which they are themselves often prisoners, and they can enjoy the art of hiding and dissimulation. The Church, being a very old institution, has long suffered the “imperfections” of illicit sexual partnerships among its clergy and, to be fair, among religious sisters. The predictable results of such dishonesty has been lying and turning a blind eye – “a scandal is not a scandal,” a prominent Midwestern archbishop told me once, “until it is public.”
The third element is the lasting state of mind of those who have been raped. The children who were fondled, penetrated – often painfully – and then abandoned are forced into a different game. They have had to protect their abusers through enforced silence. They may have developed a love for their abusers that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Because they have been forced into sexual activity before they are ready for it, they will come to expect this kind of treatment – and they will reproduce it. It is well known now that pedophiles cannot be cured – the state of mind that causes their actions has also caused them to objectify other human beings, and to use them as an accompaniment to their own internal, and impotent, fantasies. But rape victims cannot really be cured, either – the act continues, and they continue to be penetrated and hurt, and they continue to seek someone resembling their rapists, in order to rectify, or to repeat and understand, their original violation.
It is monstrous to obscure the pain of these human beings damaged by agents of a Church that claims to represent Jesus and his teachings. For these damaged children the offending priests, bishops, and now the pope himself are responsible. The deaf boys of Wisconsin, and all the children ruined and silenced by the Church are, unlike aborted babies, still alive, are still being raped by Fr. Murphy and all the other abusers, and they are now asking the Roman Catholic hierarchy what they will say to these young children whose parents placed them in their care.
In Holy Week it is only just that the Church should be compelled to have something to say to them.
Robin Darling Young is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.