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Abuse at the church

Halfway through February, the Roman Catholic Church held a three-day synod about abuse taking place at the church. The pope appeared determined to make changes, but victims of past abuse remain critical. How meaningful was the synod?
By Christine Dirkse

Andrew Irving

Assistant professor of religion and heritage

‘There were instances of indecency as far back as the medieval church, where priests had concubines or visited prostitutes. Some of them abused the members of their parish. In most cases the bishop just turned a blind eye to this behaviour, which meant it continued. Sometimes the church would take action, but they never involved the state.

The church’s tendency to fix problems internally has a basis in history. Starting in the ninth century, governments started becoming closely involved in the church. But in the eleventh century the church wanted the government out of its affairs, especially to prevent corruption. They fought really hard for that separation of church and state.

The previous pope, Benedictus XVI, formally declared that abuses should be reported to the state, which was a huge departure from the church’s previous stance. Last week’s synod was also a step forward: they publicly acknowledged that change is needed. But you can’t make radical changes in just two days. We’ll have to wait and see over the next few months if the plans made will lead to anything.

A lot will have to be done at a local level. I hope the church is willing to learn from the secular world, particularly when it comes to prevention. In Glasgow, for example, they treated domestic violence as a public health matter, with the aim to prevent it. That was a very successful campaign. The church can learn a lot from initiatives like this.’

Kim Knibbe

Associate professor of sociology and anthropology of religion

‘In 2001/2002 I studied Catholicism and changes in the Catholic church in Zuid-Limburg. Especially the pre-war generation said people just accepted the wrongs perpetrated by the church. It was a part of life. Traumatic events taking place at the church, including forced labour and the way they treated the unbaptised bodies of deceased babies, were kept secret. The victims were ashamed.

The fact that the discussion about abuses in the church is being held publicly is very important to the victims. As the abuse is acknowledged, so are their stories. That’s one of the things they need to be able to start processing what happened.

The synod plays a role in this as well. The worldwide attention for this problem is important, but that doesn’t mean the issue is solved. On a local level, and that includes the Netherlands, abuse is still being denied. Victims are still being shut out.

The fact that the church leaders are acknowledging openly that there is a problem is an important step forward. But that doesn’t change the fact that the church sometimes seems more concerned with the priests than with the victims, who are as much a part of the church as their abusers. The church has had a change of heart, but it’s going slowly. It will take time.’

Katherine Stroebe

Associate professor of social psychology

‘The abuse in the church was kept secret for years. This can be explained from a social psychology standpoint: You can compare it to discrimination: people might feel they’re the only ones who are facing this problem. They can also feel helpless: what would talking about it even accomplish? Shame usually plays a role as well.

Some people decide to come forward as a group to try and broach abuse. They will do so when three particular conditions are met. First, all the members of the group have to have a shared identity, they have to feel connected. But that can be difficult if they don’t know that the other people are suffering from the same problem.

Second, they have to have a collective feeling of injustice. And finally, efficacy – the idea that something can be done about the situation. People used to look up to the powerful church; they couldn’t just go against them.

The media has played a big part in the change of the past few years. They published people’s stories. Victims started to realise they weren’t the only ones. On top of that, the media clearly showcased the injustice of it. That increases that collective feeling. Victim advocacy groups can also contribute to this.’


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