Teaching Broader View of Sexuality Important to Prevent Child Abuse
Being Better Christian Better Lesson Than Focus on Sin
By Lenore Christopher
Catholic Telegraph [Cincinnati OH]
December 22, 2006
Archdiocese - Child abuse. In any form, it is reprehensible. The decades in which the church - and society in general - tolerated or was ignorant of sexual abuse of young people in society and, specifically, by priests and laity prompted a malaise, distrust and a rage from which many parishioners have yet to recover.
For the church, it has been a time of learning, compassion and forgiveness, reaching out to victims, dealing with offenders and taking responsibility. Are we doing enough?
Although the church did address the immediate issue of protection of children, "there are things we need to do to grow," said Sister of Mercy Fran Repka, psychologist and director of Mercy Professional Services in Cincinnati started in 1994.
She was one of the members of the original committee that drafted the first Decree on Child Abuse in March 1993, which five years later was revised and renamed the Decree on Child Protection.
Specifically, the church should look at the broader issues of sexuality, focusing its sexuality discussions not on "how I have sinned," but rather on "how I can be a better Christian," she said.
"Historically, the church has not done a good job (teaching) about sexuality and the emotionality of sexuality," she said. "The church tends to address genital sexuality - issues of birth control, contraception, abortion, adultery and sins committed. Are these important? Yes. But do they give us a full picture of sexuality? No."
To be effective, the church must teach not only about genital sexuality, but, more importantly, about what Sister Fran calls "affective sexuality" - which she believes is the best way to prevent child abuse.
Affective sexuality is relational sexuality. It radiates the Gospel message through presence - a presence characterized by "fidelity, honesty, listening well, being aware of each other, respecting each other and communicating feelings," she said.
Affective sexuality is concerned with mutuality in relationships, i.e. developing the capacity for establishing intimate, non-genital relationships or friendships with both women and men. This kind of relating requires understanding our own vulnerabilities as well as the vulnerabilities others experience in everyday life, particularly when confronted with losses, such as self-esteem, financial threats, job cuts, sickness or death.
Knowing our own vulnerabilities and respecting vulnerable children and adults makes us all better people, she said. "It is about helping people build healthy relationships and I'm not sure we (as church) are as effective as we can be with that. Affective sexuality is the missing piece.
"Abusers often do not have healthy relationships in their lives, nor can they sustain peer friendships," said Sister Fran. "They are preoccupied with their own agenda and their relationships are too often characterized by character rigidity, control, possessive loving, secretiveness, lack of spirituality and isolation/withdrawal. The incidences of child abuse have shown us the great need for education that makes clear the link between physical, sexual and spiritual.
"What we need is a church that will talk about this," said Sister Fran.
To accomplish that, Sister Fran believes it requires the help of the U.S. bishops, because "major leadership" is needed to help people know the importance of integrating this into every aspect of ministry in the church.
"We must see sexuality as energy (physical, emotional, spiritual) that permeates all creation, all creatures," said Sister Fran. "The church needs to teach sexuality as an 'other-orienting energy', an energy which directs and urges each of us (and every creature) out of itself toward others . . . a kind of energy that helps us to wonder with a child, dream with a teen-ager, share intimacy and friendship with an adult, be awed by the wisdom of the aged and so on."
This sense of connection is important "not just for us" as individuals and families, but for the community as well. Fostering mutual care and commitment to mission, creativity and care of creation versus preoccupation with the self is an important Gospel message, she said.
Reflecting on her work on the first decree, Sister Fran said, "There were not that many dioceses who had a comprehensive plan at the time."
The decision to write a decree is credited to Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk and to Father Dan Conlon, who, at the time, was chancellor, then pastor of Holy Redeemer Church in New Bremen before being named bishop of the Steubenville diocese.
The purpose of the decree then and now is to prevent the abuse of children and adolescents and to provide a pastoral response to incidents of abuse when they do occur. Child abuse is defined as "any non-accidental action that harms a child - whether physical, emotional, sexual or by neglect."
Those connected to the archdiocese who witness an act of child abuse, suspect such an act or receive a report of such an act must report the incident immediately.
All employees, clerics and regular volunteers must receive training in the provisions of the decree and are bound by procedures designed to guarantee the safety of children in the church.
"If the (provisions of the decree) are followed, it can be effective," said Sister Fran. "(The committee) certainly tried to create a better culture of accountability in our diocese, to "push for accountability among church leaders under the rubric of ethics, so that everyone has some kind of ethical code to follow." Now, years later, does the church have "on every level some form of ethical code?" she questioned. "I'm not sure we are there yet," she said. "We need to do more."
One positive thing the decree accomplished was to set up a preventive intervention program - which she sees as merely the first step in a necessary curriculum on affective sexuality that should be integrated into all ministries of the church from childhood on.
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