[Opinion] A comprehension of the past

NZ Catholic [New Zealand]

March 3, 2021

By Alison Hale

While utterly condemning sexual abuse on the part of some Catholic clergy and religious, I do have a problem in assessing situations only in terms of the knowledge and understanding of human psychology that we now have from the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

A lot of the offending we hear about took place in the 1950s-1980s, and, in order to help comprehend what took place, without excusing the offending, it is worth looking at certain societal norms of that time, and at what some of the thinking was that informed the approaches taken in response.

The ability to discern sexual deviancy, or the inability to live a celibate life in potential candidates, would have once have been minimal or non-existent. It seems that the expressed desire to be accepted was often enough. Even those who recognised their own disordered desires might well have seen the priesthood or religious life as a safeguard against indulging them, rather than as an opportunity to do so.

When the offending did occur, the victims, particularly children, would mostly have kept silent out of a learned respect for the priest or religious, or knowing their parents would not believe it could possibly happen.

If it came to the ears of the bishop, the same ignorance and naivety would have led him to believe that, by moving the offender elsewhere, he would be removed from the source of temptation and be able to make a fresh start, having been assured by the offender that he was sorry and would not do that again. Of course, the sinfulness would have been clear to all parties, but we Catholic Christians, in particular, are raised in the assurance that, if we repent and confess our sins, we can be forgiven, and have the slate wiped clean.

Also, there was no comprehension of how deeply the abuse would affect the victim into the future.

In relation to this, I have often heard older Catholics, and especially ex-Catholics, talking about how they were treated by teaching religious decades ago, and how it has affected them. I am not a cradle Catholic (however, a convert of over 50 years) so was educated in the state school system in the 1950s-1960s. I can, and do, assure such people that, despite being a girl, I was not spared caning, being strapped and having pieces of blackboard chalk thrown at me! But clearly again, religious orders must have accepted many unsuitable candidates just because of the need of numbers, and such people would have taken out their unhappiness and frustration on the children (and probably on their fellow religious!).

The desire to avoid scandal would have been a major driver in covering up offences and trying to move on, but it has to be said that avoidance of scandal was rife in secular society also, until about the 1980s. How many unmarried mothers were sent out of town by their parents until after the baby was born? And how much obvious domestic violence did we once turn our backs on?

It is very different today. We all have a good grasp of human psychology, discerners of vocations are fully trained, the religious and priestly life (in New Zealand anyway) is no longer seen as a family honour as it once was, we do not tolerate abuse of any kind in our society, and we do not keep silent about it. Children also know their rights, and are educated to speak up if they are offended against.

But it was not always like this at all, and I think we must take this into account if we are to fully comprehend what happened in the past.