Letter from Rome: Sexual abuse is not about sex
By Robert Mickens
March 2, 2020
Jean Vanier violated the Second Commandment, not the Sixth
We continue to hear of incidents that more than suggest that Catholics — and, in particular, their bishops — have learned very little from the clergy sex abuse crisis.
This is quite alarming and depressing because the Church in North America has been dealing with issues regarding priests who abuse children and teenagers for at least 30, if not 40, years.
Catholics in Great Britain, Ireland and Australia have been facing this plague for almost as long. And those in the countries of northern Europe began reckoning more openly with abuse among the clerical ranks shortly after the turn of the millennium.
In the last several years, Catholics in the rest of the world have also been forced to admit that there are recurrences of priest sex abuse in their countries, too.
This includes places in the former Catholic bastions of Latin America and southern Europe, the largely homophobic continent of Africa and the mostly non-Christian expanse of Asia.
It seems like wherever 2 or 3 (hundred thousand) people are gathered in the name of Catholicism, there is clergy sexual abuse in their midst.
Sex makes Catholics go blind
As Catholics, we don't like to hear that. And we don't want to admit it, either. But what is worse is that many of us do not want to see – or maybe we're too blinded by culture and history to see – what sexual abuse is really all about.
It is not about sex.
I repeat, and ask you to pause and think about it for a moment. It is not about sex.
For most Catholics, this is probably even harder to hear, because we don't deal with sexual things very well. Our confused Church teachings on the subject tend to either make human sexuality an idol or (and, thankfully, this is less common today) something that's dirty.
Reactions to recent revelations that Jean Vanier sexually abused several women prove the point.
The French-Canadian layman, who was seen as something of a living saint for his extraordinary work with mentally disabled people, was not guilty of committing sins against the Sixth Commandment.
At least not principally, so it seems clear to me.
'Encroaching intimacy' and the false spiritualization of sex
The women say Vanier abused them sexually. But they also say he did this under the pretext of some sort of mystical spirituality.
As much as this was sexual abuse in the physical sense, it was even more a spiritual abuse of these women, in the way he used the things of God to manipulate or control them.
Jean Vanier used spirituality – what I have learned to call from my own painful experience "encroaching intimacy" – as a way to obtain what the other person would not or could not offer freely.
I've never heard any theologian or preacher speak of it this way, but I am convinced that this is what it means to violate the Second Commandment, "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain."
There are people in the Church, especially among the ordained ministers (deacons, priests and bishops) or even lay leaders with a certain charism (like Vanier), who do this in a variety of ways.
Using one's religious status
They use their position in the Church or their spiritual authority to satisfy their own self-centered needs or desires.
They do so – and often with little self awareness, it seems to me – by convincing people in the name of God to give them money, sex, honors, private information about others and all sorts of things.
Tele-evangelists who get rich peddling the so-called "prosperity Gospel" are the most obnoxious and blatant example of this. Certain scandal-stained Catholic religious orders that bilk widows and other wealthy people are no better.
We tend to look disapprovingly on them and rightly so.
Yet we fail to see how our own good priests and bishops – and other charismatic spiritual leaders – can fall prey to the same temptation to use their religious status (and, often unconsciously!) to feed their own personal needs.
And when I say "we", I mean all of us Catholics. We tend to be blinded to this reality. We don't want to see it.
In the name of the father
It is probably no coincidence that in a Church (and a society) that is male-dominated, the vast majority of those who sexually or spiritually take advantage of others are men.
The desire of men to manipulate or even abuse those who are weaker or under their authority – women, other men, teens or children – is probably also reinforced, even unwittingly, by the simple fact that men have always been able to do so in a patriarchal system like that of the Church.
Patriarchy and its first-born son, clericalism, have allowed men of God to violate the true meaning of the Second Commandment, probably from the days when the giants of our faith walked the earth.
They will continue to do so until women truly become equal members of the Church, equal to men at every level of decision-making authority and at every level of ministerial service.
We will not get to the root of the Church's crisis of abuse until that happens.