In the wake of the announcement of a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse, there has been a lot of talk about the sanctity of the Catholic confessional, and whether we should enforce mandatory reporting of child abuse disclosures that are made in this up to now completely confidential space. But while we debate the rights of children vs the sanctity of confession, are we exposing some of the attitudes that help to support and perpetuate the abuse we claim to abhor? What does our obsession with the confessional tell us about how the sexual abuse discussion is being framed?
Somewhere between a quarter and a third of all children will have endured some form of sexual assault before they turn 18. The complex trauma that can result from childhood abuse is arguably the major public health issue of our time. Knowing this, as we have for some time now, it’s incredible that we still believe that sexual abuse is rare, a terrible crime perpetrated by rogue priests or sick family members. As the terms for the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse are being set, our desire for these incidents to be seen as isolated acts of cruelty is constantly in evidence, and nowhere more clearly than in our horror at the sanctity of the confessional.
As a fair to middlingly good Catholic school girl at the Joan of Arc School for Girls in the 1970s, I confessed my sins regularly to a priest who magically appeared at predictable intervals behind a wooden lattice in a confessional that smelled vaguely of pine and frankincense. They were the only men besides the occasional father to enter our all-female enclave. We knew they were in charge even in absentia. We could feel the deferential way our usually powerful nuns treated them.
I would stand in line with the other girls in my itchy tartan uniform and wonder about what I would say. You had to say something; it was not possible that you hadn’t sinned in the time since your last confession. So we stood fidgeting, wondering what to confess to, thinking about lunch or who would control the monkey bars or our undone homework. In the end I usually resorted to my sister. I quietly recited many Hail Marys over the years in penance for crimes against my sister.
A number of the girls in my class, girls whose houses I visited, girls who over the years became as familiar to me as cousins, were being abused in their homes. Physically, emotionally, sexually. Some were victims of neglect, one of the harshest and most damaging forms of abuse. And all of us were either victims or witnesses to physical abuse from at least one teacher at the school. I find it hard to believe that any of us would have been naïve enough to imagine the confessional as a place of sanctuary and support.
We knew we were largely powerless at home and almost wholly powerless at school. We understood as children that bad things happened, and that to speak of them would bring us occasional sympathy, but also predictable ridicule, disbelief and temporary isolation. We had no sense that the confessional was a place any different from our homes, classrooms or churches. There was nothing special to us about disclosing a crime to someone whose role was to do little or nothing about it.
Abuse is not a taboo. Talking about it is. One of the reasons we have become so fixated on the ritual of the confessional, is that for many of us it’s a kind of culturally iconic fantasy space, where the myth of the possibility of individual change and restoration can live. The act of Catholic confession has become a symbol for all of our attempts to tell our stories that were never believed and all our efforts to change our terrible ways that were never challenged and supported. We imagine that somehow if we could shine a light into that hallowed darkness that we could finally see and been seen.
People who have been sexually abused as children and have spoken out have often been either ignored or ridiculed. One of my clients, who was horribly abused by her father and punished and shamed by her family when she tried to speak of it, was recently asked by her sister, who still denies the abuse, "What do we need to do to finally get you to come and celebrate Christmas with us?" All she could think of to answer was that she guessed they would all have to be different people.
The hopeless unfairness of having to hold the reality of the abuse herself in a family that denies it and a culture that sees it as unusual is perhaps the larger part of her pain. She knows she can’t hold it alone, and that the two of us holding it together is not enough either. She also carries the knowledge that the conviction of her father, were it ever to come about, will probably result in further alienation from her family. I believe she’s right; redress will require nothing less than for us all to become different people.
We will all have to become different people in order to end the sexual abuse of children. Only wholesale cultural change can transform the structures that perpetuate cruelty. Like the process of changing our attitudes to drink driving or hitting children, to be effective our focus must be wide, long and relentless.
Our preoccupation with the confessional betrays our desire to see this problem as simple, individually perpetrated and rectifiable. The fact is that we have all heard confessions about which we have done nothing. Mandatory reporting rules point to the existence of a culture in which people must be compelled in order to risk intervention on behalf of a child. Like us little Catholic girls lining up with our made up stories, we may be deliberately missing the point.
ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.
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