The article on Facebook stopped me in my tracks and forced me to read it a second time. It said that the Pope has forgiven more than four thousand catholic priests in Australia for their pedophilic acts.
As I was reading this I didn’t realize that my daughter had joined me. She asked on seeing me look at it intently, “Can he forgive so many people just like that so that everything done by them cannot be questioned any further and has lost all further meaning? And are they supposed to go on with their individual life blessing children thinking they are cleansed of all sins?”
“How do people in their parish feel knowing that such a large number of priests are pedophiles who have been absolved of their crimes and hearing them give sermons?”
“Also, who will dare to ask questions or even raise them after it has been given a closure, a burial by the Pope himself? Whoever does so will be told since the Pope himself has forgiven them, who has the sanctity to raise it anymore?”
“In this case, forgiveness masquerades as a burial of truth and at the same time, clemency for perpetrators, isn’t it?” she asked.
“Yes, you may say that.”
“One more thing,” she asked, “if pedophilia is a shame, what should the act of forgiving a pedophilic without taking into account the sufferings of the victims be called,” she asked.
“I wish I knew the answer.” I thought to myself.
“What about the victims in this case?”
“They are the nameless, faceless children who will now push it further in the recesses of their mind knowing that the representative of God himself has forgiven their perpetrators and they have no right to hold on to their grief.”
“Isn’t that leaving them scarred for life? Isn’t it showing compassion only for the perpetrators and not the victims? And isn’t it hypocritical for the church?” she asked. “Is he doing this because they are also his fellow priests?”
As a psychologist who has worked with trauma, forgiveness and recovery for over two decades, her questions had left me deeply jarred. They have been raised before too but today her asking it raised some memories that I realized I had buried.
“No,” I seemed to find my voice as I said, “By doing just that, he didn’t bring any closure for anyone but only prolonged the pain of the survivors and probably opened the wounds of many who read it.”
“Many more?” she asked surprised.
“Yes, all those who are victims of pedophilia and whose number run in millions around the world, when they read this article, would they not wonder now what are they supposed to do with the trauma they are secretly carrying inside them? Will they blame themselves when Pope himself has forgiven their perpetrators with a stroke of his hand? Won’t they wonder why are they still carrying inside their guilt? Will it not shame them to know that now it is they who are at wrong. When the representative of God himself has decided to forgive the crime of their perpetrators where does justice lie then? Would they now say that justice has been delivered because their perpetrators are forgiven without their knowledge with no one asking them?”
“There is no justice in this world. Whatever is there is very little,” I remember Ellie Wiesel replying when asked if twentieth century’s history can lead mankind to find answers to institutional crimes.
“Is he not then, the head of a religion by condoning it, aligning with perpetrators and their crimes? The priests are perpetrators in a legal sense, aren’t they if have committed this? And should he not have asked them to go and inform the police and the courts,” she asked.
Then on her own she sadly shook her head and said, “No one does that. Not even a representative of God himself on this earth.”
“Why is it that condoning the act of the perpetrator gets precedence over reaching out to the suffering of victims?” she asked. “Whoever did it did it in the name of God and in the process involved his name too.”
“This is the way I have known it to happen to victims of pedophilia where the perpetrator is a priest. The victims, as I know, have disturbing relationship to God after this. They find it difficult to pray to one whose representative betrayed them.”
“Have you come across any issue like that?” she asked.
“Quite a few.” I answered trying to stem the flow of conversation. “It is not something people like to listen to.”
“See Bollywood, Papa,” she said, “it presents the priest as a benevolent one who rescues the young hero, the unwed mother and keeps their secrets while he himself being a sacrificing paragon of virtue. Would they ever have the courage to bring the other side of reality when they know the figure runs in thousands? But what is the feeling you had while working in this field for over twenty years?”
“Helplessness,” I said.
“Perhaps it has been painful for me to be a witness and despite trying my best have felt helpless that I couldn’t do anything for the survivors. And this pardon by Pope tells me that most priests will choose this as an easy path from now on for the future.”
When my daughter left, I remembered two instances. Buried deep inside for over twenty years they brought memories of another time which felt as real as they were twenty years ago. Should I write about them, I thought. Maybe I should, at least some parts of it if it helps someone.
Robin (name changed) found it difficult to pray after he was abused by a priest when he was seven years old. Deeply effeminate and with a shrill voice, he had been bullied in school because of his ways and had turned a loner by the time he was twelve. His family, who were devout Catholics, got to know of it and told him to keep it a secret. They believed that he must have contributed to it. Seven is considered the age by which a child develops a faculty of reason and moral judgment and he was responsible for having created the thoughts by the devil that the holy father couldn’t resist, he was told by his parents. They forced him to ask for forgiveness for having been led into temptation. He had a nervous breakdown when he was thirty one and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Several months into therapy he had shared it with me, his abuse. It had happened within the precincts of the Church where the father would call him for a choir. It had started from fondling and then to different sexual encounters between them. Robin had been unable to say no because of the authority of the father.
Tragically enough for him, his life was cut short by AIDS. His last wish was that he should not be buried in his Church. Amongst the many memories I have of him was one where he told me that he had thrown a paperweight at the statue of Jesus Christ in his home when his father asked him to say ‘God loves you’.
At the individual level there are a number of stories that psychologists who have worked with child sexual abuse can share. But the deeper question that begets answer is why do so many priests turn perpetrators? And why do they evade scrutiny till one day the holy father brushes it all by forgiving them?
In the book ‘Sunflower’ Ellie Wiesel writes about a Nazi official who asks his victim, a Jew, to forgive him for his crimes where he had killed his family. The man is unable to forgive the Nazi official as he is unable to come to terms with his loss which he feels can never be filled up by a routine act of forgiving. Finally, through a torturous search of asking many a wise men he comes to terms with the answer of why he couldn’t do it rather than why he didn’t do it?
The answer as he discovers is not a straight path but one that lies in the domain of human vulnerability and weakness having to come to terms with the way our body and its desires have become our worst enemy. He discovers that his own religion can give him no worthwhile answer. None of the representatives helped him in his search. Finally, he discovers that human conscience and the personal tribulation that one goes through finally helps him find his goal.
The second example is more poignant. It was late one afternoon that I received a call from a woman with a foreign accent. She said she is from United States and identified herself as someone associated with a church. She said she had been given my number by a colleague who was earlier posted in India. She said that there is this young man, a young priest whom the church has posted in India and who is having problems to adjust in the new environment. Would I see him for therapy so that he adjusts better, she had asked.
Steven (name changed) came to see me with her reference. He had been in India for over a year now. Five years ago he had finished his theological studies and had been posted to look after a church in north India. He had been earlier posted in several European countries and then been to Australia before being posted in India. He was very suave and charming. His English was immaculate as he shared that he had lived in India as a child and now had asked to be posted here.
There were some adjustment problems as he shared about his work. He had been posted as an in- charge of an orphanage and a school for young boys. As the sessions went on, I discovered that he had no social relationships and spent virtually all his time with young boys.
It surprised me when it slipped out of him that he was learning about the child abuse laws in India. He said India is a great country but laws in India were very lax.
Like the above, I felt a number of oddities and discrepancies in his behavior and in his statements. There was also a sense of oddity in behavior that didn’t tally with a mature person I had associated with him after the description given of him.
It was in the third session when he said he felt drawn towards young boys. On my asking if he ever had sex with them, he stopped and then replied yes. He said he has always felt drawn towards young boys wherever he has worked and always wanted to be posted with young boys in large numbers. He said he can trust me to share this. It is off late that he is finding it difficult to hold back his attraction towards a young boy. With a sigh I understood it is possible that he had abused many young boys in the orphanage where he worked and now has been caught.
I had called up the place from where he came, spoken to the lady and asked that he be immediately taken off any activity that means being in proximity with other boys. It was of little use as I learnt that he had left India the night before and they said they did not know where he had gone.
But what was most shocking for me was when I spoke to the woman who had referred him. “You knowingly sent him. He was a pedophile and you referred him because India is a third world country with lax laws.”
“I won’t answer any question of yours,” saying this she had hung up on me.
I had asked another priest about it. “It is routine for some of the headquarters to post some of their pedophilic priests to third world countries where their activities are not so closely monitored and they try to show that they are in therapy too. Only in your case your confrontation made them withdraw.”
“And as the children are poor, abundant, illiterate no one complains?” I had asked.
“Well, you may say that but now they too are getting to be more careful.” He had shared that he personally knew three such priests who had abused children.
I had shared this with the police and they had done an enquiry. The officer had come back saying none of the children interviewed admitted to any sexual abuse. They were coached and we can’t investigate further unless the victim tells us of any abuse and we have to close it. The level of professional investigation they showed in that investigations pained me deeply but I could do nothing.
Why is it that so many priests turn to being child abusers and pedophiles? Considering an average priest abusing as many as a dozen children over a lifetime, the number 4444 as quoted in the report, the total number of children abused by them would be staggering. Sometimes I feel it is not only the priests but also the church as an institution which through such rituals promotes abuse. Their denial of the abuse till it breaks out, their protection of the abusers through a forgiveness that is a ritual devoid of any meaningful interaction will perhaps never be condoned even by the very God they represent.
Today, the world is getting more transparent. In India, we are becoming aware of many things we scarcely noticed earlier. The last seventy years have been a period of suppression of truth and distortion, all to side with the perpetrators. The present seems like a period of revelation. Like the 4444 priests many of whose victims and their stories will never be known, one will never get to know the victims. I pray they find peace for themselves.
The least that we can do today is to see that in the coming years, we see to it that justice belongs to victims and not to perpetrators and that the lost memory of those who suffered in silence and whose suffering the church chose to ignore is not desecrated at his altar.