The Danger of Conflating Sexual Abuse With Abuse of Power

COMMENTARY: The February summit of bishops at the Vatican signaled a turning point in how the Church is framing sexual abuse.

(photo: Unsplash)

The organizers of the recent sexual-abuse summit at the Vatican expressed satisfaction that the unprecedented meeting of bishops from around the world constituted an important turning point.

That is to be understood in terms of effecting a change of mindset that will produce concrete reforms. Yet the summit may also mark a turning point in how sexual abuse itself is understood in the Church — with a shift away from sex itself toward abuse of power.

While some countries, like Canada and the United States, have had protocols for handling allegations and prevention measures in place for quite some time, the summit made it clear that all local Churches are to have those in place. One concrete result from the summit is that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will produce a vademecum (guidebook) that all bishops can follow for handling allegations of sexual abuse against clergy.

Those kinds of measures garnered most attention. But perhaps more important was a shift in how the Church understands the phenomenon of clerical sexual abuse itself.

The summit, in its preparation and its execution, took pains to downplay the sexual aspect of sexual abuse and to emphasize the abuse aspect, namely the abuse of power.

“It is difficult to grasp the phenomenon of the sexual abuse of minors without considering power, since it is always the result of an abuse of power, an exploitation of the inferiority and vulnerability of the abused, which makes possible the manipulation of their conscience and of their psychological and physical weakness,” Pope Francis said in his closing address to the summit. “The abuse of power is likewise present in the other forms of abuse affecting almost 85 million children, forgotten by everyone: child soldiers, child prostitutes, starving children, children kidnapped and often victimized by the horrid commerce of human organs or enslaved, child victims of war, refugee children, aborted children and so many others.”

Sexual abuse of minors is to be understood as analogous to starving children and abortion, all an “idolatrous sacrifice of children to the god of power, money, pride and arrogance.”

The emphasis on power is significant for three reasons.

First, it shifts the focus of attention away from sexual morality and the virtue of chastity.

In the preparations for the summit, it was clear that three topics were completely off the table: priestly celibacy, homosexuality in the priesthood, and sexual misconduct with adults. That was partly tactical. It was thought that a more narrowly focused meeting would be more likely to achieve the “concrete” actions that Pope Francis demanded at the summit’s outset.

But the shift away from the sexual dimension of sexual abuse also means that an affirmation of the traditional Catholic sexual ethic — on fornication, adultery, contraception and homosexual acts — can be avoided.

An emphasis on power can put the Church in a less conflictual position with secular society; it is less controversial to speak of sexual abuse as of a piece with child trafficking, rather than to question the effect of liberal sexual mores infiltrating the priesthood.

Second, the emphasis on power recasts the Church’s analysis on a more worldly basis.

There can be no doubt that power is related to sexual abuse; the weak do not molest the strong, the subordinate does not intimidate the superior. But that is also true of any other kind of harassment or exploitation or even simply rude or nasty behavior; it is the powerful who afflict the less powerful.

For decades now, there has been an effort in culturally influential quarters to hold that sexual abuse — including rape — is not about sex, but about power. This has largely been driven by a reluctance to call any sexual behavior into question, or to apply any standard of morality to it, save for that of consent.

Lack of consent, then, becomes the critical factor, and those who are capable of forcing themselves upon others against their will possess, by definition, some kind of power that is abused.

The sexual-abuse summit went a considerable way toward embracing that line of thinking. Indeed, in the Holy Father’s concluding address, he quoted at length from secular sources, such as UNICEF and the World Health Organization, going so far in the latter case as to adopt its analytical framework for reform.

The shift from chastity toward authority, from sexual morality to power dynamics, constitutes a shift toward a Church that thinks in more worldly categories.

Third, there is a potential danger of unintended consequences in the new emphasis on abuse of power.

It can be argued that almost anything a priest does as a priest involves his power as a priest, or his office. A pastor who publicly insults teachers in the parish school is abusing his authority over them, taking advantage of his clerical status to protect him from the proper consequences of nasty behavior. He should be corrected and even punished for such behavior.

Canon law has severe penalties for priests who violate the Sixth Commandment — chastity. It also calls for specific penalties for clerics who abuse their office — an abuse of power. But if the latter category is emphasized in punishing the former — sexual abuse is punished as an abuse of power — what, then, happens in cases where there is an abuse of power that is not sexual? Does the priest who is nasty to the parish staff have to be punished at the same level as the more severe penalties administered to sexual abusers?

Abuse of power is a much broader category than sexual abuse. In conflating the two, there is a danger that all abuse of power is treated at the level of sexual abuse. And because almost all behavior by priests could be related to their status — their “power” — it might have the effect of ratcheting up all priestly discipline toward the removal from ministry now mandated for credible allegations of sexual abuse.

Abuse of power requires a proper response, as does sexual abuse. They are related, but distinct. For proper priestly discipline to be administered, that distinction needs to be observed.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

Which Way Is Heaven?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s mystic west was inspired by the legendary voyage of St. Brendan, who sailed on a quest for a Paradise in the midst and mists of the ocean.