I’m a survivor of sexual abuse.
It’s a hot topic at the moment.
I have not suffered any sexual abuse at the hands of the catholic church. I was an altar boy, I attended the catholic Scout Group, I went to St Mary’s primary school and Monivae College secondary school, I was for many years an active member of St Mary’s catholic parish in Hamilton. In all those years I was never subjected to any thing of a sexual nature by any of those involved in the church.
There was talk at school in the 70’s of priests or brothers being ‘poofters’ and messing around with some of the boarders (I was a day student), there was nothing ever concrete that I recall. Every now and then a religious type would disappear quickly and rumours would abound. It wasn’t considered unusual.
The sexual abuse I suffered happened inside my very catholic family. The church did have a role in how it affected me for many years. Let me tell you how.
During a recent media conference, Cardinal George Pell, who we are supposed to refer to as His Eminence, said that a priest should never reveal what is said to them during confession. As the sinful person repenting to the priest you can say anything you like, admit whatever you like, murder, theft, bashing and raping of children, and the priest will never mention that again to anyone.
Confession, which later became known as reconciliation, is a sacrament that the catholics bestow upon the faithful. It’s the process of declaring your sins to god and having them forgiven and then doing some penance (punishment). Penance was often saying some prayers, 10 hail marys or a couple of our fathers. If the sin was really bad then the whole fucking rosary.
During training before making your first confession, the church takes the young person, quite often between 8 and 10, and instructs them on how sin works, how great god is to forgive us those sins and how to beg for that forgiveness. Sister Rose was my tutor. She took us grade 3 students (it may have been grade 4, I don’t know) and put the fear of god and eternal damnation into us. Dying with a sin on your soul would surely see you cast into the pits of hell to burn for all eternity. Something as simple as chewing gum in class could see you in the company of the devil forever. I wonder what happened to Paul Kelly, perhaps god forgave him.
There’s a euphoric feeling after confessing. The church makes sure you feel it. It’s all set up that way. You go to church on a Saturday morning, Dad would take us, the confessional boxes are at the back of the church, you sit in the pew, or mostly kneel, praying to god or thinking about how to steal your brother’s records to tape them, and behind you people shuffle along the pews into the confessional only to emerge a few minutes later looking relieved. There’s lots of sideways scooting along polished pews and craning of necks to see how many people are before you.
The confessional box is a wooden box with two doors. You step into your side and it’s dark. There’s a kneeler, so you kneel. The priest is on the other side sitting quite comfortably probably with the transistor radio plugged into his ear listening for the scratchings for the races. There is a wall between you and a small window covered in mesh, so you can’t really see him and he probably can’t really see you. He flings open the little window, mutters some words in Latin, although it may have been English, and you start with the magic words.
“Bless me father for I have sinned, it has been a month since my last confession and…”
“That’s a long time and a lot of sinning, you need to come weekly to keep your soul clean”
“..and my sins are… lying, stealing, picking on my little brother, loosing my temper, being rude”
“Is that all?”
“How many times did you lie?”
“I don’t know, I lied to mum about breaking a glass”
“I see, and what did you steal?”
“Some chewing gum from the shop”
“And how where you rude?”
“I was rude with my brother”
“And how many times do you lose your temper?”
“All the time, Father”
“Have you missed church?”
“So you’ve been every Sunday?”
“God is pleased, I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the father and of the son and of the holy spirit. For your penance say one our father and ten hail marys. Say the act of contrition”
“Oh my god, I am very sorry that I have sinned against you, because you are so good and with your help I will not sin again”
“Bless you my son, go and sin no more”
Then there’s a few amens or waving of hands as you struggle to stand up in the small box, fiddle with the door knob and walk out into the light. That’s when the feeling of happiness happens, you’ve just bared your 10-year-old soul to a grumpy old man who said some magic words and all has been forgiven. You promise yourself to never sin again, that normally lasts at least until the last prayer.
Remember, I’m 10, I lack the ability to properly express myself. I don’t even know the right words to describe the abuse. The priest is also unprepared for the real story coming from the other side of the box. Here’s a kid who says that he is rude with his brother and loses his temper all the time. Did that set your alarm bells ringing? At least to ask a few more questions or perhaps raise the issue with the child’s parents.
Hindsight is always a wonderful thing, I can see now as an adult that sticking a kid in a dark box and telling him to tell god his most deep secrets is foolhardy. At the very least the person on the other side of the mesh has a duty of care to ensure the well-being of the child. I doubt the priest was even aware of the trauma going on in my life, he certainly had no ability to understand the impact of what being rude means.
If I had disclosed the true nature of being rude the priest would have done nothing, you see the secrecy surrounding the confession is absolute. While the church continues to hide behind that charade young children are being hurt.
It’s the same reason that I object to christians as school chaplains, they’re not counsellors, they’re not qualified to listen to a child bare their soul.
The continued policy of the catholic church to protect their priests by claiming some sort of religious right to withhold important information has to stop.
It’s rot, absolute bullshit, to say that the confessional is sacred. It’s not.
How much different my life would have been if the caring priest had of asked what I meant by being rude. How much better would it have been if he’d had a quiet word to my parents. How much better if he’d alerted an appropriate counsellor to have a chat with me. How much better if the church had prepared the priest to handle such disclosures appropriately.
For years and years I imagined every time I sinned a black mark being on my soul. The soul to me was a round disk inside my body, and every time I sinned it was like taking a pencil and blacking out a section. In my mind I could see my soul and just how black it was.
Walking out of the confessional was like taking an eraser to the soul and making it sparkling again. Being rude was something I thought was my fault because I was admitting the sin, and not being told I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but I was being forgiven.
I think I had it easy. As traumatic as my experience was I listen to the hurt of those that have been raped and abused by people in the positions of power and I consider myself lucky.
I’ve long ago dealt with the sexual abuse in my life, and I have fully addressed the abuse with the abuser. My heart goes out to those who now have to struggle with organisations that seek to avoid their responsibilities.
I believe it’s incumbent upon us to support and encourage them.
The royal commission into child sexual abuse is long overdue. The likes of the catholic church and other religious establishments to hold special privileges in our democratic state has passed. They should be held accountable to the full extent of the law and not be permitted to avoid examination or responsibility based on some vague notion that they are somehow only responsible to a deity that would seem to have condoned their shocking behaviour and done nothing to protect innocent children for the vile nasty children rapist and abusers.