Ireland needs courage to change cycle of abuse
The child abuse inquiry has shown the Catholic Church must face up to its long history of paedophiliia
Vilified for saying it takes "courage" for Irish Catholic clergy involved in child abuse to "face the facts from their past", the new Archbishop of Westminster , the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, may have unwittingly put his finger on the heart of the problem.
Courage to face the facts seems to have been particularly lacking in the institutions in which abuse remained unchecked and in the deals made throughout the institutional network to protect clergy guilty of abuse. The Christian Brothers, responsible for running the largest number of institutions, only agreed to cooperate in the investigation and to give evidence before the Ryan inquiry in exchange for anonymity of the accused clerics.
People from more than 250 church-run institutions gave evidence. Out of these, Judge Sean Ryan, who chaired the inquiry that began nine years ago, praised one order, the Rosminians, for their attempt to understand the abuses that had occurred. Courage may well be what is needed but it does seem to be in short supply.
The Ryan commission has uncovered a history of widespread child abuse within the industrial schools, orphanages, reformatories and hostels caring for children in Ireland from the 1930s until their closure in the 90s, following the election of Mary Robinson as President and emerging concern over the treatment of children throughout the care system.
The abuses against children were often tacitly acknowledged within local communities. In her novel, In the Forest, Edna O'Brian's central character is a young boy who has gone from one harsh institution to the next, beaten and sexually abused by the priests and boys alike, with the implication that he has become criminally insane as a result.
Victims found they could retaliate one way - by identifying with their abusers
The extent and severity of the abuse that has been discovered in so many of these institutions has shocked everyone. The girls seemed to have been primarily subjected to beatings and emotional humiliations that undermined their self-esteem. The boys were subject to sexual abuse and paedophilia by priests who were meant to care for them.
These children were vulnerable and impotent, without any protective adult they could turn to. If they ran away from their institution - an option that was usually unsuccessful - they incurred even greater punishment when they were caught and brought back.
There was one way they could retaliate - by becoming passive victims while at the same time identifying with their abusers. Some boys who were bullied and abused tried to gain an illusion of control over their world by themselves becoming bullies and abusers of the boys who were younger and weaker than them. This is a good example of the way in which a culture of institutional corruption spreads and is perpetuated. It is something that happens throughout most penal systems - as well as some of Britain's public schools.
Another familiar technique for survival is well known as the Stockholm syndrome, named after an incident in Sweden in 1973 in which the hostages of a bank robbery became emotionally attached to their captors to the point of defending them after they were released from their six-day ordeal.
Peversely, the paedophile attempts to both attack and comfort the child
In such a situation a sado-masochistic bond is formed in which the victim derives what is perceived to be love from the sadistic treatment of his perpetrator. The victim's masochism enables him to feel powerful in his complete subjugation of himself to an all powerful entity. No individual will exists, no basic needs exist, and pain is transcended through self-loathing and identification with the aggressor. The victim seeks fusion with the omnipotent sadist and colludes unconsciously with the attack as an act of contempt for his weakness and impotence.
Victims suffer enormous shame when their abuse is disclosed because of their unconscious guilt. The sadist, on the other hand, even as he attacks the weakness and vulnerability of the victim, he is also attacking these characteristics in himself, as represented by the victim. The two form a kind of folie a deux in which a hateful attachment is confused with love.
This perverse dynamic becomes even more complex and powerful in the case of paedophilia. The paedophile is compelled to choose a child as a sexual partner because he identifies profoundly with the child – his sexual behaviour is both an attack on the vulnerability of the child that makes the paedophile feel powerful and it is an attempt to love and comfort the child who is at the same time hated.
The paedophile has often been the victim of sexual abuse himself and has failed to develop psychologically and sexually beyond the point of pre-adolescence. The compulsive behaviour of the paedophile is perhaps so deeply abhorred by society because it represents a madness that confuses love and hate, leaving an indelible mark on the child that will taint it for life.
Institutions must recognise that adults’ power over children can be abused
Institutions become corrupt and perverse from the top down. They need a good leader to serve as a father who protects boundaries, sets limits and acknowledges the power adults have over children and how this power can be abused.
These parameters establish a safe framework within which institutional life can function properly. A leader who has not experienced a protective father in his own development will be considerably handicapped in performing this role. He may well turn a blind eye to corruption within the institution or, worse yet, he may become complicit in cultivating it.
The tragic history of so many of the institutions under scrutiny in Ireland reflects more than anything else the degree to which the priests and nuns running them had been irreparably damaged from their own emotional abuse. As the Archbishop of Westminster so rightly said, courage is needed to be able to accept responsibility for the abuses that some of the clergy have committed. He might also have added that courage is needed by many of those concerned to face their own histories as victims of abuse. ·
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