Best of 2009: Roman Polanski and clergy sexual abuse

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Roman PolanskiFirst published October 2009

When I see media headlines about child abuse, my response is like that of a family I know, where one of the siblings is a publicly notorious criminal. When his crimes or even similar ones receive publicity, they feel humiliated. They accept the humiliation, as the price you pay even for indirect association with villainy, but they do not welcome it.

That is how I, as a priest and so part of a group that has been identified with the abuse of children, react when there are more headlines about abuse: in weary resignation. If you do the crime, you — and those associated with you — do the time. I simply hope that the news item that reminds me of my humiliation might help someone, somewhere, who has been abused.

So it was in the last few days that I read of the reaction to Roman Polanski's detention and possible extradition to the United States to face an old charge of sexual abuse of a minor.

As the Polanski case was unfolding this week, Vatican United Nations Observer Archbishop Silvano Tomasi was reported to have claimed that few Catholic priests had abused children, that these were mainly gay, that there was as much abuse in other religious groups as there was among Catholics, that the vast majority of children were abused by relatives, and that there was as much abuse of children in other churches as by Catholic clergy.

Furthermore, he said, the Catholic Church had put its house in order. The implication was that the focus on child abuse in the Catholic Church was disproportionate and discriminatory.

Assuming the Vatican official was rightly reported (something not to be taken for granted), I believe he missed all the things that matter. The consistent spirit of anything we write about sexual abuse must surely be one of compassion for the human beings who are affected by it. Those who are abused, primarily, but then those who are wounded through their relationships with the victims of abuse: their family, friends, wives, husbands, children and — if our compassion stretches so far — the abusers, so often themselves once victims of abuse.

They are the people who matter, and what matters is that they are recognised and that others do not suffer as they did. This must be the focus of those who speak on behalf of groups among whom abuse has taken place.

The focus of Archbishop Tomasi's reported remarks was not on the human reality of abuse, nor on its direct and indirect victims. The comments seemed directed at saving the reputation of the Church as a public institution. And their spirit was less one of compassion than one of judgment. They asked who was to blame for abuse, both within the ranks of Catholic clergy and in the wider world.

It was an exercise in the transfer of blame, and one potentially damaging to priests who are homosexual. Certainly the remarks did not highlight what matters — the humanity of those affected, and compassion.

Nor are they likely to be effective. I doubt whether Catholics by their own words can redress the damage done to their reputation or establish that they have set their house in order. The only effective words will be spoken by those whose lives have been hurt by abuse. When they speak in gratitude and affection for the way in which they have been heard, compassionately received and healed by representative Catholics, their words will count.

All that said, the arguments made by Archbishop Tomasi are important, provided our focus remains on attending to the victims of abuse, and not on transferring blame. To understand abuse and the experience of those who have been abused we must understand its extent and causes.

Tomasi's own account does not seem internally coherent. If he is right in claiming that abuse is common in many churches and religious groups, and most common in families, it seems highly unlikely that the sexual orientation of abusers is a determining factor. Abuse is likely to have more to do with abusive experience, sexual immaturity and with attitudes to power. But these are all opinions that call for methodical investigation.

His criticism of the focus on the Catholic Church also raises interesting questions. But the central question is not about how fair media coverage has been to the Catholic Church, but how helpful it is to those intimately and indirectly affected by abuse.

In my opinion the public reporting of abuse committed by religious officials has been necessary and helpful in changing attitudes to the abuse of children. I am less convinced, however, that the focus on monsters and punishment, and the repetitive treatment of abuse exposed and dealt with in the courts is helpful. It focuses on blame rather than on compassion, and hinders understanding.

In this respect the story of Polanski is telling. The case for his avoiding extradition has generally received a sympathetic hearing despite the seriousness of his admitted crime. The same sympathy is not generally shown to religious officials who have been tried for less serious acts committed just as many years ago.

I do not say this to complain about double standards, still less to argue that Polanski should be pardoned. What is significant in his case is that there is space to ask difficult questions about whether it is in the public interest to pursue and publicise crimes committed long ago. But the public conversation about sexual abuse in churches has been focused on blame and punishment and had been more resistant to inquiry.

The compassionate are often criticised for being out of touch with reality. In these questions, as elsewhere, they may actually be more in touch than their critics with what matters.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. Image provided by Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Roman Polanski, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, child abuse, Catholic Church

 

 

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Existing comments

Oh Andrew, please! methinks you need to take a few steps back and rethink.
Bev Smith | 14 January 2010


The Vatican spokesman is typical of its attitude to the sexual abuse of children and adults by clergy. To say that FEW children have been abused by clergy is an absolute lie. We in English language countries hear only what lies on the tip of the iceberg. In traditional Catholic countries it is HUGE. But most of the population there is peasant type and wouldn't know how to complain, and if they did, in some communities their lives and certainly jobs would be in danger if they spoke out against the clergy. And don't think this doesn't occur in Australia. We have many examples of Catholic policemen being told by a superior who is also Catholic to shut up about such abuse. Just look at the history of the Ballarat diocese.
philip herringer | 14 January 2010


Sexual abuse of children is against the law in this country and should be reported to the police and investigated. I have real concerns when it is investigated by organisations who can pay the equivalent of hush money to the victims. That is interfering with the course of justice and is in itself a crime.
Anne Keane | 14 January 2010


Please, Andrew. A rethink is necessary. From those to whom much is given, much is demanded. The Polanski analogy is not relevant. The Tomasi comments are par for the Vatican course.
Barry Nolan | 15 January 2010


Forgiveness is a necessary quality for the response to crime of any sort. I heard the woman Minister for Zimbabwe who has the task of reconciling people who have tortured others to live in peace with those others and vice versa. The necessary ingredient is the apology for the act by the perpetrator of the crime.

People change, none of us is the same person we were 30 years ago. A momentary aberration is not the same as a serial offender's planned acts. Remember Christ's admonition:"Judge not etc...."
jack kennedy | 15 January 2010


Andrew raises some very valid points. Some sexual abusers are very dangeropus, predatory repeat offenders from whom society needs long-term protection; but not all are. Some can be rehabilitated, but rehabilitation is not helped by treating them as monsters and devils. I have read a lot over the years about abuse by Catholic clergy and (in particular) the Christian Brothers; but if they should not be allowed to "get away with it", why should a film director? P's offence was not under-age consensual sexual intercourse: he drugged a girl under the age of consent who was very reluctant to get involved. This was rape by any fair legal definition.
Nigel Sinnott | 19 January 2010


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