Roman Polanski and clergy sexual abuse

Roman PolanskiWhen 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

Archbishop Tomasi has done nothing more than to set forth some indisputable facts about the sexual abuse of the young in modern society: (1) that most sexual abuse occurs in families, by family members, parents, siblings, relatives, close friends, etc., committed mainly by men but sometimes by women;

(2) at this level most sexual abuse of young people is heterosexual, that is to say, perpetrated by dominant men or boys against younger girls, but sometimes by women against boys;

(3) in terms of the Catholic clergy, about 85-90% of the offences have been directed against adolescent males and have, therefore, been of a homosexual nature (not, therefore, pedophilia but ephebophilia);

(4) media reportage of the criminal behaviour of Catholic clergy in this area has been discriminatory and disproportionate because social studies have shown that, of the various social-caring professions, Catholic clergy are one of the least likely groups to offend in this area;

(5) of the social organisations implicated in the contemporary crisis of the sexual exploitation of the young one of the leaders in recognising the crisis and in developing protocols to do something about it is the Catholic Church.

Fr Hamilton's concern for compassion is admirable but it must flow from the facts, aka, the truth of the matter.
Sylvester | 02 October 2009

Andy, I resonated with you when you spoke of accepting ‘the humiliation, (in weary resignation) as the price you pay even for indirect association with villainy’.

This happened to me just moments after reading your article this morning as I read of the arrest of the bishop of the Antigonish diocese, in Canada, for being in possession of child pornography.

Accepting there are differences in the intensity of response to the news of these terrible sins of separation, the result is that we all suffer at the hands of those who are in turn crippled and twisted into forms they themselves despise.

The communal shame and humiliation is just that, a common experience of the effects of being apart from the union for which we all thirst.

How do we deal with the result of all this destruction of trust? How do we look into faces that feel the shame and turn away because it is so intense? What is the message in all this turmoil? Could we be being called to dig deep, to each arrive at a clearer understanding of what it means to be integrated persons? Are we being invited to embrace and know the mystic within us before we walk others who weep without tears?

I sometimes find questions consoling because paradoxically they occasionally lift me beyond words.

Vic O'Callaghan | 02 October 2009

Christopher Hitchins, God bless him, made a telling point last night on Q and A: Polanski very recently and successfully, sued Vanity Fair (for whom Hitchins' writes) for a considerable sum, because the magazine dared to discuss his (Polanski's) conviction.

Rather than the gifted auteur protected by his fame, Polanski must take his medicine, unpleasant though it may be, because he committed the crime. As should any other, cleric or lay. It is by the Church's protection of her clerics that the crime of abuse is compounded, so that when victims appealed to Vicar Generals and Bishops, they were betrayed by those leaders who were more concerned about the structure and 'reputation' of the Church, than they were concerned for the health of the victims.

Nor is it certain that the lessons from the long struggle with abuse have been learned, or that abuse has been cleaned from the Church - in fact, it is the failure to address the lessons that perpetuates the structures that permit the continuation of abuse. After all, was it not precisely this culture of abuse that both Luther and Cranmer railed against?
David P | 02 October 2009

Actually, in most recent days, there's been a hardening of international opinion against Polanski getting away with his crime.As to whether "it's in the public interest" to pursue and publicise crimes committed long ago, Nazi killers are still pursued even into old age....and poor old Judas...despite his remorse,his return of the silver, and the taking of his own life..still remains a demon even within a 'forgiving' church.

While it's true that child sexual abuse occurs in families, by families,parents, siblings, relatives and close friends as well as clergy....the wider society does expect a higher standard from the clergy. Are they not promoted as other Christs?

As for Archbishop Tomasi's remarks that few Catholic priests had abused children and (worse) that there's as much abuse in other religious groups, he should be urged to offer his resignation.The selection of priests by priests to become 'princes' of the church remains a flawed process and needs to be restored to the original which included lay input.Presently,sadly, too many of the light bearers are beginning to view themselves as the light itself.Thus, caught in the light, they themselves become blinded to reality.
Brian Haill | 02 October 2009

Polanski was tried and found guilty. He left the country before he was sentenced. He deserves to be returned to America so he can serve his sentence..with extra time added for his absconding!
gwen thomas | 02 October 2009

I am humbled and uplifted by the courage and honesty of the article.
Humiliated as a member of the Catholic laity by some of the responses.

And a little puzzled that no one has made the point that in this case the victim -whose need for healing as the article points out should always take priority-has requested that the case should not be pursued.

Also (and I am sure Andrew Hamilton is painfully aware of this) I think no one ever had such high expectations of , or trust in, a film director as they did in their priest. Or their father/husband...Trust betrayed is a wound that realistically is almost impossible to heal other than through love.
Margaret | 02 October 2009

All appeals to mercy aside, it is in the interest of children and vulnerable adults to send a clear message:

You will not get away with it.

If you get away with it for 20 or 30 years you will none the less be brought to justice.

Therefore the ones who are inclined to tell a child that 'nobody will believe you' can be assured that the adult who knows better will speak up and will be believed.

Greg Bullough | 02 October 2009

I agree with Fr Andrew Hamilton's criticism of the Church regarding 'blame shifting'. Cardinal Pell attempted the same thing when, at Canada's WYD he commented that there have been more abortions of childen than sexual assaults against children by Catholic clergy and religious. Blame Shifting is another knife into the wounds for those who suffer.

Reflecting on Polanski though is a much more difficult issue. Touching on the complexities involved, Fr Andrew challenges us all to look into our own lives and 'see' why we have often turned to sin in a desparate way to make sense of what is happening in our own lives or the life of our world.

Such is our paradigm of sin and redemption, but not forgetting transformation as the third step, one must ask the question regarding Polanski. Has he lived a transformed life since that sin?

A report did surface about the woman who was the victim of Polanski's sin, it was reported she had forgiven him.

Is it too hard for our society to see her reported forgiveness as the best type of recompense/punishment/sentence for his sin/crime?

Probably the more important question for us all to ask is, if that is the case for Polanski, what perpetrators of sins against us do we need to forgive in order for there to be redemption and transformation?
Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 02 October 2009

As the mother of three young children, including two daughters close to the age of the girl Roman Polanski has admitted to victimizing, I am appalled that his talent as an artist, the complicity of the girl’s mother in the crime, or the amount of time passed might be seen by anyone as mitigating factors in evaluating the severity of his transgression. He drugged a child too young to consent to sex, and then he raped her.

As a Catholic, I have been sensitive to the ways reports of this crime compare with those involving Roman Catholic priests. An air of brutality attends discussion and analysis of the Polanski case -- on all sides. People who rape children are sick. We are called to e treat them in a humane way even if they cannot be healed, even in the course of punishing them.

We are called, as Father Hamilton would seem to suggest, to bring compassion to bear as we adjudicate, examine, and communicate about crimes like Roman Polanski’s..

The coterie of Polanski’s Hollywood defenders who champion his cause simply because he possesses a quotient of glamour they admire, fail to show proper compassion for the child who was violated.

Those who fail to pay any mind at all to the hardships Polanski has endured (which is not to say these hardships in any way exonerate him) -- losing family in the Holocaust, living in exile, losing a pregnant wife to a brutal murder – also fail to exhibit compassion for this gifted man whose life was perhaps ruined by his own compulsions.

When it comes to priests who rape, I feel sorry for their victims, but that sorrow does not foreclose upon feeling compassion for the accused. Perhaps I should even feel sorry for the bishops who, in the interest of Church politics, have protected and enabled priests who rape children.

Most of my sorrow goes to the woman Polanski raped as a child, yet I feel sorry for Polanski himself -- What man or woman wishes to be a predator? And I feel sorrow for his Hollywood defenders, who just seem to be blinded by the Klieg lights.

Michele Somerville | 02 October 2009

Agree with Margaret's comments - the victim's wishes should have been honoured. Also Polanski admitted guilt, which so many in the Church wouldn't, and has suffered the damage to his reputation for 30 years.
One reason the press had played up abuse in the Church is the hypocrisy. I went through 12 years of their ridiculous and cruel schooling - what they said is quite different from what they did, in so many cases.
Russell | 02 October 2009

Agree with Margaret's comments - the victim's wishes should have been honoured. Also Polanski admitted guilt, which so many in the Church wouldn't, and has suffered the damage to his reputation for 30 years.

One reason the press had played up abuse in the Church is the hypocrisy. I went through 12 years of their schooling - what they said is quite different from what they did, in so many cases.
Russell | 02 October 2009

As has been pointed out, Polanski will not be returning to the USA for trial, but for sentencing. No one disputes that he has not already had a fair trial. I would hope that justice will be tempered by mercy, and his sentence will take into account the time that has elapsed, the good things that Polanski may have done in the intervening period, the awful things that have happened to him, the forgiveness and wishes of his victim etc. But return for sentencing really must occur and justice seen to occur. The victim of course does not have to make any further public appearance or comment unless she wishes to. All of this should have happened years ago, and those officials in France and Switzerland who chose continually to look the other way and not do their duty, should themselves be condemned.
Eugene | 02 October 2009

Andrew, feel humiliation no more. Priests who understand are without price. Pray rather that the Bishops and Chancellors who verbally and psychologically abused victims achieve some sort of metanoia. The Church's greatest sin is the cover up. The original abuse, in many cases, became permanent damage after the victims and their supporters approached the 'Church'.

Lay people are guilty to the extent that they too do not see why an old case needs resolution. I know of a few cases where gaol was not an appropriate solution but what else do we have?
Elizabeth | 02 October 2009

Cardinal Pell's comment at WYD in Canada was not an attempt at blame-shifting but rather an attempt to put the issue in perspective. The sexual abuse of children is terrible but not as heinous as the murder of children, as in abortion. This is to state the obvious. As I mentioned in my comment above, it is important to get the facts right. While society is - rightly - agitated about child sex abuse it is callously indifferent to the killing of children. This was Pell's point.
Sylvester | 03 October 2009

Andrew Hamilton's woolly-headed thinking is exactly what the Catholic Church does not need at the moment. This anguished plea for compassion and understanding at the expense of blame is exactly the reason why the Church has already been accused of perpetrating an international conspiracy for the molestation of children, enabled by the Vatican.

Thank God for some straight talking from Archbishop Tomasi at long last. The Catholic Church really doesn't need another holy fool.
Nathan Socci | 03 October 2009

Christian voices were heard loud and clear not so long ago, complaining that the Jews, who wanted Naxi war criminals brought to justice so that they could be tried for crimes of unimaginable viciousness, lacked the compassionate and forgiving spirit of Christianity.

The spirit professed by that pious lot seems to have evaporated. No pleas for forgiveness are heard, even for quite trivial cases of sexual abuse which occurred a very long time ago.

It is often argued in such cases that the victim has suffered lasting or indeed life-long adversity because of what happened. For some claims of that kind one is tempted to ask: how tell the post hoc from the propter hoc?

I suspect that accusations against ministers of religion follow the money. One gets the impression that actions against a clergyman whose church is poor are rare.
Thomas Mautner | 04 October 2009

One can easily imagine how different the reaction would be among the mass media and Hollywood elites if we were dealing here, not with Mr Polanski, but with Fr Polanski. And we read the newspapers and watch the films that these hypocrites put out.
Sylvester | 05 October 2009

Three queries
One, we have not noticed much public sympathy for Polanski.On the contrary.

Two, what is 'less serious' child abuse?

Three,what is gained by comparing supposedly less and more serious crime anyway?
Bill & Lorna Hannan | 05 October 2009

"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"

I see in those words the source of miracles, miracles like Jesus worked and that we know of because the stories are public and told

Those words I so agree with. The healing stories told are part of overcoming the secrecy in which the abuse breeds and survives Telling the story is what I wish to do and need help to do so. What is it I have to do to have our healing stories told and heard?

Or are they just words?
john dallimore | 09 October 2009

I don't know that the response to Polanski and his sexual abuse of a young girl is being received sympathetically or with compassion but instead as a celebrity and as a significant person in the film industry. The fact that Polanski has spent his life running from the law for his behaviour some years speaks more than the fact that people want the extradition and charges to stop. Let there be some justice for the young girl at that time and for Mr Polanski in hearing his own story along with hers. I don't believe this should be turned into a witch hunt and that punishment or incarceration is the only solution. I don't know either that it should be turned into a public version of a cheap reality t.v. show where votes are taken or as a ridiculous public survey at the level of popular press. The public can be quick to decide much of the time on little fact and much assumption so I hope we don't think we can be judge and jury in any of these cases no matter who is involved. The comments by Tomasi may reflect some facts about sexual abuse that may at some level be valid but it's not a numbers game, nor is it purely a sexuality issue. The danger of his comments hinge on a way of minimising sexual abuse by the Church and Churches and be seen as a lesser problem than it is. Issues of sexual abuse are about power, trust, exploitation and honesty. Let compassion be our guide and not the search for excuses or concocted legitimisations.
sue | 09 October 2009

'What I want is mercy not sacrifice'Matt9:v13

'The quality of mercy is not straine'd_
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice
It blesseth him that gives and him that

Bernie Introna | 11 October 2009

I agree with Elizabeth. It is not just the perpetrators but the cover up and the systemic roots of the problem that is the key issue. Some commentators fail to see these issues or to give them any diagnostic weight. In any case, it is quite false to equate rates of abuse between the Catholic Church and other religious organisations. I have not seen any evidence for such a view, to the contrary.

A new report of abuses in Ireland is about to be published. News reports indicate it will again show a systemic pattern of hierarchy members failing to protect their flock, shifting abusers about but not separating them from their potential victims, denying, covering up, and further abusing victims who come forward by calling them liars etc. It seems that great authority, as with the scribes and pharisees. leads to great abuses, and to aiding and abetting abuse, both before and after the fact, because that may be what it should be called when you shift an abuser to a new parish and fail to prevent them from having further contact with potential victims.

But as one might expect, abuse of authority is not confined to matters of sexual abuse. Physical abuse and financially motivated abuse of children's rights are also revealed in a number of recent reports. The case against unconstrained authority being deployed well beyond matters of teaching in faith and morals is greatly strengthened by the correlation between sexual abuse and other forms of abuse.

This kind of thing is not unknown in Australia, but perhaps we have been spared to some small extent by the fact that the Church had not been able to achieve such complete regulatory capture of civil authorities in Australia as it did in Ireland.There is a case for separating the oversight of administrative functions of catholic organisations from the strictly religious functions of the church. Perhaps a catholic ombudsman is required, rather than a kind of unlimited medieval authority, both religious and secular.
Bob | 23 October 2009


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