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Analysis: why the Catholic Church is mired in more child sex abuse claims

As allegations mount this week about sexual and physical abuse by monks at Fort Augustus Abbey School in the Highlands, it must appear there are endlessly-unfolding paedophile scandals in the Catholic Church.

FRESH CLAIMS: Fort Augustus Abbey School has been the focus of allegations of abuse but openness and consultation could help the Catholic Church in Scotland tackle such issues.
FRESH CLAIMS: Fort Augustus Abbey School has been the focus of allegations of abuse but openness and consultation could help the Catholic Church in Scotland tackle such issues.

This will not just distress Scotland's many Catholics themselves: it can encourage a sectarian prejudice which in parts of Scotland unfortunately remains tenacious.

Is there something about the Catholic Church which has encouraged this abuse, or is the answer much more complex? And can something positive come from all these revelations of cruelty and distress?

Here are some questions which people like myself, who have worked with sexual abuse for many years, might help to answer.

Is it Catholic doctrine - i.e. do particular religious beliefs cause sexual abuse?

Usually not: victims we have met come from many different religions, denominations and sects. Rather, aspects of values and structures often found in religious bodies have made it easier for a minority to abuse for years without being exposed or stopped.

These include special authority ("a holy man wouldn't do that"); special status ("this would so damage our reputation, we must protect it"); trust and deference by the faithful, which allow ready access to children; authoritarianism or hierarchy; and the value of obedience.

Does compulsory celibacy cause it?

No: celibacy doesn't cause child sexual abuse. But it brings many problems about discussing sex, sexuality, sexual problems or abuse openly. It contributes to secrecy and sexual ignorance, a sense of taboo around talking freely, double-life hypocrisy, and reluctance to seek help.

Most older priests were trained from youth in all-male settings, being prepared for celibacy. That increased the taboos around talking, including about abuse some students will themselves have suffered.

Did gay priests cause the abuse?

No. Gay men are no more likely to abuse children than straight men, and most have no sexual interest in children.

Did the traditional training of priests cause it?

Not caused but certainly contributed, I believe, which is also why most child victims are male. The closed world of seminaries from age 13 cut off knowledge of and contact with women, but was also an ideal setting for a minority of abusers against the young trainees.

It must be strongly stressed that most survivors of sexual abuse don't become abusers themselves. However a few do, especially those who become serial, repetitive abusers of young boys.

Reasons are not entirely clear, but appear to be a mix of endlessly acting-out without any resolution what was done to themselves as children; identifying with the aggressor; and having a particular reaction to serious trauma where empathy is lost. Most survivors in contrast keep a strong empathy with vulnerable children.

Why such physical brutality from some monks and nuns in institutions?

Closed institutions generally are vulnerable to brutality and while physical punishment remained, so did sadistic teachers and carers. But an added dimension is that communal, celibate religious life is very hard, unless freely chosen.

Most Catholics will recall some monks, nuns or priests who should not have been there or clearly did not wish to be, from an era of great pressure from families for a son or daughter to take that respected career.

It was also a haven for people with unresolved problems. If you don't want to be there, it's much more tempting to take out all your anger, frustration and sense of entrapment on vulnerable children or adults.

Will things change now?

It is no consolation to victims, and no cause at all for complacency, but there's less prospect of future physical and sexual abuse by Catholic religious for at least three reasons - in addition to what the Church hierarchy itself does to prevent it:

* Training for the priesthood now largely takes place after life in the community, university, or after a change in career - rather than through closed seminary life from age 13.

* Far fewer people enter the religious life without wanting to be there.

* And there are now safeguarding rules in all parishes, as there are in other churches, along with greater awareness and intolerance of abuse among parishioners, local authorities and media.

However, recruitment of priests is itself a huge problem. The deterrent effect of compulsory celibacy on recruits compared with other Christian denominations is a live issue.

Can these mounting scandals become a spur for change, at least here in Scotland?

Yes, but not without a shake-up since the Scottish Church has appeared particularly paralysed, inept and ungracious on this and related issues at responding through the hierarchy and via their Press Office.

They still reflect a dominant older generation of conservative senior hierarchy rooted in narrower West of Scotland religious traditions, which marginalised progressive voices, such as Father John Fitzsimmons, and appears unused to an openness and outreach they now require.

On issues about child abuse and adults who suffered a life-time of distress, it is particularly inappropriate for any organ-isation to have nothing to say.

Reversing the values which allowed abuse to continue is likewise important for any organisation which wishes finally to address it. Frankness, openness and consultation with nuns and clergy - including some outspoken anti-abuse voices from that clergy - and with parishioners, Church safeguarders and agencies working with abused children and adults about how to tackle past and present abuse would be important.

An overhaul of its Press and public relations would clear the Church's apparent mist of secrecy and fright. A public commitment to helping victims, and publicity of the support services the Church offers, would be valuable too.

Such moves would not merely announce commitment to making a permanent change, however painful. It would be likely to energise many enthusiastic people to work with them, who still wish to believe their faith is a reason for respect rather than shame.

Dr Sarah Nelson of Edinburgh University specialises in child sexual abuse and its effects

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