“Yet as early as 309AD the Catholic Council of Elvira recorded the phenomenon of clergy abuse of minors. So, for at least seventeen centuries our church was supposedly totally unaware of paedophile recidivism and of the fact that clergy sexual abuse of children causes the deepest psychological (and therefore also spiritual) injuries – including severe mental illness and suicide.”
So wrote Sean O Conaill, “Shame over sexuality has blinded Church to sex abuse”,
I’m not convinced that the Council of Elvira proves anything other than some level of an awareness of a problem that has been part of the human story for millennia.

As far as I know other ancient writings originating outside the Catholic Church show a similar awareness of this problem throughout society.

But Sean’s question is a good one; why clerical abuse? I suspect if we can answer that question we’ll also go a long way to discovering why ‘lay’ men and women abuse children. In other words, I believe the problem is fundamentally one of basic human development whether learned, environmental, individual choice, biological or genetic, or a combination of some or all of these and other factors? Of course there may very well be factors specific to the clerical lifestyle, but I believe such factors merely compound a pre-existing human problem.

As a priest educated in the 1980’s (ordained 1991) there was no mention of child sexual abuse in my ‘formation’. It’s not that child sexual abuse was somehow a Church secret or denied; it’s that it just didn’t register on the minds of our teachers. We had some superb teachers, and I have no doubt that at least one of them would definitely have considered child sexual abuse extensively as part of our course-work if he had been aware of paedophile recidivism and the deep psychological injuries caused by such abuse.

So if there was awareness of the destructive effects of paedophilia as apposed to a vague awareness that there are ‘dirty old men’ in the world it had been largely lost by the time I was studying for the priesthood in the 1980s, or at the very least, it was the preserve of a few and wasn’t filtering down to the masses.

My knowledge of the clerical abuse scandal suggests that while we now know there was clearly some level of awareness among Church leaders of a problem, there was limited concrete knowledge of paedophile recidivism and the damage caused to victims.

My current thinking which is always open to re-evaluation suggests that the clerical abuse crisis represents the beginning of an evolutionary type jump forward in our understanding of child sexual abuse. The world is entering a new level of consciousness about an ancient human problem through the door of clerical abuse.

This position is supported by the evidence currently available which indicates that clerical abuse represents somewhere in the region of 5% of an overall human problem. It is also supported by the fact that the civil authorities are currently bringing forth substantial legislation (and a recent referendum) which are undoubtedly a response to revelations of child sexual abuse in recent decades. It begs the question; why didn’t the civil authorities bring forth such legislation 20, 40, 60, 80, 100 years ago? I think the answer is; because 20 years ago we hadn’t reached the necessary collective point of awareness. We just hadn’t reached sufficient knowledge. We’re reaching that point now and it’s largely through the door of clerical abuse that the world is now entering this new level of human consciousness. However, beyond the door is an unknown – but I think most of us fear it’s a mirror image of the dynamics of clerical abuse. Study the Savile case as it unfolds; even at this early stage the same essential pattern is already evident.

Finally, surely you will agree that it is stretching human reason to argue that our current level of awareness already existed in 309AD. Taken to its logical conclusion such an argument goes a good way to denying the development of human knowledge – at least in this particular area!

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