Victims of Power Abuse
The last few years have seen a new willingness on the part of the public at large to admit the unpleasant fact that the sexual abuse of children is widespread throughout the Western world. In the past, such abuse tended to be swept under the carpet; it was something nobody spoke about, except in private and in hushed tones. Few such incidents were ever reported in the press. Yet we now realize that such abuse has undoubtedly occurred far more often than any decent person could contemplate. Amazingly, abusers come in all shapes and sizes. They wear the white coat of the doctor, the suit of the psychiatrist, have the authority of the teacher, the uniform of the Scout leader - and the garb of the clergyman.
When one hears the term power, several images may spring to mind; many of these images involve a relationship between two parties; for example the teacher-student relationship, the employer-employee relationship, and the parent-child relationship to name a few. It is important at this stage to define power so that it is clearly understood throughout this paper what is being implied about the abuse of power. Power is defined as the possession of control, authority, or influence over others. (Merriam-Websters Collegiate Dictionary, 2000)
Members of the Christian clergy hold special positions in Western societies. The privileged social positions and status accorded to these men conferred enormous social power to them. To be fair, most male members of the Christian clergy remained true to their ordination vows. A minority of these men, however, abused the moral authority and the social power. Among the more heinous of such abuses were those involving the sexual abuse and exploitation of children and adolescents in their congregations and parishes, or who were under their supervision or care in church operated residential care facilities, or schools.
The intention of this paper is to discuss the existence of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and to highlight this as an abuse of power. An analysis of the victims of this abuse will take place and lead to a set of strategies being formulated for providing support for these victims.
Anttila (1974) stated that, for decades the focus had been on offenders, rather than victims within the criminal justice system. The term victimology actually first appeared in legal literature in 1947, and the First International Symposium on Victimology was held in 1973. This paved the way for systems of compensations for victims of crime. (Drapkin & Viano, 1974) The United Nations (1985) became involved with the concept of victim protection in the 1980’s and since then the status of the victim has taken more of a centre stage. According to Van Dijk, (1997) the World Society of Victimology defines victimology as:
The scientific study of the extent, nature and causes of criminal victimisation, its consequences for the persons involved and the reactions thereto by society, in particular the police and the criminal justice system as well as voluntary workers and professional helpers. (P3)
The Australian media over the past two decades has been rife with reports of sexual abuse perpetrated against children and adolescents by male members of the Christian clergy. Most of the incidents so reported evolved into court trials in which the accused members of the clergy ever more frequently have been convicted. Male members of the Christian clergy were prominent among the perpetrators in 2,852 surveys of sexual assault victims compiled in Australia in the early 1990s (Easteal, 1994). Rather than cite a litany of such cases, sample cases are cited to illustrate the nature of the problem.
The first illustration is the case of Leo Daniel Wright, A Roman Catholic parish priest who was convicted in Brisbane in 1994 of 17 counts of indecency with children. There were 13 counts of indecent treatment of girls under the age of 16, three counts of gross indecency with a boy under the age of 16, and one count of indecent assault on a young Aboriginal woman who was approximately 18 years old. The 16 offences involving children under the age of 16 occurred from January 1969 to December 1970, at a time when the maximum penalty for the offence was imprisonment for 5 years. The offence committed against the 18 year old occurred in several incidents from January to July 1977 (Court of Appeal, Supreme Court of Queensland, 1996).
Most of the incidents charged in the first 16 counts involved the applicant being masturbated manually by the girl concerned. On some occasions he kissed the girls in a passionate and lascivious manner. Once or twice he placed his hand on or around the area of the complainant’s vagina. Sometimes he rubbed his erect penis against their bodies. The complainant in counts 14 to 16 was an altar boy, who was required to masturbate the applicant on three separate occasions. The complainant in count 17, who was the 18 year old woman, was taken into a bedroom in the house where she lived and pulled on to the bed, where the assailant raped her (Court of Appeal, Supreme Court of Queensland, 1996)
Another case in March 1994, involved the Roman Catholic Church apologizing to then 33-year-old Keren Handley in Queensland, a woman who had been sexually abused as a 12-year-old girl by a priest. The Dominican Order agreed to pay the costs of counselling for the woman. Ms Handley complained that during her high school years, she had tried to tell someone what had happened to her, but there was no response, and her mother refused to believe that a priest had sexually abused her.
The priest, Dominic Fitzmaurice, assaulted the girl while she was a student at the St Martin’s Girls Primary School in Karina in 1972. Father Fitzmaurice had a reputation for fondling the pupils’ breasts at the school, so much so that he became known as "The Groper." (Coddington, 1997) Such was the perceived power of Father Fitzmaurice, it appeared that whatever disgrace was conducted on his victims, it was never to be spoken about and just accepted.
In Keren Handley’s case, the groping had progressed to rape, but this was kept quiet until 1994. As Father Fitzmaurice died in Ireland in 1975, he never faced the allegations. The Church did not deny the allegations, however they did not want to accept responsibility for the priest’s actions either, but thought that some financial help may be of assistance, in order that Keren "coped with the painful memory."
The sexual abuse metered out by Catholic Priests’ to their young charges over the past 50 years has been viewed as one of the most blatant and horrific abuses of power. Much media attention has been given to the crimes, and also to the devastating affects on the victims. As a result, many victims in Australia and overseas are voicing their anger instead of holding back, as was the case many years ago, they are now demanding apologies from their abusers, and the employers of their abusers, and are seeking compensation and continuing practical support from government welfare agencies and support groups.
The media over the past decade have begun to play a role in allowing victims to air their grievances over past crimes of which they have suffered. Laster and Erez (2000) call this the "‘suffer and tell’ genre of infotainment." American daytime television is a prime example, with a huge influx of television presenters such as Oprah Winfrey, Ricki Lake, Sally Jessy Raphael and numerous others. The Donahue Show, over a long period featured interviews with people who had been abused as children by Catholic priests. It should be noted that Phil Donahue is himself a Catholic, and was educated in the Catholic school system and that most of his guests were still practising Catholics, in spite of all they went through. But the dismay and hurt evident in so many lives could not be hidden, even by good Catholics. This is in complete contrast to decades ago when reports of this abuse were met with disbelief even by the parents of the victims. Keren Handley, as mentioned earlier, was a prime example, being abused and then having her cries for help muffled by a devout catholic mother who refused to believe that such an offence could take place within the sanctity of the Catholic Church. (Coddington, 1997)
With people being generally more liberal minded these days, talk shows are playing a key role in helping victims to reach an almost cathartic state by being able to take on the role of victim publicly, and then find support with other victims who are inspired and may otherwise have suffered in silence. These modern day victims take on the victim status in order to pack a political punch, to try and bring about change so that future victims can seek solace and dissolve any feelings of self-doubt or worthlessness. It is interesting to note that these victims of the abuse of power by priests have been accepted as "legitimate" victims in the public eye. Although some victims have been seen to "overstay their welcome" and in some cases are completely rejected as victims by the public (i.e. Aboriginals and land rights) these victims at the hands of the priests have not only been accepted as victims but also listened to and sympathized with. This may be attributed to the fact that the offences took place when the victims were children, at a time when they were very vulnerable, and trusting.
What is known about the victims of this abuse?
The idea of a victim seeking victim status and receiving recompense to counterbalance the crime carried out against them dates back to 1780 BCE. Some of the oldest legal sources known refer to victims of crime, as well as to the offender and to punishment. Frequently, some form of redress (restitution, compensation) was envisaged for the victim, either in money or through the granting of certain rights or benefits that the victim could not have acquired had he not have been the victim of a particular act.
According to Nils Christie (cited in Fattah, 1986) the essential components required to be an ideal victim are discussed in great depth. Christie concludes that: "The ideal victim consists of a category of individuals who- when hit by crime- most readily are given the complete and legitimate status of being a victim." (P18)
Christie, (cited in Fattah, 1986) lists at least 5 attributes, which characterises the typical victim. Firstly, the victim is weak; for example they may be sick, old or very young people. Secondly, the victim is most likely to be performing a respectable project; for example on their way to care for a sick individual, or on their way to school. Thirdly, they may often be somewhere they could not be blamed for being; for example at school during the day or at a church service. Fourthly, the offender is usually physically stronger and has questionable ethics. Lastly, the offender can be known or unknown to the victim and in no personal relationship with the victim.
In the case of the Catholic Priests’ abuse of children, most of Christie’s components for the ideal victim have been fulfilled. Children are not only physically weaker than adults but due to their lack of limited life experiences they are most vulnerable and easily led to believe that what was happening to them was the norm. For example, a Catholic Priest from the Catholic Diocese in Bendigo, Father John Leslie Treacy told one of his victims that "...good friends do this". (Coddington, 1997)
It is evident from the previous case studies, and through numerous examples cited in Coddington (1997) that the victims of the abuse of power by priests mostly take place either at the victim’s home, the priest’s home, the schoolyard, or the church. All of these places should have been safe havens for the victim. They were places that a child would have felt comfortable in, prior to the offence taking place. None of the victims were doing anything wrong at the time of being attacked. They were most likely carrying out duties relating to school, the church or family oriented activities.
The offender in all cases of sexual abuse against children is physically more powerful and capable of restraining the victim against his/her will. This is true physical power in that the victim has very little chance of fighting off the attacker and escaping his/her clutches. This is important to note due to the fact that attackers usually will target those perceived to be much weaker physically than themselves because they know they have a good change of getting what they want. As stated by Bob Montgomery, Professor of Psychiatry at Bond University, (1996 cited in Coddington, 1997) in relation to paedophiles "they pick someone who is smaller, less powerful, who can’t reject them so they can control them". (P 12)
Finally, it is important to note that the victim/offender relationship is probably the most important catalyst for the abuse-taking place. Whilst the victim prior to being abused may have felt a great sense of trust and faith in the priest by virtue of his position of trust in society, it would have been immensely disheartening and confusing for the victim to be taken advantage of. According to Dr Mulry Tetlow, clinical psychiatrist & ex-Jesuit priest (International Campaign Against Christian Child Abuse, 1992):
Because of the position of trust and authority a priest holds in a child's life, when sexual abuse takes place the greatest damage done to the child is the betrayal of trust. The damage is much more severe than sexual abuse by a stranger or baby-sitter. (P9)
Victims of the abuse of power by priests are truly ideal victims in that they are a combination of weak, vulnerable, young and sensitive. They in no way have contributed to their victim status and are in no way to blame for the acts committed against them.
Victims and the Criminal Justice System
Traditionally, victims have had very little input into the prosecution of their offenders. Once an offender has been apprehended, the victim can provide their victim impact statement- but this is where the process usually ends for most victims of crime. According to Ashworth (1993), what victims really want is more understanding from police, prosecutors, probation officers and sentencers for a greater understanding of the effects of crime. One of the principles of justice according to Grabosky (1989) is consistency, and the disparity, which characterises the existing system of sentencing and parole. This has been the subject of extensive criticism. Grabosky believes that by giving the victim greater involvement in the criminal justice system will only present further inconsistencies in the law. It could be concluded that victim participation in the sentencing process is not seen as advantageous to the victim, as no great benefit would result for the victim, it may be positive for the victim to play a greater part in the criminal justice system but how will some of these rights affect the victim, and at what cost? In some ways it can put a lot of pressure on the victim, which is not necessarily good for their psychological state of mind. With reference to sexual abuse by the clergy, it is doubtful that the victim would be able to see past the many years of "…guilt, shame, emotional isolation, anger and rage" (Grabosky, 1989) to make an objective decision regarding the offender’s future.
Strategies Designed to Provide Support for Victims
The most important single factor in providing support for the abuse of power victims, is allowing the individual to decide themselves what they feel will be the best type of support. Allowing the victim to decide weather or not he/she wishes to take on the victim status is critical, and it should not be forced upon the individual. A crucial element in this process is the need for family and friends to have an understanding and recognition that the event took place. For the victim, the ideal initial response would be an acknowledgement by the church and a formal apology by the church on behalf of the offending clergy. Even if such apologies are made, this is really the tip of the iceberg.
From a criminological viewpoint, the following alternatives would be made available for the victim for their individual healing treatment and recovering needs.
1) Seek counselling from a qualified professional and one with whom the victim feels comfortable.
2) Provide referral to relevant local agencies in order to gain knowledge of further assistance/avenues available.
3) Find a self-help group or a help line where experiences can be shared with other survivors of a similar crime.
4) Find family members and/or trusted friends who will support the victim during the healing process.
5) Finally, the Internet could be utilised as a tool in the healing process.
The five strategies for providing support for these victims can be grouped into categories. Strategies one and two highlight the professional services available to these victims. It is advisable that victims seek out professional guidance firstly because trained professionals know how to deal with emotionally fragile individuals. They can assess the level of mental anguish and its effect on the victims coping strategies. They can prescribe a course of action whether it be counselling or even referral to a medical practitioner for medication.
Counselling by a qualified practitioner is one of the first steps that should be considered by sexually abused victims. Easteal (1994) found that the most prevalent reason among victims of sexual abuse in Australia for not reporting the crime, was personal shame. The strategy for providing support to victims of the abuse of power through sexual abuse should be based on counselling. Various scholars and professionals have debated the effectiveness of counselling, although its application in dealing with sexual offences is often seen as a crucial part of the healing process. This is exemplified by referral agencies around the world including VRAS (Victims Referral and Assistance Service) in Australia and Anonymous Sexual Abuse Recovery in Canada. (Reviewed on 16/08/00 at www.worldchat.com/public/asarc/asarlinx.html.)
Relevant local agencies such as VRAS in Victoria can offer an integrated victim assistance regime, which for some, is invaluable. VRAS is a central referral service, which considers the information needs and rights of victims, service providers and policy makers. (VRAS, 1999) Services such as counseling options, financial assistance, and guidelines of how to report an offence are just a few of the services provided.
Strategies three, four and five deal with the victim attempting to seek out support through their existing family and social network, and attempting to make contact with other such victims through self help groups or help lines. Support movements such as Broken Rights in Victoria, extend their services to provide invaluable support to victims that have been abused sexual within the clergy. It is by doing this that the victims may begin to alleviate some of the grief they have suffered since they became a victim.
With the usage of the internet increasing, and it now being one of the most effective ways of communication, it has presented itself as another medium through which victims can not only look up resources, but can access other victims of similar abuse. This can be achieved through chat rooms, online support services, access to government agencies and policies as well as creating your own web site in order to voice your case. Victims may be more likely to use this medium due to the "faceless" aspect of this communication.
To be a victim is to be defiled and rendered temporarily powerless. However, once the crime has passed, the victim may then be crime empowered. This may seem a trifle contradictory, but the point to be made is this-victims are now standing up to be counted, and often demand restitution. They are no longer fading into the background and merely accepting what has happened to them. If the offence was perpetrated when the victim was a child, these memories cannot be erased, but often intensify and then manifest in different ways. In the instances of sexual abuse as a child, it has been well illustrated in this paper, that many of the victims had suffered in silence until they felt they could bare the personal shame and inner turmoil no longer.
On many occasions it has become obvious that the victims were trusting in their superiors, who then abused their power to gain sexual gratification. The clergy involved knew that they would have their needs met because they were physically stronger than their young victims. This was a despicable act meted out by people entrusted with one of the most formerly reputable sources of power. According to the US self help group for abuse victims by the clergy, The LinkUp, "Our institutional churches, who have proclaimed themselves to be the moral backbone of society, have failed all of us. We need to continue to bring them to moral and civil accountability. I think we may want to pray for them as well." (Reviewed on 20/08/00 at www.thelinkup.com.) From the voices of the victims came, foremost, calls for greater understanding from family and friends and the criminal justice system. Also, a need for the criminal justice system to recognise their needs as victims, instead of concentrating on offenders needs. It was discovered that many victims now need to talk about their experiences and recount what happened, and find out why there was a need to absolve themselves of blame, and to reach a stage where they felt they could talk about the past openly with others who had suffered similar fate.
A set of strategies including formal counselling, providing referrals to relevant agencies for assistance, confiding in close family and friends, making contact with victims in similar situations and finally using the internet as a resource, have been offered to allow the victim to alleviate some of the guilt and shame, and hopefully to discover the road to recovery.
In conclusion, as stated by Christie (cited in Fattah, 1986), It seems an important ideal to help create social systems where people are so close to each other that concepts such as crime and criminals are seen by everybody as being of very limited usefulness. Blame and guilt are essential in social life. But I doubt if offenders and victims are. (P29)
The above statement by Christie can be related to the incidence of sexual abuse by the clergy, in that the abuse perpetrated was responsible for ruining many innocent lives. The only purpose served by these crimes was the immediate gratification of the clergy, and this was achieved at the expense of the young innocents under their power. How contemptuous was that?
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Written By Tammy Cohen