Virginia Saldanha, Press Conference Statement, Rome Italy

Cultural discourses that enable abuses in the religious context; deified image of the priest, victim blaming, mechanisms of silencing.

Virginia Saldanha, secretary of the Indian Women Theologians Forum and Ecclesia of Women in Asia.

Statement from Voices of Faith Press Conference

19th February 2019, La Stampa Estera, Rome Italy

  • Culture in Church & Society:

Abuse has thrived in the Church because of a culture that has enabled the abuse. Even though the priests’ actions are crimes under State Law, the Church downplays the crime and calls it a “mistake”, or an indiscretion. A priest mediates God to his victims and wields power of divine authority. He can manipulate his position to get access to and abuse victims.

We Catholics have been trained to see the priest as one who ‘stands in place of Christ’ so in the eyes of people, he can do no wrong.  He may have some human failings, we are told, so we should pray for him and not gossip about his failings. We should not judge an errant priest, that judgement should be left to God. 

Our cultural conditioning blames female survivors for abuse; she is the temptress and responsible for the abuse. A survivor is made to feel she is to blame. Woman’s learned subordination to patriarchal authority cripples her response to various situations of oppression especially in the area of sex and sexuality.

Religious teaching on the position of a priest and woman’s sexuality reinforce her feelings of guilt and consequent silence on sex abuse by priests. The victim is left confused and silent because she tries to reconcile her experience with her learnt image of a priest. She feels, it is her sin not his; she has crossed the boundaries. She often suffers alone.  Unfortunately this is being used to deny sexual abuse of women in the Church which is always termed as ‘consensual sex’. Is consensual sex possible between persons of unequal power? No.

In a multi-religious country like ours, the priest has a respectable standing in society and is the face of the Church. Speaking out against a priest spoils the name of the Church in society.  Since Christians are a minority in India, we are careful to protect the good name of the Church. All these factors influence the silence around sexual abuse of women and even children.

In Church circles the vulnerability of women victims is still not fully appreciated and understood.  Thankfully Pope Francis has acknowledged that nuns are victims of abuse by priest and bishops.  But we want him to show the zero tolerance that the Church talks about.

Culture of silencing in Church

The consequences of speaking up have repercussions for the victim, especially in such a close knit community in a country like India where Christians are a minority.  A victim is told to consider the impact on their life, young women are told that speaking up would affect their marriage prospects (this is important in a culture that sees marriage as the goal of every woman’s life) – they are offered compensation to keep quiet. 

The power of the Church vis a vis the victim is enormous, so the victim is easily silenced. The community believes the priest more easily than they would believe the victim.  If the victim is employed by the Church they are threatened with the loss of their position, image in the institution/parish, and even job. Public opinion is turned against victim.  Silence is a consequence of a twisted power imbalance that keeps the vulnerable quiet, Silence is enforced by the Church that acts as protector of the abuser, and interpreter of faith to the people.

The Church has not been victim-centered. They are worried about the priest-perpetrators and how to rehabilitate them. If they did listen to the complaint of a victim, they insist she not go public. The Crime of abuse is seen as a sin and dealt with under the seal of confession. The reputation of the Church is seen as more important than the harm done to the victims. The Vatican Law of “Pontifical secrets” 1974 (Secreta Continere) is the code of confidentiality and this code has allowed the protection of abusive priests barring the authorities from prosecuting them.  It changed when The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People of June, 2002, approved by the Vatican, requires that credible allegations of sexual abuse of children be reported to legal authorities. Now, credible allegations must be reported to legal authorities. BUT,

  • The Vatican doesn’t make public the names of offenders. 

  • They don’t communicate with the victims about the process. 

  • There is no transparency in the process.

  • The internal church trials are secret.

  • The hierarchical status and authority structures inhibit the reporting of abuse by victims. Bishops and priests represent God and holiness. A clerical perpetrator makes the victim feel the guilt and sin belongs to them.

Usually the perpetrator tells the victim to “keep the secret” and to remain silent.

Issue of Celibacy

People are questioning the whole idea of the celibate priesthood in the light of sexual abuse by priests.  The Church is looked up to as the moral compass in society. Vulnerable people approach priests with the confidence that they are safe with a “man of God” as they believe that his celibacy sets the boundaries for his interaction with them. When a priest violates the boundary, it demonstrates a breach of trust and people feel betrayed. It throws them into utter confusion, because what they go to the priest for and what they experience are poles apart.  Processing this experience is difficult especially for someone who is already emotionally vulnerable.  Therefore we should not be surprised when survivors take time to speak up.

One of the most common psychological consequences of abuse is that the victim feels guilty and blames her/himself and not the perpetrator. 

  • Sometimes victims become the scapegoat of the community and they are re-victimized by the experience of rumour and scandal. 

  • The community reinforces stigma and discrimination and that is why some of the victims stay silent.

  • Today the church is forced to change because survivors are breaking their silence.

  • The bottom line is that the ‘Guidelines’ must set in place mechanisms that take all sexual abuse seriously and are oriented to ending the problem.  Right from receiving and processing complaints through to the process of healing and pastoral care for all concerned, the Church will retain credibility only when justice is seen to be done.

Suggestions for change:

  • Wholistic empowerment of women to be taken seriously in the Church. Enable victims to speak out;

  • Mechanisms to prevent and deal with cases of abuse. Have safe places to listen to the victims;

  • Talking about healthy sex and critically about its abuse especially in the Church and family; 

  • Have safeguarding programs for children and young people;

  • Create transparency within the processes;

  • Bring democratic structures into Church governance – thus disabling the power that allows the culture of abuse to thrive. Even change Canon Law;

  • Compulsory psycho-sexual formation for priests and religious in the Church;

  • Priesthood to be understood as “self-emptying servant leadership of the people of God” mandated by Jesus;

  • Deprived of leadership positions in the Church women’s psyche has developed the characteristics of subordination, passivity, servitude, dependeny, unquestioning obedience and vulnerability, this has to be examined seriously and changed!


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