Karlijn Demasure taught religion at a secondary school for girls in Belgium when she first came across child abuse. It turned out a girl was sexually abused at home and no one at the school knew exactly what to do.
“The psychiatrist associated with the school was also unable to help us,” said Demasure. “Should we address the father that we knew about it and that it shouldn’t be happening? Should we send the girl to therapy? Nobody knew. This episode made me decide to go back to university for further study, and to specialize as a theologian in this field. We must help these children.”
A short time after the episode at the girls school, the first reports started to pour in from the United States about child abuse in the Church, and in 2010 the bomb went off in Belgium. In her homeland, Demasure was a theologian on the committee which investigated abuse within the Belgian Church. In 2014, she was appointed a professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where she also headed the Center for Child Protection.
“For me, what has always been most important is the way Jesus looks at children,” said Demasure.
“In the Gospel, we read how the disciples wanted to get rid of the children, saw them as less important, but Jesus said, ‘Let them come to Me.’ He also calls us to be like children. From this you can conclude that children are very important to Him. Why are they seen as ‘less important’ in the Church?” Demasure said.
“There is a need to change our way of thinking. Children are also people, with their own feelings and insecurities and unfortunately, also with their own wounds. Instead of ignoring that and dismissing it as less important, we should give them more space. What is needed is a theology of children in which they are seen as the people they are,” she continued.
“Children are children, not mini-adults. Then let them be children. They also have something to offer and who are we to ignore or reject this? Children are of course also the future adults and are fully people in the present and not only in their future function. That’s why you’d better give them a good foundation and support them in what’s going on in their lives. ”
That support must be there even after abuse, Demasure said, and again she put out Christ as an example.
“He rose and lived again. But even so, everything He had gone through, hadn’t suddenly disappeared. It was acknowledged that even after the Resurrection, his scars were still there. He lived on with his past. That is a lesson for us as adults, but also for children. You don’t have to forget everything or pretend it never happened, Jesus didn’t. Despite everything you have experienced, you can be in the here and now.”
A few years after the abuse scandals, the #MeToo movement began to spread around the world and it exposed sexual misconduct in a broader sense.
“It almost seems as if the Church led the world,” said Demasure. Incidentally, this movement in turn affected the Church, because in a number of cases religious sisters for the first time dared to come out with their story about how they were abused by the clergy.
“In all cases it concerns someone who abuses his position of power,” the theologian said. “While Jesus chooses the weak and helps them; we should follow his example in this.”
Within the Church, the problem has been covered up for too long and the word ‘forgiveness’ is uttered too soon, said Demasure.
“A lot of emphasis was put on forgiveness. But can we demand that people forgive others? I believe that someone should have the right not to forgive others. If you think to yourself every day: ‘I want the perpetrator dead,’ you are not ready for forgiveness. If someone has done something intimate to you like sexual abuse, forgiveness is not always possible. We need to understand people who are not able to forgive. Forgiveness is always a grace, it can never be a moral obligation you can enforce on someone,” she said.
If a victim forgives the perpetrator, “that doesn’t change everything; as a victim you’re not saying that it’s ok what the other person has done. Reconciliation between perpetrator and victim, as is sometimes argued, is another difficult step,” she continued.
“Reconciliation means that you continue the relationship, and that is not always better. Jesus doesn’t ask that of us either. In fact, it’s usually best that a victim never sees the offender again.”
What Demasure says can help is seeking justice.
“You cannot undo what someone has done, but justification is possible. A punishment, such as a prison sentence, is a possible justification for the victim. It also means recognition: that person has done something wrong and is atoned for it,” she said.
From 2014 to 2018, Demasure dealt with these issues in Rome as head of the Center for Child Protection, as a woman in a man’s stronghold. That was not always easy.
“I have an opinion and I don’t hide it; that was quite confrontational for many men there. They see women as people who are allowed to have a serving role and I don’t fit in that box. Pope Francis is really trying his hardest, but you cannot change the culture just like that. It’s difficult to be in a high position as a layman and especially as a woman. That is frustrating at times, but I hope I moved a small rock in the river with my presence. That’s not enough, but still. Let’s hope that many more rocks are moved and that many women are allowed to work inside the Vatican. Although I don’t really see that change happening in Rome as of yet. All the really high positions in the Church have been taken by men, which is a pity,” she said.
Although Demasure was appointed for five years, she left after four years. She had the opportunity to return to Canada, where she had previously worked.
“I was still in touch with them and they offered me the opportunity to set up the Center for Safeguarding Minors and Vulnerable Persons,” she explained.
“That offer came at just the right time for me. In Rome, the center is only aimed at children, and that’s why this new opportunity really attracted me. The center in Canada is not limited to the Church either. For example, ‘vulnerable persons’ also include refugees, because a lot of sexual violence is committed in refugee camps and war zones. For example, I used to have students who wrote a dissertation on raped women in eastern Congo and similar matters. My own dissertation was also not aimed at the Church, but was about incest. That is why this new center suits me very well,” Demasure said.
“I had to discuss my departure to Canada with my husband, because he is still in the Vatican… We travel up and down a lot now.”
Whether in Rome or in Canada, it must be a heavy burden to deal all day with things like sexual abuse and incest.
“That is true,” admitted Demasure. “Sometimes I wake up at night. On the other hand, I can do something for these people and create more awareness. That’s why I do it. There is a limit to the misery I can handle. When I see starving children in Africa on TV, the TV has to be turned off. I don’t like that and luckily my husband knows that too. It was also a good decision to go back to Canada. I signed a contract for three years, which means I will work until I am 67. And I hope that the rock that I have moved in the river will have its effects long after that.”
This interview was originally published in the Dutch Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad on March 13, 2020. It was translated for Crux by Susanne Kurstjens-van den Berk.
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