ROME – Members of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) Monday were the protagonists of the first of a series of webinar sessions focusing on child protection and how safeguarding efforts have been impacted by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Sister Nuala Kenny, a doctor with a background in pediatrics who has been a member of the ad hoc committee for child sexual abuse for the Canadian Catholic Bishops Conference, was the keynote for the June 8 session, which focused on the Theology of Childhood.
Consisting of four webinars extending through the beginning of July, the series is organized by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the Center for Child Protection at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, the Italian Telefono Azzuro child help line, and the UISG.
In her address, Kenny stressed that while she is not a theologian, her work as a physician, in which she has repeatedly seen instances of child sexual abuse, “has made it clear to me that there are deep-rooted spiritual issues that are at stake” in the discussion about safeguarding.
“I suggest that the context, the culture of safeguarding needs to be first, so that our work on policies and protocols may be effective,” she said, insisting that no effort to tackle the issue of child sexual abuse will be effective unless there is also a spiritual basis to those efforts.
Though child sexual abuse inside the Catholic Church really only began to make waves in the 1970s, it has happened “throughout history,” Kenny said, noting that the problem of the abuse of power in the Church was spoken about as early as 306, during the Synod of Elvira.
Noting that abuse, silence and a lack of action from Church leadership has been the working method in handling the issue for years, she said both the short-term and long-term impact of the crisis will be felt for years to come.
Abuse by a priest causes “double-damage,” she said, calling a “soul-murderer,” because not only does the priest represent God, but because of that, the victim loses their “sense of spiritual solace and healing.”
“Ongoing silence and denial” in the Church, “where the truth should set us free, is compounding the damage,” she said, insisting that “The sexual abuse of children and vulnerable in society is not just about a few bad priests, this is a much deeper, systemic issue.”
Pointing to studies identifying certain pre-conditions to abuse, Kenny said it is usually rooted in some form of psychological or psychosexual immaturity and a choice somewhere along the way to both overcome one’s natural inhibitions, the reflex that says harming a child is wrong, and to overcome any resistance from the victim to the abuse.
Kenny said that in her time as a doctor, one of the most common disinhibitory factors in abuse, medically speaking, “is alcohol.” This, she said, goes for both domestic abuse and child abuse of any kind.
For priests, part of overcoming resistance from the victim is playing on the “special status” they are often awarded, giving the impression that they were above morality.
It is perceptions like this, she said, that ought to prompt the Church to question its internal culture, which she said is “imperial, hierarchal, patriarchal and clerical.”
“In this culture children are sometimes to be seen and not heard; they are paternal property,” she said, noting that while the Church has made progress toward meaningful change over the past 15-20 years, there is a tendency to focus only on certain forms of abuse, while missing the big picture.
“Contemporary culture abounds with child abuse,” including not only physical sexual abuse, but also the prevalence of child pornography, the trafficking of children, and child soldiers, meaning that, “A culture of prevention will be demanding for us in many ways.”
She also stressed the need for spiritual conversion in the prevention process, insisting that “structural reforms are secondary-the first reform must be the attitude.”
In terms of developing a Theology of Childhood, Kenny said key elements, according to her own personal reflections, should include Jesus’s own interaction with children in scripture, the immediate and specific context a child is growing up in, scientific research on children and child development, and the core elements of general theology.
Not only does Jesus refuse when his disciples are attempting to take the children away from him, but he cures and heals numerous children in the Gospels, and it is from a child that he takes the loaves and fish before multiplying them, Kenny said.
As progress on developing a theology of childhood progresses, she said, the research on children and childhood will become increasingly important, particularly when it comes to studying cognition and their ways of learning, as well as the development of morality.
Kenny also stressed the importance of the family in promoting a child’s healthy growth and development, including for faith. She underlined modern challenges children might face in terms of keeping the faith, noting that the digital age, while having vast potential, “can also make faith just another channel, just another opinion.”
Children nowadays are also growing up with the image of the “priest pedophile,” she said, noting that in the past, children were often raised to view priests as being on pedestals, with a “super special status.”
Now, however, children are growing up seeing headlines about pedophile priests, and they might not know good and holy priests, Kenny said, insisting that “This is a serious issue for all of us.”
Stressing the need to learn from past mistakes, Kenny said the Church going forward must develop a clear ecclesiology on vulnerability which commits not only to carrying on the healing mission of Jesus, but focuses on care for the weak and vulnerable and insists that having leadership and responsibility is about mission, rather than power or an elite status.
“We must break the silence that has characterized the abuse crisis, particularly in our church,” she said. “We are called to speak out against injustice…rather than doing nothing. We need to develop empowerment for meaningful dialogue in the Church,” and commit “to speak for the voiceless.”
Kenny said there is also a need to develop a more consistent “ethic of life” in the Church. She said she has at times been frustrated by friends and colleagues who reduce the Catholic prolife position to solely matters of sexual and reproductive morality.
“The same people who march for life deny (abuse) and that it occurred at the hands of their priests,” she said, speaking from her own experience. A clearer ethic of life, she said, should consist of more than condemning scandals, but must also involve the formation of conscience and building of virtue.
Kenny voiced her belief that while attention to safeguarding might have been distracted due to the coronavirus, “we will never go back to being the same.” She also voiced hope that the Church in facing challenges going forward “will be more just, more loving, more caring, more committed to protection.”
Following Kenny’s presentation Monday, the next session will be held June 18 with German Father Hans Zollner, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and head of the Center for Child Protection, as the keynote guest.
A subsequent webinar on the relational safety model of child protection will be held June 30, with the last one focusing on caring for children and the vulnerable post-pandemic taking place July 6.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen