· Interview with Sr Véronique Margron ·
A moral theologian, President of the Conférence de Religieux et Religieuses en France [CORREF] [Conference of Men and Women Religious in France] and Provincial Prior in France of the Dominican Sisters of Charity of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, Sr Véronique Margron for some time now has been helping women victims of sexual abuse.
In the crisis of sexual abuse, omertà – the code of silence – is one of the most important aspects of this problem. In your opinion what are the factors that determine it?
They are many and they differ according to the regions of the world. All too often the Church is thought of as a family, which, in matters concerning sexual abuse, has disastrous consequences. In fact unfortunately, even in families, more often than not these crimes are not mentioned. For female victims of abuse committed by a brother, father or mother, finding the words, speaking about it, is a little like climbing Mount Everest walking backwards and wearing sandals! The image of the family can be beautiful in order to express reciprocity and attention to each individual, but when family means a clubby reflex or the code of silence it works against the victims. Isn’t it perhaps said that “dirty linen is not washed in public” but rather should bekept in the family? Another possible factor concerns our own mediocrity, that base side which is present in each one of us: the temptation to continue on our way, not to see what is really happening, not to let ourselves get involved. Courage is a virtue. Emotion is not. You can listen to a victim and weep with her, but saying to yourself that you will not stop at this is something quite different. A holy anger is needed. And we also need the inner freedom to say to ourselves that the problems we must face if we speak are nothing in comparison with what the victim has suffered.
When we think of the code of silence we think of men of the Church. But there are also silences of women, mothers and women religious when faced withthe victims. How can these female silences be explained?
I am not sure whether there is anything specifically female or male that wouldexplain this silence.... As regards the Church, however, despite the concrete progress, despite the place given to women and to lay people by the Council and following it, men arestill invested with a special authority, which still inspires attitudes of deference that are sometimes unwarranted. I am thinking of recent situations of superiors who conformed to abishop’s judgement whereas they should have informed Rome immediately because the bishop was not their superior, even though they lived in his territory. However, their relationship with authority was such that if the bishop asked them to say nothing until they had his authorization to do so, they felt duty-bound to obey him. This was not so much fromfear or the lack of courage as rather fromdeference. For women in positions of authority it is not taken for granted that they are not subjectto the local authority, therefore male, even when it is clear that their interlocutor shouldbe the Holy See. But in order to know whether anythingspecifically female or male exists to explain the silence among religious it would be necessary to make a comparison between a number of significant cases of situations hushed upby men and women superiors. What seems to me still to be true is that the question of sexuality has been more of a tabooamong women religious than among men. Getting them to discuss this subject is even more difficult.
In what sense?
One would need to know in how many novitiates sexuality is properly discussed! I taught for about 20 years in a seminary; there were courses on the emotionallife.... They were sometimes insufficient, but at least they had the merit of existing. In novitiates, and in particular in women’s novitiates, the question, I fear, is vaguer. There are sessions but these are theexceptions. Undertaking a profound reflection and enabling various people to speak is something quite different. Sometimes sexuality is spoken of in a latent manner, in terms of particular, close friendships. However this does not enable us to reflect on the matter of relations based on power. And if sexual abuse in the Church, as elsewhere, seems mainly to be carried out by men, abuses of power and conscience are on the contrary common to both men and women and are also devastating. These situations of the abuse of power make me think of what psychoanalysis calls “an incestuous climate”. This means that the other personis dominated by you and that the reference points are totally confused, which make the other’s freedom impossible. And this does not necessarily entail sexual abuse. Some situations of women in communities show characteristics of an “incestuous climate”. This is an atmosphere which has devastating effects on life, which destroys it in its inmost depths; which moreover, it is almost impossible to demonstrate.
Which explains the silence of those women religious, in their turn victims of abuse….
Keys are needed to decipher this incestuous climate. Often, in religious communities in which there is a dysfunction, it is concealed, placed under the bond of obedience, which is all themore terrible because when you enter religious life you trust and your threshold of vigilance is lowered, which is perfectly normal. You are there for Christ, in a situation of abandonment in faith. When your superiors tell you that “this father” or “this sister” is to be your chaplain or to be responsible for you, you trust them because it is the institution to which you have freely bound yourself which has so decided. In this context every case of abuse inspires a tragic sense of shame, which is very deep and is impossible to talk about. Great courage and extraordinary lucidity are required to overcome the “sound barrier” in such circumstances. Often, to free oneself from that destructive grip, a shock is required from outside which will cause the prison walls to crumble: a family event, a scandal in the community, or a visit imposed by the competent ecclesiastical authority.... Christian life rests on trust because it rests on the word given: “I promise you”, “I commit myself”, “I forgive you”. One of the current stakes is to succeed in establishing watchfulness without letting it become suspicion, for suspicion is a poison for every community. The challenge is to establish procedures and controls precisely in order to preserve the quality and correctness of the bond. Otherwise it will be this quality which is damaged and the only option remaining for those who want to care for children and people in vulnerable situations will be systematic suspicion.
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