Sexual abuse is always preceded by a series of abuses
The act of abuse is a manifestation of a dynamic of power, of supremacy, of domination towards one or more persons who are in a situation of existential fragility and dependence. This abuse can occur because of age, life circumstances, or, emotional or personal needs. As Pope Francis stated in his concluding address at the Meeting for the Protection of Minors in the Church, February 2019, “It is difficult to grasp the phenomenon of the sexual abuse of minors without considering power, since it is always the result of an abuse of power, an exploitation of the inferiority and vulnerability of the abused, which makes possible the manipulation of their conscience and of their psychological and physical weakness.” The abuser chooses his victim, renders himself trustworthy through a systematic power game in which emotional manipulation and the perverse reorganization of the victim’s daily reality play a central role. Sexual abuse therefore comes from afar, is prepared and preceded by a series of acts that are an abuse of power.
The act is the tip of the iceberg of a system of abuse. Always. Manipulation then leads the victim to isolation, creating between her and the world a barrier as such that the abuser occupies a central place, an absolute power in the life of the victim, reducing her to silence. This fact leads us to constantly verify the relational dynamics that are established in our ecclesial and social contexts in general. We know, for example, that an authoritarian and restrictive managerial style, which is marked by rigid rules and does not really involve others, does not really inform or consult them; instead, the abuser spreads subliminal group messages that exclude those who exercise criticism. However, even where there is a lack of rules and unclear roles, relationships are created in which the risk of abuse of all kinds is higher. Excessive hierarchy, therefore, as well as its opposite, i.e. favoritism in which restrictive power relationships can easily creep in. In addition, if it is already difficult for the victim to recognize and admit to having been sexually abused, it is even more complex to identify abuses of power. This is because these are often perpetrated in an underhand way, in the folds of dynamics in which, for example, those who do not align themselves with a particular thought or with a particular way of speaking and acting are marginalized.
These modalities, especially in group contexts, must be eradicated and not become established. This is true for parish and diocesan groups, and for all community contexts; for example, in consecrated life, ecclesial movements, and church bodies and institutions. From this point of view, the formation and implementation of adequate protocols contribute to creating environments and contexts suitable for the growth of individuals in a climate that is sensitive and reactive to any centralization and distorted use of power. The Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life recently passed a general decree that regulates the duration of the mandates of those elected to the central government of ecclesial movements, associations of the faithful and new communities. This measure in itself is not enough to guarantee that abuses of power do not creep in. However, it is a significant step that indicates what the style of those who assume governmental responsibilities at every level in the Church should be. This style of service does not cling to a position forever, but exercises and interprets it without taking it over, while promoting activities that are based on the participation of all and valuing the contribution of each person.
As Children of God, let us not forget that in each baptized man and woman there is that sense, that instinct of faith that must be nourished and that makes “priests, kings and prophets”, protagonists in the church [...]. The approach to service and of sincere and humble listening to everyone preserves them from every temptation of power of self-satisfaction (the “clericalism” of which Pope Francis also speaks in his Letter to the People of God) and of the exploitation of others for their own benefit or pleasure at any level. In ecclesial contexts animated by service, it will be very natural to establish accountability procedures for an ordinary verification of the fulfillment of what has been envisaged, to adequately address each case of abuse and to invest in prevention. These procedures should involve everyone: laity, clerics, consecrated persons, living the dynamic of communion proper to the church, in which all members act in a coordinated manner according to their charisms and ministries.
The authority of a bishop, of a religious superior, of a parish priest, or of a person in charge of any ecclesial reality is not diminished in any way if he implements accountability procedures. On the contrary, collaboration with all can constitute a model and an example of effective cooperation among all the faithful in the life of the church and a prophetic model for the civil society in which we live.
By Linda Ghisoni
Linda Ghisoni is under-secretary of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life. The excerpt is taken from her talk at the conference, Accountability and Protection in the Church - Protecting Minors from Abuse Today, organized by the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Piacenza with the Diocesan Service for the Protection of Minors of the Diocese of Piacenza-Bobbio. The meeting took place on November 19, 2021 on the occasion of the National Day of Prayer and Awareness for Victims and Survivors of Abuse.