03 March 2023, The Tablet

Why is the Catholic Church so out of step with society in addressing child sex abuse?

by Steve Spear

The Church's teaching on chastity turns our gaze from the victim of abuse to its perpetrator.

Why is the Catholic Church so out of step with society in addressing child sex abuse?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church sets out a life of active, even heroic resistance to the temptations of the flesh with occasional but expected episodes of imperfection and sin.
Carl Bunderson/CNA

There can be no doubt that when it comes to dealing with sexual abuse of children the Catholic Church is out of step with the rest of society. Equally, I am also convinced that the Church knows that it is not handling it appropriately but it cannot put its finger on what the problem is.

Although some have sought to protect the reputation of the Church, I am sure that the majority of Catholics are as disgusted as the rest of society by the behaviour of all of those who abuse children, particularly when they use the cover of the Church to facilitate their evil deeds.

So what is holding the Church back? Why are they acting irrationally? Why wont they change?  How can we help the Church help itself?

The answer is likely to be buried deep in the Churchs tradition. Something so entrenched that it is never questioned. After all, the Catholic Church has been evolving its dogma for 2000 years. Not least on the issue of chastity.

It’s not for me to challenge chastity, but I firmly believe that the Church’s interpretation of what constitutes sexual activity is the reason that it is out of step with wider society.

Why? Because it misdirects the gaze of the Church towards the perpetrator and not the innocent victim of their abuse.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: The tradition of the Church has understood the sixth commandment as encompassing the whole of human sexuality.” (2336)

The Catechism is clear that human sexuality includes rape, incest and the sexual abuse of children. Specifically, sexual abuse of children is seen as an offence against chastity (2356) and the dignity of marriage (2389). Really! That’s what it says!

How does this explain the Churchs inability to come to terms with sexual abuse of children? Back to the Catechism:

Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery” (2339)
man governs his passions” (2339)
Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewal of effort at all stages of life.” (2342)
Chastity has laws of growth which progress through stages marked by imperfection and too often by sin.” (2343)

The Catechism sets out a life of active, even heroic resistance to the temptations of the flesh with occasional but expected episodes of imperfection and sin. This of course is the opposite to the reality of abuse which, as an act of power, is systematic, planned and engineered.  

As an offence against chastity the abuse is more likely to be seen as a lapse in a lifetime of abstinence. A one off! He wont do it again! The gaze is firmly on the abuser.

What happens if the gaze shifts towards the victim?

It is clear that sexual abuse can, and does, impact the victim's ability to live a full and abundant life. The impact on mental health is well documented and includes depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress syndrome, self-harm and suicide with low self-esteem and loss of confidence. Victims carry an increased likelihood of substance misuse, risky sexual behaviours, anti-social behaviour and offending.

There is evidence that victims are disillusioned with religion and spiritual belief with reports of feeling abandoned or punished by a cruel God. This is more deeply felt when the abuse is carried out by a priest with victims expressing spiritual devastation” and “deep spiritual confusion”, leading to questioning their entire belief system and way of understanding the world.

Could this catalogue of potential devastation suggest another commandment?

The fifth commandment provides the answer: “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end.

“God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being [my emphasis].” (2258)

Anyone who sexually abuses a child has complete contempt for body and soul, claiming the right to destroy an innocent human being which is more akin to murder.

If the Church reclassifies sexual abuse of children from the sixth to the fifth commandment then the discourse, at all levels, changes profoundly.

Crucially it becomes a sin defined by the experiences of the victims and not the sexual struggle” of the offender.

It allows a debate to answer a fundamental question: do priests become paedophiles or do paedophiles become priests?

It is important to note that whilst paedophiles will groom their victims and their families they will also groom the Church. They deceive whilst they are abusing but also after they have been caught. They will be the best repenters you have ever met. They are past masters at hiding behind the person you want them to be.

I can guarantee that the rest of society sees sexual abuse of children as a sin against the sanctity of life and not a sin against chastity.

I hope and pray that we can start an open and honest debate that shifts the gaze of the Church from the adult perpetrator to the innocent child.


Steve Spear is retired, but was previously the CEO of a charity supporting survivors and a lay member of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission.

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