Sexual Abuse in Religions

Parliament of Victoria

The Victorian Government is currently conducting a parliamentary enquiry into sexual abuse in religious and other organisations.

Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry

The Victorian Government is currently conducting a parliamentary enquiry into sexual abuse in religious and other organisations. The terms of reference to this enquiry are:

  1. The Family and Community Development Committee is requested to inquire into, consider and report to the Parliament on the processes by which religious and other non-government organisations respond to the criminal abuse of children by personnel within their organisations, including:
  2. the practices, policies and protocols in such organisations for the handling of allegations of criminal abuse of children, including measures put in place by various organisations in response to concerns about such abuse within the organisation or the potential for such abuse to occur;
  3. whether there are systemic practices in such organisations that operate to preclude or discourage the reporting of suspected criminal abuse of children to State authorities; and
  4. whether changes to law or to practices, policies and protocols in such organisations are required to help prevent criminal abuse of children by personnel in such organisations and to deal with allegations of such abuse.

In undertaking the inquiry, the Committee should be mindful of not encroaching upon the responsibilities of investigatory agencies or the courts in relation to particular cases or prejudicing the conduct or outcome of investigations or court proceedings.

The Committee is requested to report to the Parliament no later than 30 April 2013.

On 22 October 2012, Prof. Des Cahill, Chair, Religions for Peace Australia, was required to appear before the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse and Other Allegations.

Submission by Prof. D. Cahill

Prof. Cahill was invited to make a submission to the Inquiry with regard to sexual abuse in other religions in Australia, and to respond more generally to issues with respect to the Catholic Church. You may download and read the submission by Prof. Des Cahill here (PDF, opens in new window).

Extracts from Submission

The Reality of Multifaith Victoria

Whilst the increased secularism of the Australian population has been recently highlighted with the release of the initial 2011 census results, in fact the journalists have got right only half the story. One in fourteen Australians belongs to a religion other than Christian, heavily concentrated in the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne triangle, with temples, mosques, synagogues and gurdwaras now dotting the Australian landscape.

In the State of Victoria, the figure is about one in eleven with an increase of 68.46 per cent in the four major non-Christian religions over the 2001 - 2011 ten-year period with significant increases in each - Buddhism (+51.25%), Hinduism (+241.74%), Islam (+67.73%) and Judaism (+17.65%). Victoria has become more religious but religious in a different way.

In response to your written request to examine the cultural and multifaith dimensions of clerical sexual abuse, I want to move beyond my original submission by examining the links between child sexual abuse and the major religious traditions and ending with comments on the interface with cultural and religious core values in regard to disclosure.

Child Sexual Abuse in Cultural and Religious Contexts

Child sexual abuse has existed in all ages and in all cultures and in all religions, invariably shrouded in secrecy and silence and characterized by inadequate responses by religious authorities determined to keep their faith's reputation pristine and irreproachable in a religiously competitive market. All religious traditions have been aware, and remain aware of it as the Roman Catholic noli tangere rule in its seminaries attest.

Yet all the major religious traditions without equivocation condemn child sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse also is invariably embedded in other practices such as child prostitution, child labour, child soldiers, the trafficking of young males and females and child kidnapping which are not generally part of the Australian scene.

But it is also embedded with issues such as migrant orphan children, teenage brides and the age of marriage. In today's Saudi Arabia, for example, there is no marriageable age, and it is common in its small rural and impoverished villages for 13 - 14 year old girls to be married and in the urban ages it is usually about 17 - 18 years of age. And it is well to remember that up until 1983 under the old 1917 Catholic Code of Canon Law, a Catholic marriage celebrant could marry brides as young as 14. This was during an era until the 1960s in southern Europe where arranged marriages, marriages by proxy and marriages by abduction and rape were common.

Of course, in Australia no priest or vicar or rabbi could ever perform marriages for 14 year old brides because of the civil law. Religious law must never be allowed to override civil law whether it is Catholic canon law or Islamic shari'a law or Jewish religious law. Arranged and engineered marriages still occur in Australia, especially within the Indian Hindu community. As well, each year about 40 - 50 17 year-old females enter Australia on prospective spouse visas as do hundreds of 18, 19 and 20 year olds, mainly from Middle Eastern and South East Asian countries.

The Buddhist Context

Buddhism is Victoria's largest non-Christian religion with 168,637 followers. Like Christianity with its Christmas story, in the eyes of Buddhism all children are precious. However, across the world academic and public interest has focused on monks and young boys and on the sexual relationships between Buddhist masters and boys or young women on the misguided and distorted pretext that sexuality with the master can be utilized to achieve spiritual fulfilment (Simpkinson (1996) in Fogler et al. (2008)). In Buddhist thinking, all forms of sexuality and desire must be transcended in the quest for enlightenment.

Its historians such as Professor Leonard Zwilling of the University of Wisconsin suggest that sex between Buddhist monks and boys has been an ongoing and damaging phenomenon for centuries in their monasteries, not least in China, Japan and Tibet. When caught, abusing monks are supposed to have been expelled from the sangha though this does not always happen (Zwilling 1992, 1999, 2001). In Thailand in December 2011, much coverage was given to one well-known Buddhist abbot who was imprisoned for 12 years whilst his accomplice suicided by drinking poison. Thailand's Centre for Child Violence reported that in 2010 there were almost 9,000 sexual assaults against children, an increase of 47 per cent over the previous year (Vate-U-Lan, personal communication, 2012).

In recent months, Buddhist attention has focused on Sri Lanka where its Children's Affairs Minister has suggested that child abuse is rampant in Buddhist monasteries. In June 2012, the Sinhala Service of the BBC, in a report titled "Sri Lanka's Hidden Scourge of Religious Child Abuse", reported that over the last decade 110 monks have been charged, including a monk who had previously been a parliamentarian! In April 2012, a leading Singhalese monk was charged with abuse of a 10-year old girl in the late 1970s. When conviction does occur, sentences are light. The phenomenon, taboo in the social and religious context of Sri Lanka, rarely receives public attention. Concerns have been expressed about the thousands of young Singhalese Buddhist children who attend temples as novices and helpers. In the Buddhist diaspora, recently in the State of New York, there have been issues both in a Japanese Buddhist monastery and at the Wat Dhammaram Theravada temple in Chicago.

In the Australian context, there seem to be no formal studies. Anecdotal evidence within the Vietnamese community speaks about the rape several decades ago of female refugees not just by the infamous Thai pirates but on some occasions by Buddhist monks in Thai and Cambodian monasteries which were providing haven for the escaping Vietnamese boat people. Concern has been expressed about some large monastic Buddhist communities in Australia (not Victoria) led by a Buddhist spiritual master with young male and female celibate monks but it must be stressed that there is absolutely no empirical evidence to underpin these concerns.

The Hindu Context

In India, the cradle of Hinduism, the recent context has been very interesting, especially the role of The Hindu, a Delhi daily newspaper in documenting and publicizing the issue. In May 2012, the Indian Parliament passed The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, including legalizing consensual sex between 16 - 18 year olds. One respected health writer has described child sexual abuse as "India's time bomb". The bill was especially triggered by a study in 13 states by the Indian Minister for Women and Child Development that found that 53 per cent of children claimed that they had been sexually exploited. The Indian debate has especially focused on the plight of street children.

Regarding Hinduism outside India, in the U.S.A. early in 2012, a Hindu guru in charge of an ashram in Texas was sentenced to 14 years jail for child molestation. And several weeks ago in September 2012, in the State of Washington, a Hindu man who had made false allegations against his spiritual teacher was convicted on multiple accounts of child molestation. Here in Victoria, there are 83,138 Hindus and within the Hindu monastic communities, there is credible anecdotal evidence brought to my attention of at least two child sexual abuse instances where the offending monk was shipped back to the home country.

The Islamic Context

In Islamic countries, Professor Youssef (1998) suggested that in Saudi Arabia up until the 1990s child abuse and neglect had been ignored as an issue despite its presence. A Moroccan study (Alami & Kadri 2004) of a representative sample of females aged over 20 found that 9.2 per cent reported childhood sexual abuse. In a 2005 Turkish study of 1262 university students, 28 per cent reported at least one such instance (Eskin, Kaynak-Demir & Demir 2005). In Bahrain the criminal law stipulates that punishment of the sexual abuse of a girl under 14 is life imprisonment or death whereas for a boy under 14, the sentence is 10 years in prison. In a ten-year study at a Bahraini medical centre, 150 cases of child abuse were treated of whom almost two thirds had been sexually abused, almost all by males and by persons trusted by the child (Al-Mahrous et al. 2005). In Indonesia, there have been issues with Islamic religious officials sexually and physically abusing students in village boarding schools known as pesantren. Here the point needs to be made that no strong tradition of monasticism or celibacy exists in Sunni or Shi'a Islam. Mohammed was a polygamist, not a celibate.

In the U.K., Siddiqui (2006 quoted in Gilligan (2009)) in a Report to the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain suggested that "the Muslim community (in Great Britain) is at present in a state of denial - denial of the fact that child abuse takes place in places of worship including in mosques, madrasas (mosque schools) and families" (Gilligan 2009: 97). Issues of child sexual abuse have been found in South Asian Muslim families with disclosure being a major problem (Gilligan & Akhtar 2006). A significant U.S.A. study has focussed on domestic violence in Islamic polygamous families against wives by husbands and wives against co-wives, but not children (Hassouneh-Phillips 2001). In Australia there is some anecdotal evidence about the appearance of Muslim polygamous families over the last fifteen years.

Hence, whilst remembering that child sexual abuse is always a crime, it might be helpful to see it as global health issue (Purvis & Joyce 2005) with clerical and monastic sexual abuse as a sub-theme within the broader issue.

Christian Perspective:
The Dysfunctional Climate of Celibate Caste Clericalism

As I critically read the academic and other credible evidence from within Australia and across the world, it seems that systemic child sexual abuse within religious organizations is certainly present in the Roman Catholic Church as the global case study par excellence. It is also present in other faith traditions especially those with a celibacy tradition although to an unknown extent. Celibacy is not the direct cause as the majority of good priests and monks do not suffer celibate breakdowns and do not abuse children nor teenagers but only indirectly as it is the lynchpin of a caste clericalism. However, for others, celibacy has led to sexual misconduct because celibacy for them has become a lifestyle impossible to live.

As we cover this difficult cultural, religious and sexual terrain and as I interpret the research findings, the explanation both for clerical and monastic child sexual abuse itself and the deficient response by religious authorities lies seemingly in a multi-levelled and interwoven constellation of factors that to the greater extent they are present, the greater will be the risk of offending. The risk factors can be divided into three constellations:

(A) The dispositional traits of the individual clerical or monastic offender

The individual factors at play here were:

  • A significant level of adult emotional immaturity usually made worse by the seminary or monastery environment
  • A failure to have satisfactorily resolved their adult sexual identity, especially if gay, in a strongly anti-homosexual environment
  • Experience of physical and/or sexual abuse as a minor whether from family members or religious personnel
  • A high level of inner conflict and psychic distress in dealing with their strong sexual impulses
  • An over-identification with their sacred calling as monks or priests due to a lack of definition between their clerical identity and their personal male identity and a consequent lack of self-care
  • A legalistic, over-rationalized and ultimately unrealistic ethical framework devoid of a relational morality which led among other things to a serious depreciation of children as human persons
  • Their willingness to use psychological and physical aggression to have their sexual needs satisfied
  • Feelings of intense personal loneliness and isolation combined with the lack of support (especially in the presbytery or monastery system)
  • A highly developed denial mechanism that minimized the impact, depersonalized the whole offending process and often did not see it as a breach of celibacy
  • An almost total lack of supervised behaviour by superiors with a resultant lack of personal accountability and transparency
  • A strong feeling of alienation from superiors such as bishops or abbots with little contact or in-depth communication

(B) The organizational culture of caste clericalism within an overtly sexualized society

The organisational factors that seem to have nurtured sexual abuse by its own celibate priests, brothers and monks were:

  • A hierarchical and masculine culture of unquestioning obedience and silencing of dissent where truth cannot speak to power in love
  • A culture characterized by a lack of openness and transparency in appointments at all organizational levels made with an unhealthy secretiveness that has led to alienation
  • A culture of religious elitism that considers itself to have religious superiority and to belong to a clerical or monastic caste where separateness generates passivity and lay dependence
  • A theology of celibate and lay sexuality based upon an idealistic and over-intellectualized anthropology that is too focussed on the procreative couple
  • A praxis of priesthood in the contemporary world not reflecting ecclesial diversity and still largely based on the geographical model of the village or paese and needing to be thoroughly rethought and repositioned

(C) Situational access to children and teenagers within enclosed groups and institutions

No clerical or monastic sex abuser can abuse a child or a teenager unless they have the opportunity and access to a child whether in a family context or in other enclosed contexts such as a school (especially boarding schools), altar boys' sodalities, children's residential homes, major or minor seminaries, monasteries, youth agencies etc. Significant trust can be placed by unsuspecting others in the abuser who can operate in secret.

Transcript of Appearance before Inquiry by Prof. D. Cahill

Transcript of the appearance of Prof. D. Cahill before the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry is available here (PDF, opens in a new window).

Source: Desmond P. Cahill OAM
Parliament of Victoria

Image Credit: Parliament of Victoria