Absolute Power Corrupts Sexually | Sarah Stook

A commonly used phrase is that rape is not about sex, but about power. That would be correct. Whether it’s violent gang rape or sexual harassment in the street, the use of non-consensual sex is a power tool used to coerce, dominate and exert power over its victims. Its endemic nature is too tragic in this world, from the rape capital of the world South Africa to its use in the warzones of Syria and Iraq. Even in the United Kingdom, a place where the justice system is inclined to prosecute those who have committed such acts, we hear of sexual abuse and rape in all corners of society, whether in leafy Surrey suburbs or the middle of East London estates.

Governments and organisations have promised to commit themselves to stopping this, from legislation to awareness campaigns. Still, we see it everywhere and its reaches the highest echelons of society. It is in these places where we are seeing the endemic nature of sexual abuse. Societies place their faith in religious leaders and politicians, all people higher than themselves, to set and uphold the standards in society that we adhere to, namely the sexual welfare of all those in said society. Yet, we see an opposite of this. From places of faith to the legislative chamber, those in the most powerful positions allow themselves free reign when it comes to sexual deviance. Of course, not every member of these groups is a rapist or abuser, just like not every member of every socio-economic group is. Still, one rotten apple can spoil the whole bunch. These are groups whose whole structure protects the guilty and shames the innocent. To maintain the status quo of power and an apparently spotless reputation, they do everything they can to hide disgusting behaviour. Straying away from the groups as a whole, there is still a question of why those who are in such positions of power do this. Lord Acton famously said that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Such power- leading countries or religious movements- corrupts people into thinking that they can get away with such acts. Nearly all of them will have gone into these positions with intentions of harm through a lack of morality, but does power plant the seeds of doing inside of their heads? Let’s see.


  1. The Catholic Church

For many centuries, the Catholic Church has been a staple of life across the world. In 1517, when Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door, it sent shock around European society- even Henry VIII, later the man who broke England from Rome, denounced him angrily for his believed slights. Though the UK is no longer Catholic, the church still dominates religion around the world, from Poland to Brazil. The Pope is one of the most powerful men in the world, even as one man dies, the name still lives on. His comments on everything from abortion to immigration influence world opinion and legislation. Individual dioceses can make massive change, especially in very devout communities. Priests and other figures are as important in their own communities as many Imams, Rabbis and preachers are. After the government, the Catholic Church is the biggest funder of welfare and charity, with numerous hospitals and schools- very admirable. One of the world’s most beloved philanthropists was a Catholic nun, Mother Teresa of the Missionaries of Charity. There is no doubt that the Catholic Church has an immense impact on so many lives.

Is that why the endemic child abuse scandal was covered so well for so many years and by some of the most respected figures?

There is no certainty on the true number of victims. It was reported in 2017 that there was a backlog of 2,000 cases being handled by the Vatican, but that information is well over a year old and doesn’t include the ones who have not been reported or passed above a local level. It is likely well into the thousands and perhaps we will never know. The number of perpetrators is also unknown. Considering a recent report indicated there could be up to 300 in one US state (Pennsylvania), this indicates again a number of thousands. From low level clergy to cardinals, there was a history of sexual abuse and of cover ups, by those involved and those not involved. Unlike most sexual assault, which occurs against women, the majority (80%) were against boys and many were pre-pubescent.

In terms of a lack of reporting, it’s not hard to understand why victims didn’t say anything. Children are easily manipulated, especially by figures of authority such as the clergy. In some places, especially with a strong Catholic presence, the clergy are a hugely influential part of the community and are friendly with many families. The fear of being condemned, of being not believed, is an easy one when some adults will accuse their children of telling tall tales. Another issue is that of church teachings. Whilst the Catholic Church has become more tolerant on homosexuality, there is still a strong stance against it and many children would fear the ‘sin’ of being homosexual, even though there is nothing wrong with it and there is no correlation between their sexuality and being inappropriately touched by someone of the same sex. In a world of power, the child is less powerful than the adult. This huge power dynamic- a young child v a respected adult in religious garb, can help towards the silence that occurred. For those who were brave enough to speak out, they were met with a wall of anger.

The reasons for such widespread abuse are unknown, with ideas ranging from the required celibacy of the clergy or latent homosexuality, though many argue that both of these things would not force many people into paedophilia. So how come the Church managed to keep it quiet for so long and let many get away with it? Simply put, the church is extremely powerful. It is more powerful than school districts and even some monarchies, perhaps even our own. It spans continents, having power in nearly all of them. The Pope’s words inspire millions, the declaration of the Vatican have influence over so many. Every day, thousands arrive in St. Peter’s Square to hope to catch a glimpse of the Pope, desperate for his blessing. In many countries, he gets thousands crowding to see him when he comes on state visits. World leaders, Catholic or not, line up to meet him at the Vatican. Priests provide marital advice, build deep friendships in the community and preside over funerals. Religion is older than modern politics; it is so deeply ingrained that it is not hard to understand its importance. For many, religion is a way of life and God is the most important thing- the Church is the link between the person and God. The poorest people will give what little they have at Mass in order to show their faith. There are thousands of Catholic officials, all spread in a network that spans the globe. It is one solid foundation; taking out one person does not have a Jenga effect. Power is in their DNA and they used it. Those who hurt children were treated as ill, sent to treatment centres run by priests and nuns. The Church even moved clergymen around, sprinting them to the next diocese when the next allegation resurfaced. This gave them access to MORE children, allowing continued abuse when it shouldn’t have even happened. One of the most famous cases, put into public attention by the film Spotlight, was that of Cardinal Bernard Law. His knowledge of decades of sexual abuse, especially paedophilia, which involved a mass cover up, included moving around one of the most infamous abusers. Instead of receiving punishment, he resigned and later received a job as an Archpriest in Europe. As this job allowed him Vatican Citizenship, it was widely believed to be a ploy to protect Law from prosecution in Boston.

Was this ultimately a thing of power? It certainly is less of a power thing than the cases that will be discussed lately, but all abuse comes from a level of power and whilst some it was in a sick sexual way, it came from knowing that they were positioned far above their victims in authority. The cover up, which went all the way up to the Vatican, was definitely about power. Anyone knows that a group with such widespread sexual assault would and should receive condemnation, and the concern was blowbacks from the believers who help build up their wealth and prestige.  In some cases, the church used sovereign immunity as an attempt to stop lawsuits, just as many use it in general crimes. Luckily, this did not always work but the point is still there. The high status of both the church in general and those involved was likely a significant factor into the endemic abuse, simply because of a ‘get away with it’ attitude. That is not unique to the Catholic Church when concerning sexual abuse, but it is one that is definitely important when studying it.


  1. Aid Sector

A recent report by the International Development Committee discovered that abuse was ‘endemic’ in the aid sector. From the global UN to smaller bodies such as Oxfam, the sexual abuse of the vulnerable, especially children is a huge issue. It is just as sickening as the abuse in the Catholic Church, mainly because both are used as points of helping people, many people entering the aid sector to assist those in the direst need. Many donate to such charities in hopes that their money will go towards sheltering refugee children, building schools and educating locals. Instead, their money is mainly going to overpaid bureaucrats who ignore the abuse done by their own underlings, just as complicit was those who touch the child.

One of the most infamous cases is that of the United Nations. An offshoot of the failed League of Nations, the UN was founded to bring peace and security to all nations and people. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.’  In Haiti, the most infamous case, this was not so. UN Peacekeepers, there to keep security before and after the devastating earthquake, were involved in heinous crimes. Children as young as ten were raped and abused, either bought off with sweets or money, or threatened by their rapists. Some got pregnant, forced to raise a child where they had no support from the father and were stigmatised for having a child out of wedlock. For some, it was a case of survival sex, as they knew that what they got given would help them and their families in troubling times. That is essentially prostitution borne of unfortunate circumstances and they were exploited by the very people that were supposed to be preventing this. 12% of the Sri Lankan Peacekeepers were found to be involved. Nearly all of those involved were sent home, but none received any punishment from their government, even when said government apologised. In Kosovo, there was a serious issue with prostitution, the majority of which involved underage girls. In Cambodia, many got HIV/AIDS, in the years when that was a death sentence.

The UN is not the only one. Oxfam has recently been in the spotlight, and not in a good way. Haiti was again a victim of sexual violence, with prostitutes, some underage, being used by aid workers. Several reports by Save the Children have shown child exploitation in aid camps, particularly in Africa. Though both foreign and national staff were at fault, a 2008 report showed that the majority of perpetrators were locals hired by aid groups.

The committee found that a recurring theme in these cases was an ‘abuse of power.’ It definitely was, in the worst way. The victims were living in warzones and other insecure nations, at risk from many things in their home nations. They relied on the protection of aid workers, relying on them for food, shelter and security. Instead of being safe with these workers, they found themselves abused and exploited. Many had to content with underage pregnancy, abortion and STIs, all not things anybody wants to deal with, especially in these nations. Those who did it knew that they were dangling the metaphorical carrot over the victims, knowing that they had the power of life and death over them. When they were not cruelly raped, they were coerced by promises of safety, especially for their families. The report also found that the charities were particularly interested in maintaining their reputations. This is an incredibly important point for the third sector- they have power as unofficial lobbyists, especially in the International Development group and they often use their power to criticise government policy. A lot of them are also funded under foreign aid. That power allows the money that goes to fat cats and vanity projects. That power allows them a voice. If there was any indication of misconduct, they would be ruined by the single fact they had both allowed it and covered it up. Whilst government investigations have revealed this and as a result, the aid sector has received widespread condemnation, nothing seems to have come of it. Oxfam lost a bit of funding whilst everyone still endorses the UN and their actions, with very few critics from our ‘esteemed’ politicians. Absolute power, eh?


  1. Politics

Cyril Smith, one of the biggest disgraces in British Politics.

First known for being a very large man, he was later known for one thing- abuse against boys. The allegations were made both in his lifetime and after his death, with police acknowledging that he should have been charged with sexual abuse during his lifetime. One of the first cases was reported in 1968, with the victim stating that nothing was done because Smith was, as a then-Mayor, a very powerful man. All attempts to prosecute him failed, with evidence being destroyed by MI5, the police and others. In the 1980s, Smith was arrested but his position allowed him to be freed quickly. All those involved were hushed under the Official Secrets Act and all evidence was gotten rid of. He was also a good friend of Jimmy Savile, once a beloved entertainer whose horrible actions rightly damaged his reputation. He may have been involved in the infamous Westminster paedophile dossier. Brought together by a Conservative MP, it was passed onto the Home Secretary. From then on, it is unknown what happened to the dossier. The Home Office reported it was handed to the relevant authorities, but nothing came of it. Though we will never know for sure who or what was on it, we can assume it would have been extremely significant had it been dealt with properly.

Sex abuse scandals are a tale as old as time in US politics. Thomas Jefferson raped his slave Sally Hemings, fathering her children. Grover Cleveland apparently fathered an illegitimate child with a woman before unkindly throwing her into an asylum. The woman, a Maria Halpin, maintained that he had taken her by force. Cleveland also married a woman whom he had essentially raised as a child and whilst it is nothing compared to what he did to Halpin, it’s still pretty icky. The 1983 congressional page scandal saw two congressmen get in huge trouble for sex with underage interns- both illegal and a huge breech of office propriety. One of the most commonly stated is that of Anthony Weiner, husband of Hillary Clinton Number Two Huma Abedin, who is currently in prison due to his cyber relations with an underage girl. Roy Moore lost the Senate seat in Alabama after strong allegations by several women, including minors. Al Franken admitted to the allegations against him from before his time in the Senate, choosing to resign. Incumbent President Trump has been at the end of allegations since the 1980s- his ex wife Ivana accused him of rape before invoking her claim and he had been accused of entering pageant dressing rooms. Though sex scandals usually conjure up images of affairs, many include abuse and rape, such as some of those listed.

Again, it’s power.

With Thomas Jefferson, he legally owned Sally Hemings as a slave- him having sex with her was rape, even if she agreed, because she had no bodily autonomy over him. With Bill Clinton, it’s a slightly different case. There are the cases from Juanita Broaddrick and Paula Jones, but they, like the Trump case, are yet to be confirmed. It is the issue with Monica Lewinsky that lends the most credence to power. It was not rape; it was a clearly defined sexual relationship between two consenting adults. What made it about power was that Clinton was her boss. This wasn’t just like he was a manager at a shop he worked at; he was the President of the United States. As the most powerful man in the Free World, and essentially head of the White House, he was her superior. This was a breach of power- Lewinsky knew what she was doing, but Clinton took advantage of a star struck girl intern young enough to be his daughter. It was an exercise in power. If the Trump allegations are true, it is also power, though different as it was his pre-Presidential days, though he still had huge authority as a billionaire mogul. With Cyril Smith, he knew that he could get away with it because of who he was, both before and during his time in Parliament. Clinton technically did get away with it, because he wasn’t impeached for the affair.

Politics is about power, first and foremost. Though elected by and for the people, a politician has power to change lives, from tax bills to decriminalising homosexuality. Hidden by bureaucracy, protected by the system, politicians live life in the shadows all whilst pretending to smile and kiss babies at country fairs. There could well be dozens of allegations against politicians around the world that are true but have been covered up by the system. It is Westminster’s greatest shame, the loss of the dossier and the allowance of Cyril Smith to continue his evil acts. Programmes like House of Cards have shown how dirty and dangerous politics can be. It is about image and reputation, lesser scandals breaking the best people. The lengths that the authorities went to in order to cover up Smith alone shows that they will go further to protect the system. Once the government can be called into question, they can fall like dominoes and are no longer respected, thus weakening their power. Though the dossier was apparently passed on, it was likely purposefully destroyed. It would not be surprising.

Politics, the church and the aid sector are not the only places of power where sexual abuse is widespread- other religions are at fault, the BBC covered up Jimmy Savile and the Weinstein scandal showed the brutality of Hollywood’s underbelly. Other cases such as the Rotherham sex scandal are also examples of power over the vulnerable, but they are not quite as comparative due to the lesser authority of the perpetrators. Absolute power corrupts absolutely and absolute power corrupts sexually.

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