Clerics, Madrassas and Evangelicals: Sexual Abuse in Religion | Sarah Stook

Sexual abuse in religion is a scandal that everybody seems to know about but nobody seems to really talk about. When the Catholic child sexual abuse scandal broke in 2002 after a groundbreaking investigation by staff members of the Boston Globe, everyone seemed to be aware of it. Finding a meme about creepy Catholic priests isn’t hard to find, nor is the odd burst of news about a scandal in far away country. It’s discussed in newspaper articles and blogged about, but nobody has really started a true conversation about it. We can write til our fingers fall off, but the conversation is very much a superficial one. No one can check the Catholic Church, it’s far above governments and law enforcement agencies.

Most of all, we don’t recognise than it’s more than the Catholic Church. In Islam, Judaism, other branches of Christianity and other religions, there is an endemic set of sexual assault. Everyone is too scared to talk about this, out of fear of repercussions, especially from societies with limited free speech and a strong tolerance for anything their religious leaders do. Religion is such a tour de force that even secular allies may not choose to discuss it. Usually, the conversation is mainly directed at Catholicism, simply because it is the most well known.

Well, most well known in the media. Societies, communities and religions know about when people acting in the name of faith sexually abuse those around them. Their names are whispered in homes, their presence avoided and their identities well known to indifferent authorities. The #MeToo movement has catapulted the idea of mass sexual harassment and the culture of silence around it to the mainstream, but that usually is laser focused on the entertainment industry and the political arena. Nowhere is religion mentioned, again due to fear.

It should stop today.

Background in Specific Religions/Denominations

  • Catholic Church- In 2002, the so-called ‘Spotlight’ team of the Boston Globe unearthed a cover up of epic proportions regarding sex abuse, specifically of children, in the Catholic Church. Though there was some knowledge of the issue pre-2002, the scale of the problem was learnt in that year. For years, priests and other members of the clergy were massively abusing children, the majority being boys of 11-14. For many, they were never discovered or were not found out until many years later. Those who were found out were nearly never brought to justice, instead being parachuted to a new parish where their name was intact and they could soon begin to abuse once again. A number were sent to ‘health retreats,’ run by fellow clergymen. Not all abuse was directed at children, however. Only recently, the Pope has referred to the sexual assault of nuns, specifically in a part of France- his predecessor attempted actions, but was shot down by others. In the Magdalene laundries, where ‘fallen women’ (women raped, unmarried mothers, too pretty, those who had pre-marital sex, prostitutes and those simply deemed not right by male family members).
  • Other Christian Denominations- The most infamous non-Catholic example is with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). They are well known for polygamous marriages, as well as forced underage marriages and improper sexual behaviour towards girls (one member was forced to perform fellatio on her father at the age of seven). Many girls are married well under the age of 18, often not the first wife of her husband. Leader of the Church, Warren Jeffs, is currently in prison for a variety of crimes such as incest and indecent assault on a minor. In the evangelical community, there have been a plethora of cases of ministers resigning after sexual assaults, the pastors using their position of power over others, such as the case of Andy Savage.
  • Islam- In Islam, there are religious schools called Madrassas. These Madrassas do exist mainly in Islamic countries, specifically in Pakistan; they also exist in the West. Unfortunately for many of its students are victims of sexual abuse by tutors and other staff. One example is of a boy who was raped by his instructor in the Punjabi region. His mother fought for justice, but pressure from militant groups forced her to drop the charges and she simply accepted money from the cleric. A spin off of #MeToo, called #MosqueMeToo, relayed the experiences of women who were abused during the pilgrimage Hajj, molested and touched inappropriately by others in the close spaces.
  • Judaism- In Judaism, there is a serious problem in the Ultra-Orthodox Community, such as the Haredi community in Brooklyn. In said community, those brave enough to report are shamed by their communities and many ended up recanting their confessions. Some children who complained were kicked out of school, whilst other schools moved teachers back in after the statute of limitations ran out. Contacting secular communities, such as the police, is forbidden, so when it is reported to rabbis, it is brushed under the rug. One Rabbi reported how a fellow clergyman assaulted a child, with the child later forced to apologise to ‘for seducing him.’ Many refuse to believe it to be true or hide it.

Why It’s Covered Up:

Religion is a powerful thing, nobody can underestimate that. Historically, religion has caused utter devotion, wars and regime change. Though religion has less significance in the modern world as a whole, there is still power. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran base their entire society and legislation on religious law. In some cases, people will go to their pastor way before anybody else. Even gang members in Latin America show utter devotion to the church whilst mindlessly slaughtering enemies. This is why no one talks.

Make no mistake; it’s not the whole of Catholicism that’s at fault when a priest is discovered to be a paedophile. Still, those who are doing it are under the banner of religion and many using faith as somewhat of a vessel. It’s the Catholic Church that has failed to investigate, Islam that hasn’t done anything about the abuse in its schools and high ranking Rabbis who are denying sexual abuse. The power religions have is indescribable; those who are truly faithful will put their religion above anything else in the world. Prayer is their highest condolence and biggest cry for help. The Catholic Church is the biggest non-government provider of healthcare, with schools and hospitals run by them in every corner of the world. Madrassas, the Islamic schools discussed earlier, provide food, shelter and education to the poorest in society, who would otherwise be illiterate without them. Religious leaders control the communities, it’s very simple.

Even if people wanted to talk, they know they will be ignored, shunned or even excommunicated to dare to go against people who represent the word of God. If religious bureaucrats care about anything, its reputation, otherwise they wouldn’t get new followers. Elders are happy to let sexual abuse occur against faithful followers, good people who properly follow their religion and represent the best of what their faith has to offer. Look at the Catholic Church and their cover up. In individual communities, bishops would spring abusive priests to other parishes in order to cover up their crime and ensure that no victims talked. The Vatican has backlogs of thousands of cases and the higher ups knew about it, but never did a thing. Whether it’s Christianity, Islam or Judaism, they will not do a thing that puts them in disrepute. Priests, imams and rabbis are seen as the pinnacles of a good community and many people will protect them.

In some cases, it’s a question of homosexuality. In Islam especially, there is a huge stigma around same-sex relations, to the point where gays can be killed by the state. Catholics may not be as harsh, but it is not something that is endorsed by the church. The Madrassas tend to be abuse towards boys due to the schools being single sex as a result of strict gender segregation. The cases in the Catholic church tend to point to boys being the main victims, with reported cases being similar in the Orthodox Jewish community. It is not seen as a case of abuse as it would be if girls were preyed upon, but of homosexuality, somehow seen as worse. It’s not fair or right to say that rejection of homosexuality leads to child abuse, because it is not the same thing. Gay or straight, these people will be predatory because they are evil. Many wonder that the Catholic views on priest celibacy leads to them using sexual abuse as an outlet, but it is a controversial study. Abuse of young boys is something that happens in Afghan culture (bacha baz, a Persian term) and was banned under the Taliban, but still occurred due to corruption. In a country like that, being gay gets you an automatic death sentence at worse, yet people will still turn away. This isn’t homosexuality, that is abuse, yet same-sex relations are still hated.

The final point is simple- stigma around admitting sexual assault. In some countries, rape and abuse victims can be accused of fornication and adultery, both of which can land you years in prison, lashes and even the death penalty. Even in more developed countries, such as the USA and Ireland, many just don’t want to admit it. It’s not right to force people to speak out and we can’t ask for that, but we can wish society was more open so that people have the courage to report it. Victims can have physical, mental and emotional scars, making it harder to open up. It’s not just in religion, but the added pressures discussed earlier make it harder.

It’s easy to sit behind a keyboard as a person not involved in a church, living in a free country with no experience of the horrors many have faced in the name of religion. Anger needs to be expressed though, anger at how the systematic abuse of children and others by religious groups is hushed because people are scared of annoying the wrong people. Religion is not free from criticism. It is wrong to hate a person because of their religion, but it is not wrong to criticise the ideology of a religion and its bureaucratic front, otherwise nothing will happen. People are free to make jokes about creepy priests, but many other cases are not joked about online because people are scared off offending others.

It’s not opinion, it’s fact. We’ve seen the stats on Catholic cover ups and read the stories of boys being assaulted in Islamic religious schools. The age of #MeToo has passed by churches, focusing instead on celebrities and politicians. What we need is a focus on religion. Instead of being scared to offend and wanting to grab headlines with big names, fight against that using the name of their god.

A society that protects the cruel and ignores the weak is no society at all.

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