April 17, 2010

Caring About Abuse

To those implying* that your friendly local atheist is taking some new-found interest in fighting child sexual abuse because it involves the Catholic church or because Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are supporting the effort to explore legal options:

Oh, there are plenty of things I could say here. Short, pithy, pointed. Angry. Satisfying…but unhelpful. So I'll settle for this: Are you listening to yourselves?

I'm serious. Did you think for one brief minute before sharing your first half-formed thoughts on this?

Even among child abusers, people who think they're doing something okay are not the rule. People fight pedophilia, even when they find it within themselves. Many who do act on it come up with elaborate stories to explain away what they're doing. The monster who says, "Mine to do with as I please," is not common. Why would you think we're apathetic about it?

No, I don't sit around saying, "Child sexual abuse is bad. It should stop." I also don't generally say, "Gravity pulls that way. It should stick around." The reaction to child sexual abuse is so universal that I've been cautioned as a writer against using it as a cheap emotional device in stories. Some things are simply so self-evident that it is an insult to say them to anyone who's been introduced to the concept. Some statements require an explanation justifying their utterance. This is one of them.

What is it that you think of us? Do we condone child abuse normally--until it's done in the shadow of the cross or the crescent? Are we merely callous and insensitive? Frivolous? Self-absorbed? Blind to the problem?

While you're thinking about the audience for your condescension, think about that last option a little harder. If you are so much more personally concerned with the problem of child sexual abuse than we are, you probably know that somewhere between 10% and 25% of children are estimated to be affected. Even given lower survival rates among those children, they still grow up to be a large percentage of the population.

How many of those people you're accusing of jumping onto a trendy and politically expedient problem are survivors of child sexual abuse themselves?

No, I can't tell you either. I can tell you that you've hit at least one. Me. I don't spend a lot of time talking about it, but who does?

I participate in certain activities instead, activities directed at helping kids survive when they're abused, activities directed at calming people down enough that pedophiles feel free to seek treatment and that fruitful research on the problem can take place. I could tell you what they are, but I won't, because I decide when and where I talk about this, not you.

I didn't go through what I did, mild as it is by some standards, to be put on trial by you to prove that I care about this issue enough to have an opinion on whether it's a good thing to put pressure on the world's largest central religious organization to change policies that perpetuate child sexual abuse. I didn't survive to watch that piece of me be dismissed because you don't like how I--or someone else--talks about religion, when we're talking about systemic, organizational enabling of abuse.

Do you want to talk about other actions you think will be more effective than prosecution, to engage people who have always wanted to help but not known how to tackle problem this pervasive and diffuse? Great. If nothing else, I'm always up for a chat on changing clerical exemptions to mandatory reporting laws. Now seems like a great time to fix those. We'll talk.

But if you come at this questioning my motivation, I have nothing to say to you, except to ask what kind of monster you think I am. There is no grounds for discussion. We're done.

* Not a strawman and not limited to those who dislike atheists or, sadly, even to those who appear to be angry at one or two atheists in particular. I could point, but there are some discussions that should be staked through the heart and buried at a crossroads.


Heather M. Rosa said...

I am aware that, as a non-catholic, it may be easier for me to sit and judge from a point outside the church. Not about the universal reaction to the abuse, but to the Church's mis-steps in dealing with the issue. Those occur both in dealing with the offenders and protecting the vulnerable, and with the embarrassingly inadequate and uninformed attempts at PR control. I have not been told from infancy that the folks equating pedophilia with homosexuality (just one idiotic statement) are to be listened to, obeyed, and held higher and closer to God than anybody else. I'm freer to criticize.

Even knowing all that, where's all the outrage from committed Catholics? I'm not saying there's none. I'm just not hearing it happen. I wrote a Catholic friend and asked for a viewpoint from someone within the Church to help balance my own and my perceptions of what's going on in the Church. I've not gotten a reply. Perhaps he's been offended by the question or how I asked it. I had thought him assertive enough to say so if that were the case. So I'm just left wondering whether the outrage INSIDE the Church is as strong as that coming from OUTSIDE, whether religious or atheist.

Just as you want to be recognized as the compassionate human being you are without believing in religion, I want to find a way to believe the same about the people who do believe and perhaps feel gagged by the church and unable to respond.

daedalus2u said...

Stephanie, it is xenophobia. Religious individuals who are unable to understand the atheist mindset see atheists as “the other”; as individuals who are not fully human, individuals who cannot be understood or reasoned with, individuals for whom the niceties of civilized behavior are not reserved for. They see atheists as non-human entities without the capacity for qualities that they consider “human”. They cannot understand that atheists can love and be loved because “love” is something that only humans can do.

It is the xenophobic mindset on the part of religious individuals that allows them to accuse atheists of blood libels, to blame the Holocaust on atheism rather than on those who actually committed it. Blame atheists for the Holocaust and not the centuries of Blood Libel against the Jews promulgated by the
Catholic and protestant churches, by religious individuals who thought they were doing God's work.

The idea that an atheist could do something (try to protect children from abuse) out of love and compassion for children creates feelings of cognitive dissonance in those who feel xenophobia toward atheists. They must make up some other explanation for the atheist's behavior that fits with their xenophobic mind-set and then project that explanation onto the atheists. That is why any criticism of any religious leader's actions by any atheist is always met with the accusation that their motivation can only be an attack on religion.

Stephanie Zvan said...

daedalus, I understand some of that coming from theists. If I had seen only that, I probably wouldn't have written this post. But I saw three people, two of whom I know identify as atheists, also do this. That's the point around which my brain was buzzing and wasn't going to stop until I wrote this.

How do we end up "othering" each other that thoroughly?

daedalus2u said...

I have blogged about the physiology of xenophobia.


If you are unable to understand someone's mindset and emulate their thinking process (their thinking process as they actually do it, not as you think/project they do it), I think that invokes feelings of xenophobia.

I don't know why people who identify as atheists would impute bad motives to atheists fighting child abuse in the Catholic Church, but if it isn't about religion, maybe they don't appreciate how damaging child abuse is to the child. People who have never experienced child abuse may think it is no big deal, benign or even beneficial. Pretending that it is no big deal is a very common strategy that victims use to mitigate the damage. Acknowledging that one was harmed is to disclose a vulnerability. Acknowledging that one was once a victim is to disclose that one can be forced into a victim-state.

A woman who experienced abuse as a child might be better able to survive abuse as an adult because she can invoke that victim-state and not be as badly beaten by her abuser. Abuse of children by priests might partially mitigate the damage to adults that the Catholic Church does by tolerating the misogynistic abuse of adult women. (this is speculative and not a reason to tolerate child abuse, but it might be a reason why child abuse persists)

Bullying is extremely common in many human interactions. It is one of the usual methods for moving people down in the social hierarchy, and moving someone else down is absolutely necessary for one to move up. Atheists are outside the “religious peoples” social power hierarchy, in the “non-human” section below even children, so any interaction that atheists have that moves anyone down is seen as unwanted outside interference. Children are already at the bottom, so child abuse doesn't have any immediate effects on the power structure (so long as it can remain secret). It does retard the child's ability to move up, but that is a benefit for everyone else.

NewEnglandBob said...

If anyone had abused my children when they were young or my grandchildren, I would go to the ends of the earth to punish the abuser. Child sexual abuse is something that no one should tolerate. Covering it up is nearly as vicious a crime and both the abuse and its cover up should be prosecuted. A systemic conspiracy by an organization to hide the abuse should cause loud protest from everyone inside and outside the organization and changes in laws must be enacted to eliminate the abuse and its cover up. If some people are offended by those protests and actions then they become part of the problem and should be bulldozed out of the way. This is a zero tolerance issue if there ever is one.

D. C. said...

Child sexual abuse is something that no one should tolerate. Covering it up is nearly as vicious a crime and both the abuse and its cover up should be prosecuted.

See, it's this "and what do we do to change it" reflex I have. Engineers.

So I look at what we know about paedophilia and as far as I can see nobody really has any good ideas (short of death, and I'm not prepared to go there) of how to "fix" them. Punishment isn't the most effective behavior modification method at the best of times.

So I don't pretend to have any great insight into how to deal with the paedophiles.

On the other hand, those excuses don't apply to those who enable them by covering up abuse, and even less so for those who actually keep rotating them through fresh target-rich environments. For THEM I can get some seriously righteous anger.

NewEnglandBob said...

D.C., since when is the word "prosecuted" the same thing as the word "punishment"? Look at a dictionary. Do you even realize that prosecution can lead to medical treatment too?

Are you saying I am wrong to demand prosecution for crimes committed?

Are you going to allow murder too? How about robbery and adult rape? We might as well declare war on the world too? Lets have anarchy, why don't we?

Think before you make statements like you did.

D. C. said...

Are you saying I am wrong to demand prosecution for crimes committed?

Presumably leading to conviction -- and then what? Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge nothing is effective in changing the behavior of paedophiles. That includes all of the treatments tried. The implication is that the best we can hope for is to keep them from getting a chance at more kids, presumably for life (which has its own issues.)

Just sayin' that I don't pretend that there's a good answer, and the best of a bad lot stinks. Well, it's an imperfect universe.

No such reservations exist for those who enable them. In the present example of the RCC, the decision to shield and support the offenders was made on the basis of calculated costs and benefits. Those can be shifted much more easily.

NewEnglandBob said...

D.C. said:
"Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge nothing is effective in changing the behavior of paedophiles."

Then it is a good thing you aren't in charge to paralyze everything with wimpy indecision.

Time to unsubscribe from this post. I have said what I want.

Heather M. Rosa said...

The reason prosecution works is that it enables society to lock up the perp. If there is no cure - or until there is - prevention is the only fix.

Greg Laden said...

All this discussion about what can and can't be done regarding pedophiles, and not a single citation. I'm skeptical.

The premise of this post is not necessarily pedophilia. Nor is the premise of the church's problem.

Pedophilia is a certain condition in our society, apparently, but there is variation across societies, and across subcultures, in what is done (allowed or disallowed, sanctioned or not, being a factor but not the onl factor). In one culture every young boy provides regular oral sex for a set of adult men, until he reaches a certain age then the situation is reversed. Sex with women is considered dangerious and is onl done for reproductive purposes. Is every man in that society a pedophile? If so, then the funcitonal definition of pedophile that is assumed in this conversation is useless.

I stronl suspect that what is happening in the church is a combination of different things goin on at once. Just a guess on my part, really.

D. C. said...

All this discussion about what can and can't be done regarding pedophiles, and not a single citation. I'm skeptical.

And rightly so.

My point was that regardless of the prospects for modifying the behavior of the perpetrators, there is absolutely no justification for not bringing the hammer down on those who cover up and enable the abuse.

Ben Zvan said...

"Punishment isn't the most effective behavior modification method at the best of times."

How about reward? Every time somebody doesn't abuse a child, we buy them a hooker.

D. C. said...

How about reward? Every time somebody doesn't abuse a child, we buy them a hooker.

In general reward is more effective than punishment (and intermittent reward is even more so, which is good for the budget) but both depend a lot on temporal proximity.

Now as to the paperwork ...