This article by Mark Owen originally appeared on PiperPost.
It may seem to some that the sexual abuse of children by the clergy is a recent, modern problem. Not so! In the Middle Ages the rules of some religious orders actually made provision for punishing monks who played around with little boys, which implies that this was a common activity! Among other offences — punishable by flagellation — was that of ‘indecencies of any kind with boys’ (and with other monks), and in this case the whipping was inflicted in public. That such a provision was deemed necessary certainly admits that abuses took place, at least on some occasions.
Indeed, the matter was by no means settled for hundreds of years and even when celibacy became the norm the resultant outbreaks of sexual misdemeanor made a mockery of the rule anyway! This is not the place to go into the illicit sexual activities of popes (yes, popes), cardinals (yes, cardinals), bishops (yes, bishops), priests, monks and nuns, altogether too large a story to be told here. Suffice it to point out that in some of the blame for the fall from grace of certain Catholic priests in the 20th century can be laid directly at the feet of those who imposed this cruel requirement upon mortal flesh. Just one counsellor alone, Jay Feierman, a psychiatry professor at the University of New Mexico, has reportedly treated 500 abusive priests over a 15-year period. This says it all, doesn’t it?
There have been other factors at work, too, in the situation, that opened the door to abuse. These include the basic fear engendered by the priests and nuns, who – at least until very recent times — wielded authority over the people. We live in a different world today but it is not so long ago when the good Catholic would not dare question anything the parish priest said or did, or the religious nun or brother in the school.
Thus if little Johnny came home from school and reported he had been severely beaten nothing would be said. Even if he bore weals in his body. For not only was sexual abuse occurring but long before this physical abuse, too. I am not writing about ordinary discipline, but real cruelty experienced in schools and especially behind the high walls of religious institutions. Some of these instances saw the light of day in their time and were even aired in the public press, but all too few. The atmosphere of fear and respect for authority ensured that little of the truth emerged.
Many teaching nuns and brothers had reputations for cruelty towards their small pupils. The strap and the stick were in heavy use in Church schools and residential institutions in times past and doubtless sadism, a distortion of the sexual impulse, was manifest in many of those celibate teachers. A notorious case hit the Parisian headlines in 1902, when nuns at Nôtre Dame de Charité were accused of employing outrageous disciplinary methods in the school. Girls were kept in straitjackets, sometimes for days on end, and forced to eat thus restrained by having their heads pushed down into bowls. One nun often smeared the faces of the restrained girls with mud and even her own excreta. And restrained girls were likely to have their heads held under water. Altogether the nuns’ activities reflected nothing less than outright sadism.
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