Under the surface of abuse culture

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Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: gender, power, and organizational culture

by Marie Keenan  (Oxford University Press)

Reviewed by Brid Featherstone

To explore and understand the sexual abuse of children and young people by clergy in Ireland and the attendant responses or, indeed, non-responses, by those in authority, is a task requiring the integration of head and heart.

Scholarly rigour is essential but it must be accompanied by the ability to hold and live with powerful and painful emotions, as one documents and seeks to understand the ­myriad betrayals of trust that have scarred the lives of so many. Bravery is also required, to confront and explore sensitive and high-profile topics and relationships.

Bravery, scholarly rigour and compassion are all found in abundance in Marie Keenan’s illuminating and compassionate new book. She brings together interviews with clergy who have abused children and young people with an examination of the institutional contexts in which these men were trained.

She examines the clerical culture and the structures of leadership and governance in the Catholic Church, and addresses how these men abused their positions of trust and continued day after day to say Mass and fulfil their duties.

There is, understandably, a current of unease and anxiety running through the book. By attending in such detail to the complexities of these men’s experiences and even by offering them a voice in the first place, might Keenan be accused of excusing their behaviour, or of disregarding the pain of their victims?

In my opinion, if we are to build lasting change, it is vital that we seek to understand why someone – particularly someone in a position of power and trust – behaves abusively. But to do so is often open to misinterpretation, because of a persistent tendency to conflate understanding and excusing.

Drawing on her experience as a therapist, Keenan shows that the ‘bad apple’ type of explanation that is often favoured by the hierarchy of the Church is profoundly unhelpful. The key is in the context, not in the individual.

Men who are often poorly equipped emotionally from the outset enter institutional settings where morality is rule-bound and excessively focused on sexual abstinence. The status conferred by ordination sets these individuals apart, in a pattern of life where there are no boundaries between ‘work’ and leisure, and where one is never off duty.

More significantly, these men are set apart from other human beings, particularly from laypeople, by the elitism that is built into the relationship between laity and clergy.

Full review: http://www.thetablet.co.uk/issue/1000307/booksandart

Story including Marie Keenan from NCR: http://ncronline.org/news/accountability/ferment-ireland-new-report-sex-abuse-looms

Story from Irish Catholic: http://www.irishcatholic.ie/site/content/getting-full-truth-marie-keenan

Interview with Marie Keenan: http://soundcloud.com/generationtech/noel-bell-interviews-dr-marie

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