The Vatican synod currently underway has as its theme the ‘protection of minors’, a category that in our current intellectual milieu triggers a vivid emotional response; for what comes to mind are little children and, if one is of a religious persuasion, the condemnation of Our Lord of those who scandalize such vulnerable souls.
Yet when we apply the term to the nitty-gritty concrete reality of life, the term becomes somewhat more vague. How to define a ‘minor’?
The Latin term minor means ‘lesser’, and although age is one of the primary ways in which some are minor, it is not the only way.
The law needs strict dividing lines, so, in Canada, a minor is one who is less than 19 years old, and a ‘major’, one over that rather arbitrary boundary. Hence, a strapping lad of 18 years, 364 days, 11 hours and 59 minutes – who can marry, raise his own children, drive a car, fly a plane, buy a house, fight in a war – is a ‘child’, while sixty seconds later, he would be an ‘adult’. As a victim or a perpetrator of a crime, he would – in theory – be treated accordingly in each case (although there are exceptions).
One can see where all this is going, for the real issue before us goes well beyond ‘adult – child’ sexual relations, the image that is conjured up in the minds of most people when they hear ‘abuse of minors’. We should recall that the majority of abuse cases in the Church have been between adults and either younger adults (seminarians and such) or those who are no longer little children, but not yet adults (pubescents in their teen years). Hence, what we have before us are not the rather rare cases of paedophilia – the ‘little children’ – but, in the vast majority, hebephilia, ephebophilia and pederasty – to say nothing of homosexuality of its various sorts – all part of that whole family (if such be the term) of paraphilias disordering the sexual appetite.
Really, the ‘sex abuse crisis’ is a bitter fruit of the vitiation of our sexual appetites and the expression thereof – tacitly tolerated it many parts of the Church – made more grave by the misuse of priestly authority to feed the insatiable lustful beast, which is, I think, where the vague and much-bandied charge of ‘clericalism’ fits in.
And, what is more, although it is particularly heinous for adults to sexually abuse those who are far ‘lesser’ than they, it is not the only form of ‘sexual abuse’. In fact, any disordered use of our sexuality is a form of abuse, of ourselves and of others, with some relationships being more ‘abusive’ than others. Here is Mary Rice Hasson from a recent Catholic Herald opinion piece on the (over) emphasis on ‘minors’ as the focus of the problem:
This arbitrary line-drawing relegates everything but the abuse of minors to the perimeter—the sexual abuse of seminarians, vulnerable adults (with impaired reason), religious sisters, and adult women, as well as the problem of clergy “consensual” sexual activity with adults—as if the evil at work could be counted on to respect the Vatican’s neat and tidy categories. Those involved in planning the February summit claimed that getting the abuse-of-minors problem fixed would have spillover effects in addressing other forms of sexual abuse and misconduct. That remains to be seen (as the abuse-of-minors scandal remains to be fully addressed). But it’s worth asking if the Church’s “minors only” approach has been unduly influenced by the views of outside experts on child abuse. For within the secular professions the bright line that separates a minor from an adult imposes its own secular pseudo-morality: on the minor’s side of the age divide, sex with adults is abuse; on the adult side of the line, sex with any adult (male or female), of any kind (no matter how kinky) is “morally” neutral, assuming it is consensual.
Any disordered use of sex leads to further disordered sex, for our appetites never sit still, but seek ever-further stimulation. The only way to control such concupiscence in this fallen world is to ‘chastise’ our passions through the etymologically related virtue of chastity, either through continent celibacy in some sort of consecrated life, or through conjugal chastity within a sacramental marriage. Such virtue is not and will never be gained through policies, procedures and fifteen-point bulletin statements, but rather by a life of prayer, discipline, grace and sacramental participation.
Hence, at the root of the crisis is the widespread denial and rejection – in practice, if not even in theory – of the fact that the expression of sexuality is permitted only within the vows of such a monogamous marriage, between husband and wife, when that relationship is equal, mutual, consensual, faithful, permanent, life-giving and life-long.
Anything else has led us and will continue to lead us on a rather short path to chaos and misery, what the Church in her tradition has called ‘hell’.