10 Ways Catholic Communities Enable Abuse

April is both Sexual Assault Awareness month and Child Abuse Prevention month. As a Catholic community, reflecting upon what we can all do in order to prevent these scourges, here is a list of dangers to be wary of. These cultural and communal attitudes make it easy for abusers to hide in plain sight and keep victims within easy reach.

1. The stigmatization of divorce.

“Catholics don’t divorce.”  Everybody has heard that mantra. I heard it constantly growing up.

There are self-appointed Catholic “thinkers” who devote entire blogs and books to fear-mongering, misinformation, and hysteria about what will happen to “the children of divorce” when they grow up. It is this hysteria and falsehood which preys on the minds of Catholic families and makes them useless to help abuse victims who try to flee. Worse, it keeps Catholic spouses trapped in the idea that they should rather accept intolerable situations of abuse and/or spousal rape “for the sake of the children”.

I never heard a single sermon as a young adult talking about femicide, or intimate partner violence, or the evils of rape. I heard plenty from as young as I could remember about the “evil of divorce.” There also wasn’t any distinction drawn between civil divorce (which is not only permitted by the Church but is also a necessity for those seeking an annulment from the Church) and divorce and remarriage (which is forbidden by the Church).

Demonizing people who get civil divorces and spreading fear about people whose parents are divorced, not only enables intimate partner violence and child abuse, it spreads the message that the Catholic Church doesn’t care.

If divorced Catholic women attend any church function or mention that they are divorced online, other Catholics feel entitled to demand an explanation from her as to why she is divorced. And if she answers, “My husband was hurting me and our kids” or “my husband abandoned his family for an affair” they still look for ways to find the woman at fault.

Demonizing people who get civil divorces and spreading fear about people whose parents are divorced, not only enables intimate partner violence and child abuse, it spreads the message that the Catholic Church doesn’t care. This is not the message that the Church wants to send during the ongoing abuse crisis.

I heard one priest name the single greatest problem in the Catholic Church in the United States as the “ease with which Catholics could get an annulment”. He was not a canon lawyer, obviously. There are traditionalists who refuse to let children with divorced parents in their schools. Some Catholic parents won’t let their children play with children whose parents are divorced. How is any of that “for the sake of the children?”

2. The obedience of wives and children

“Wives, be submissive to your husbands in all things” is a fraction of a complete Scripture quote, taken out of context and abused to ensure male supremacy in Christian marriages. Catholics are not exempt from this, and are some of the worst offenders.

For too many of our Catholic mothers and grandmothers, having to hide money from their husbands in order to have something saved for emergencies was a normal part of their existence.

While some Catholics take pains to make distinctions between male headship and male supremacy, for others there is no practical difference. For too many of our Catholic mothers and grandmothers, having to hide money from their husbands in order to have something saved for emergencies was a normal part of their existence. Not having access to accounts, or being allowed to work outside the home or having any idea what their spouse had done with their money was seen not as financial abuse, but part of their wifely submission.

Too many Catholic neighbors see it as normal for the man to always have to use the only working household vehicle and for the wife and children to be indefinitely housebound. Many Catholic couples are actively discouraged by priests from getting separate bank accounts.

“If you go against your husband, you go against God!”

“If you criticize your husband, you’re a bad wife!”

“Honor thy Father and thy Mother.”

These words constantly shouted down at the powerless do not create safe spaces for children to report child abuse and molestation or for women to report rape and spousal abuse.

3. The stigmatization of mental illness, physical chronic illness, and people with special needs.

Catholic prejudice against mental health stems from ignorance due to avoidance of doctors and mental health professionals. When the phrase “mental illness” is used either as an excuse for violent, anti-social behavior or as a blanket term discrediting anybody who identifies as a survivor, abuse is enabled. Using the phrase in this way is bigotry and perpetuates the normalization of gaslighting. Only the ignorant use trauma as an excuse for abusers and as discredit to survivors.

Open displays of ableism from some Catholics are truly appalling. A spouse having a disability or suffering from chronic illness makes them more vulnerable to abuse. But instead of acting to protect the chronically ill or disabled spouse, Catholics will tell them how “lucky” they are. Women in particular are preached at by their own in-laws and extended family that their “poor” husbands “put up with” their illness/ disability. And God help the child with special needs in a violent, chaotic family.

4. The stigmatization of poverty.

This is an unfortunate symptom of the long-term effects of Americanism and “prosperity gospel” on the Catholic world. It has led not only to the myth that successful, prosperous, well-educated people couldn’t be abusers, but also a mistrust of impoverished, single parents as “unstable” and “irresponsible.” If Catholics allow themselves to believe that poor people are only poor because they deserve it, they become incapable of serving God through His poor.

5. A culture of secrecy and silence.

Some Catholics sadly discourage victims from reporting institutional corruption. Others will refuse to hear of any decisive legal action taken against a relative or family member. If the family, or school or parish is exposed to the world for its problems, it is not the abusers or enablers who are blamed, it is the victims who report. They abuse phrases like, “forgiveness” and “family loyalty” to condemn and silence the victims into perpetuating silence and violence.

6. Romanticization of large, Catholic families.

When a family has more than ten children before the parents are in their fifties, they are showered with adulation, wonder, and hero worship by others in their Catholic community. This is in contrast to mainstream secular reactions which range from open derision to hostile revilement. Catholics with large families often only feel free to be themselves among others much like the Others feel enormous pressure to live up to the myth that large families that “trusted in God and said yes to His Divine Will” are all healthy and happy and have what they need.

Understandably, nobody looking from the outside wants to even conceive of the idea that the woman might have been completely powerless when it came to each pregnancy. Or that those “Catholic twins” might have been so close in age because the husband disobeyed the doctor’s order to let his wife heal postpartum. These things are too horrible to think of, but they happen in large, Catholic families, right beside the happy, large families. Until Catholics learn this, things will never change. Especially among Catholics, if parents keep adopting until they have large families, this is seen as additional proof of their generosity and heroism. If an adopted child is secretly being abused, he will not have an easy time getting people to notice or believe.

7. Glamorization of Homeschooling families.

Another large subgroup within Catholic communities in which nobody wants to notice problems is the homeschoolers. Homeschooling, for all of it’s advantages, provides a perfect environment for secrecy and lack of accountability from parents. This is especially true within large families in which parents are given carte blanche. In this environment, there are no school nurses to notice welts and unusual bruising. There is no teacher to notice a decline in grades or emotional distress or lack of sleep. There is no principal to take note of multiple instances of violent behavior, bullying, sexual harassment or self harm. This is perfect for abusive parents who do not want to be caught.

8. Defensiveness of Catholic identity.

Given the hostility or derision that Catholics sense from “bad” Catholics and non-Catholics and the hostility Catholics encourage toward anyone they view as a threat to their way of life, it is easy to see why it would become so important for Catholics at all cost to save face.

“You can’t report that priest’s child abuse. It will make our parish look bad!”

“Don’t say anything about the way the bishop covered up the abuse cases! What will people think of the Church?”

“You can’t say what the president of that Catholic College did! It’s a great Catholic school!”

“Don’t say anything about that great Catholic family! They are good, true Catholics!”

If things are ever going to change, Catholics have to get used to looking bad, for a long time — because that is what covering up crimes and institutional corruption looks like to any sane person.

9. Fear of Doctors, Psychiatrists, Counselors, Social workers, Teachers and Secular Education.

Part of the appeal of homeschooling and then sending your children to very small, conservative, Catholic colleges is to avoid contact with secular authority figures until the sheltered children are twenty-one and have learned to accept their upbringing as normal or at least learn that they can’t break free of the bubble. Secular social workers are reviled as agents who break up families. Doctors are reduced to birth control pushers, and psychiatry is suspect due to the aforementioned stigma against needing help. Teachers outside of Catholic schools are avoided as people who will give your teens condoms and tell them it is okay to be gay. All this feeds into the isolating from the conservative Catholic world from any resource that can help them in the case of abuse.

10. Clericalism

This will hopefully change among some Catholic laity because of the ongoing abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. When I was growing up, we were taught that it was sinful to criticize a priest. It was supposedly sinful even to entertain negative thoughts or impressions of a priest. If priests rebuke parishioners or shun them, the benefit of the doubt always goes to the priest. This environment of priest worship was always abuse waiting to happen. The pressure for priests to be the perfect figureheads of Christ fueled the institutional cover-up of the mass, ongoing crisis.

Regardless of intention, good or bad, these are the dangers that we need to be conscious of going forward to create a safer world. As we like to say here at Dinah’s Voice: it starts with us.

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