Child abuse: what the Church isn't telling you

by - 15th September 2010


It is ironic that in all the comment on the Pope and child abuse, there has been no reflection at all on two things: one, that the contemporary notion of a ‘child’ is uniquely a Christian insight in the first place and two, that the people who have distinguished themselves more than all others in situations where children are most abominably at risk, are humble Catholic sisters and fathers whose quiet sacrifice goes completely unknown.

The sexualisation of children that is so rampant in neo-pagan Europe is a direct echo of the past when the distinction between the child and the adult which puberty marks for Christian Europe was not observed.  Children could be used for sexual purposes, or enslaved – as they are in Pakistan and much of India today – with impunity.  Muhammad, then in his 50s, consummated his marriage with Aisha when she was 9 years old – three years after marrying her; a fact of enormous consequence for young women in many Muslim countries where 9 is still the minimum age of marriage.  The Ayatollah Khomeini, then in his late 20s, married Batoul Saqafi when she was 11.  There are even regulations for re-marrying young girls, recounted in authoritative sources, including Sahih al-Bukhari and Ibn Kathir.  A passage in chapter 39 of al-Bukhari’s Book of Marriage is actually entitled ‘Giving one’s young children in marriage.’

If you lose the idea of sexual innocence, you lose childhood itself. 

This is not just theory.  In northern Uganda Comboni Fathers have devoted their lives to educating children in a dangerous wilderness, and protecting them from the ravages of the Lord’s Resistance Army.  I’ve been there and witnessed for myself the isolation of these remarkable fortresses where an African child’s developmental rights are held to be of greater importance than the safety and comfort of the adult foreigners who give up everything to educate them. 

In 1996, it was self-denying love for her girls that drove a small Italian nun into the bandit-infested bush in Apac District to rescue 139 of them abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army.  This nun, Sister Rachele Fassere, with one young male employee of St Mary’s School, followed the direction the soldiers had taken into the night, determined to confront them with nothing but her indignation and fury.  They were so stunned when she caught up with them that they returned 109 of the girls on the spot – two had already been killed and just two remain unaccounted for.

The story of the Aboke Girls was written up in a book by a Belgian journalist Els de Temmeman – which is how I know about it.  But many other such heroic acts remain unsung.

Ann Widdecombe regretted in a recent Guardian comment piece that ‘the church does not do PR’.  Indeed’, she went on, ‘when I wanted facts and figures on the church's overseas aid for a debate, I had to search hard. Christ said, ‘do not your good deeds to be seen before men’, so the church dutifully hides them or at least refrains from ostentatiously displaying them.’

She is wrong.  The reverse is in fact the case.  Christ is reported in Matthew as saying ‘let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.’  He also said: ‘Do not hide your light under a bushel’. 

What He warned against was ostentatious displays of piety or generosity merely to gain honour.   ‘Be careful not to do your “acts of righteousness” before men, to be seen by them’ (Matthew 6:1).  ‘When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by men . . . and when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men’ (Mt6:5).

There are many other verses that encourage speaking up:  ‘Write the vision that they may run that read it’ said Habakkuk the Old Testament prophet.  And St Peter the Father of the Church says: ‘Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.’

We do not sing of our own good deeds, but we surely must speak up about those of others.