Trigger alert – see title.
Now and then I draft a blog post I feel is too risky. This was one of those posts. I’m willing to do a face-plant on this, though, because as much as it will make me lose more credibility with some readers, it might empower someone, somewhere, in some way. So here goes nothing.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin called the outcome of the Irish gay marriage referendum a “defeat for humanity.” My Facebook friends pointed out that the Church’s complicity in various abuses – especially of children – has been a greater “defeat for humanity” than the Irish constitution’s recognition of same-sex unions.
I think this disagreement is an opportunity to speak about the relationship between the church’s homophobia and its hideous track record with young boys.
Image And Narrative Management
From childhood, we internalize scripts that allow us to navigate the world and manage other people’s impact on us. They also help us manage the way others perceive and experience us.
Society expects its boys grow into the heterosexual script. When one of those boys is abused by an older male, his relatives may see the violation at one of three levels:
At the first level, one human being wronged a more vulnerable human being; the injury is not coloured by the genders and ages of the people involved. That would say something about the society in which such an interpretation would arise.
At the second interpretation, an adult took advantage of a young child. Age counts. Gender does not. That would say something about the society in which such an interpretation would arise.
At the third level, “one of those” homosexual paedophiles violated the forming heterosexual identity of an innocent, wholesome (read, straight) child of godly society. At the third interpretation, gender counts more than anything else; the offense is all the more grievous because it is a homosexual offense.
What would that say about the kind society in which such an interpretation would arise?
I think that kind of society is a fertile soil for sexual abuses.
At this third level, the legendary homosexual pedophiles are recruiting and “we,” also known as “normal people,” must protect “our” churches, schools, communities and country from “them,” abnormal people. If “we” are African, then the homosexuals are Westerners that have imported “their” depravity to undermine “our” norms.
At this interpretation, all homosexuals are adult male paedophiles: male, because female sexuality is meaningless unless complemented by male sexuality (so women have no right to refuse men sex because they are supporting cast at best and property at worst); adult, because children are too young to experience anything like a so-called sexual orientation without adult influence (so those teenage suicides must have all killed themselves because they hated what they had been recruited into and not because society unfairly discriminates against who they truly are); and paedophiles because a relationship between two men does not have a “man” and a “woman” so those perverts must try to emasculate little boys who would otherwise grow up to be wholesome (straight), assertive (dominant) men (not women or anything with traces of femininity). So the third interpretation of sexual abuse manages to inject misogyny into situations that have no women in them.
At this third level, is believed that sexual abuse at a young age has the power to create homosexual desires by “confusing” the self-understanding of the developing heterosexual child; this is how gospel music star Donnie McClurkin and others explain their homosexuality. McClurkin believes that theoretically, he could overcome his same-sex longings; the fact that the “homosexual imprinting” happened when he was so young and impressionable becomes his explanation as to why he is instead overcome by his longings in reality.
But I have a chicken-and-egg question: does sexual abuse “create” homosexual longings, or does the abuser target young boys because he intuits they are already questioning their sexuality? Do not misunderstand me. When a priest abuses his influence over a young boy, it is a violation of the victim’s mind, body and soul no matter what his sexual orientation is. But in most instances, the effect of sexual abuse is less decisive and more nuanced in the formation of sexual orientation than heteroexpectant society wants to believe it is. Sexual orientation is what it is from a very young age, and if sexual abusers did not exist we would imagine other causes of homosexuality other than nature; the nurture-not-nature side does not just rely on sexual abusers.
Sexual abuse does many things. It opens a Pandora’s Box of forbidden curiosities which, I believe, were probably already there. It distorts existing desires. But it does not “create” new curiosities.
Imagine that over a series of interactions , a paedophile methodically builds up a conversational theme in his relationship with his target. The theme of these conversations seems innocent on the surface. But like an insider joke that is forced on the target to take him off guard each time it is brought up, the theme is actually a double entendre designed to gauge the his affinity to “alternative” meanings.
So to a third party, it would seem as though Father So-And-So strongly believes that Andrew would really enjoy bowling and has been trying to talk him into trying it. Father So-And-So seems to believe it would develop Andrew’s character, focus and sportsmanship. But Andrew seems resistant for some reason; he looks uneasy whenever Father Andrew brings up the topic as though Andrew senses something in his tone that no one else can. It is a coded message specifically for Andrew, and given a room of people, Andrew alone would get it, and recoil. It is not difficult to turn anything sexual, nor is it impossible, in a cloistered setting, to ensure over time that the target gets it.
The observing third party unknowingly chalks Andrew’s anxiety up to Andrew having a timid temperament that Father So-And-So is trying to help him overcome. So the third party sympathetically makes a note to move out of Father S0-And-So’s way.
This sounds improbable and far-fetched. But so does paedophilia.
As the abuser gets bolder, he also begins to close the physical gap between himself and his target more and more with each interaction. One day, he plants suggestions into his victim’s mind as he normally does, and seeing the discomfort in his face, takes the extra step of “catching out” his “excitement” by literally grabbing him at the physical explanation for his facial discomfort.
Now he and Andrew know that Andrew’s face has been showing so much discomfort because the boy has understood a sexual subtext in Father So-And-So’s conversation. And the fundamental reason he has understood the “alternative” meaning of Father So-And-So’s communication (coloured, as it were, by nuances, tonal inflections and facial expressions) about an otherwise innocuous topic is that the connotation has been resonating with him at a level deeper than the surface meaning of the conversation. The priest has seen to it that it would.
At the mercy of his sexual predator, the prey is exposed, trapped and helpless; worst of all, and this is what the priest’s groped discovery implies, on some level he is curious to the point of arousal about where this is going. His body has betrayed him. But he really has no idea what the priest is up to. Is Father going to launch into a condemning homily about the evils of Andrew’s sexuality? If he yells “I knew your mind was twisting everything I said, you dirty, perverted child! Get away from me!” or feigns some indignant expression of moral outrage, the groping would then be “explained” as his necessary “test” of Andrew’s moral state. But Andrew suspects it would be naïve to believe that upfront; he would open himself up to further violation if he were so trusting, and even as a teenager he knows that.
If Andrew gambles on his hunch that this is harassment but turns out to be wrong, he would have horribly misunderstood the situation and offended a holy man of God; even asking for forgiveness after such a misunderstanding would be asking for too great a kindness; the priest would be within his rights to report Andrew to his parents, who would be scandalized, disgusted and disappointed.
If at any time he wants to retreat, the priest can pull up one of many personae (priest, friend, pillar of society) and make it continuous with his subsequent behavior. So if Andrew reveals that he has been (mis)reading a sexual subtext into the priest’s communication and actions then he is at the disadvantage for revealing his pre-existing affinity with “alternate” meanings in innocent banter and actions. Any step in any direction is a bigger gamble than Andrew can afford; the priest has him trapped and exposed, deliberately or not, behind a big, inscrutable wall of mystery. Mystery. Religion’s favourite word.
The victim’s script as an innocent child of God is in peril. The young believer’s felt obligation to remain pure towards God and society is used to bludgeon his presence of mind and narrow his range of responses. Remember, if you’re sick and the doctor examines you in a certain area, you are the pervert if you get aroused; if you’re getting a massage and lose control, you’re sick and should be kept away from unsuspecting members of the public who are just trying to earn a decent living; if your priest senses that you are morally sick and you dare read into the beginnings of his “probings” more than is truly there, then not only do you prove your moral sickness but you blaspheme by implicating God in your wicked fantasies, disguised, as they are, as accusations that some sort of sexual advance is being performed by the priest when he is simply doing his duty as the moral physician who will go to any extreme to diagnose your spiritual sickness. Even if that puts his reputation and purity in peril. This may seem silly and improbable to some readers but in a book titled The Priest, the Woman, and the Confessional, Reverend Charles P. Chiniquy (1809 – 1899) wrote that
“They make the people believe that the vow of perpetual chastity changes their nature, turns them into angels, and puts them above the common frailties of the fallen children of Adam. Bravely, and with a brazen face, when they are interrogated on that subject, they say that they have special graces to remain pure and undefiled in the midst of the greatest dangers; that the Virgin Mary, to whom they are consecrated, is their powerful advocate to obtain from her Son that superhuman virtue of chastity; that what would be a cause of sure perdition to common men, is without peril and danger for a true Son of Mary; and, with amazing stupidity, the people consent to be duped, blinded, and deceived by those fooleries.”
Now, Father So-And-So goes in for the kill: “Andrew, I see now that you have a… problem.
“I have suspected that it was this way with you for some time now.
“By God’s grace I can help you solve this problem.
“We can keep this just between the two of us. Nobody else has to know.”
With each sentence, the priest simultaneously propositions and confuses Andrew. Andrew is not sure whether he is being offered salvation or something else.
“My son, God loves you and he wants your soul to be saved. But nobody else has to know about your condition. They would be devastated, no?”
The priest has the power to give absolution and save Andrew’s standing in society. If he abuses that power, Andrew will be made to feel it was his fault for being worthless. The priest has now graduated from a relationship with Andrew that is like the relationship doctors enjoy with patients and men in uniform with obedient members of the law-abiding public, to a relationship where he is effectively God.
But he has one power that not even God has: he can re-write history and scramble people’s memories. So if he goes too far with all this doctoring and Andrew dares to tell, he can argue that the child must have misunderstood what was being done to him because Father So-And-So is a holy man of God who could never do the terrible thing Satan has whispered into the confused child’s mind. And why wait until the child tells and destroys both his own and the priest’s reputation? Why not plant the seed of doubt from the start of the abuse? Victims can’t tell if they don’t believe their own stories. Institutions don’t believe victim’s stories.
Abusers know that boys are very sexual creatures, that their sexuality is more fluid than they want it to be, and that they repress that fluidity when it doesn’t fit society’s heterosexist script. By playing on what Andrew does not know and on his need to preserve his script, Father So-And-So makes him an unwitting accomplice in his own abuse.
Even if decades later Andrew goes back to confront the priest, the priest will say with impunity that he did not abuse Andrew. Andrew imagined the whole thing. Andrew is such a broken, twisted person in need of salvation. Of absolution.
And just to twist the knife, he will say this with a sly lift of the brow.
*The usual disclaimers apply: it is not every priest, nor is it all religion, that abuses people.
Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex.
Please follow me @SKhumalo1987
Please contact me SKhumalo1987@gmail.com