written by AMANDA GROSS
The news out of Pittsburgh over the past week has been grim. Also stomach churning.
Across PA, the Catholic Church has been outed for the decades-long institutionalized practice of child sexual abuse. The Grand Jury named 99 priests from Pittsburgh and 20 from the Greensburg diocese. I’m not going to get into the gory details, but you can find more info and an extensive list of the priests here. Since the Grand Jury Report was released, hundreds more people have come forward with allegations not previously reported. And nuns are breaking their vow of silence about their abuse at the hands of holy men.
Our dominant child abuser narrative is that of the lone, sick, criminal abuser. Our crime and punishment approach assures us that locking up a few bad apples will solve the problem and keep our children safe. And so I am hopeful that despite the horrors, the discourse is shifting away from these lies. The Grand Jury report not only shows a clear, widespread pattern with 301 people involved (and 1000s abused), it also points to the institutionalization of abuse with cover up after cover up and a culture that punished whistleblowers and nurtured toxic discretion.
Of course the Catholic Church isn’t the only institution implicated in the recent exposure of sexual violence. Mennonite institutions are being exposed too. These patterns of abuse being made public have long been the norm in the film industry, in media, in U.S. Gymnastics, and in the U.S. Immigration System where thousands of migrants report sexual abuse including a 6-year-old girl.
In any of these institutions, abuse is horrific and unacceptable and has long-lasting life-altering impact on the survivors. But with this recent news out of Pittsburgh, I have been thinking about the spiritual violence present when experiencing abuse from your direct line to God. Abuse of power comes as no surprise. And these particular abuses – sexual abuse at the hands of priests, abuse of children in immigration detention and at the hands of the juvenile criminal justice system as well as their predecessors in Native American boarding schools and chattel slavery all have a common root in 15th-18th Century Europe where clergy, jailers, and local officials institutionalized the sexual abuse of adults and children in the name of God.
The witch hunts of 15th-18th Century Europe set the stage for the legacies of abuse we’ve inherited today. Across Western and Northern Europe there were targeted campaigns spanning hundreds of years built around a document known as the Malleus Maleficarum written by Catholic clergy in Speyer, Germany*. This bestseller lead the way in the oppressive theology of the time.
As I’ve blogged about before: in campaign after campaign to root out evil, the witch became the criminal of her day, a convenient scapegoat whose tortures, trials, and burnings fueled religious, political, and social institutions. At the time of the Protestant Reformation when Europe was being carved up along religious lines, priests and ministers on both sides were back in demand, called in desperation to exorcise the demons.
New courts were established, expert judges and attorneys were required to legitimize fear and its antidote – law and order. According to historian Lyndal Roper, attorneys began to make “a fortune in legal consultations…” and established a lucrative system in “housing and feeding the children (awaiting trial) and paying guards to watch over them.” Men of God were ushered into the detention centers, torturing and sexually abusing both adults accused of witch craft (the high majority of whom were women) and children as young as seven with their Godly methods to test for witchery.
Outside of detention centers, mayors and other leaders vowed to purify their towns, platforming off of the fear, suspicion, and subsequent hatred. Using lessons of torture learned from the Inquisition, persecution of European Jewish populations, and failed religious crusades outside of Europe, entire societal structures and institutions were developed and called upon to root out this evil. And so we persecuted both our grandmothers and our grandchildren to the fullest extent of the law.
Sound familiar? The resurgence of the law and order candidate, being tough on crime, our U.S. juvenile justice system, detaining immigrant children, systematic child abuse in religious institutions, and misogynistic rape culture all have roots in these several hundred years of terror.
What I am saying is that religious child sexual abuse is not new and we know where it comes from. 500 years later the psychological consequences continue both for those doing the abusing and those being abused.
The European witch hunts broke the back of the Peasant Revolts and other class warfare that was threatening the European ruling class at the time by targeting poor older women, the keepers of their community’s historical memory, the weavers of communal networks, the advisors of resistance. The witch hunts taught our ancestors the psychological somersaults of cognitive dissonance and disassociation. What psychological toll would it take for you to turn on your grandmother, or your aunt, on your child? What psychological sickness might get passed down generation after generation?
Once you’ve accepted the abuse of your own mother, how much easier is it to accept the abuse of others’? The psyche of the witch hunts crossed the Atlantic in the minds and bodies of Europeans paving the way for racist colonization and for the racial category we know as white.
Of course the survivors of 20th Century Church child sexual abuse are not the only children of the witch hunts. As usual the ones who have come to be called white get a whole lot more press.
The torture and enslavement of children of African descent during American chattel slavery in which enslaved children were systematically raped, the children born from those rapes enslaved by their own fathers.
The torture and incarceration of Black and Brown youth disproportionately represented in the U.S Juvenile system and the School to Prison Pipeline is morally if not religiously sanctioned with droves of Christian voters supporting abusive “tough love” policies.
The torture and imprisonment of indigenous children at Native Boarding Schools, a forced religious education aimed at cultural genocide.
The torture and detention of immigrant children, separated from their families and left vulnerable to institutionalized abuse.
All of the above have been justified on Christian religious grounds at some time or another. What I am saying is that religious child sexual abuse is not new; it is old. It is old enough to know better.
We are old enough to know better. We are old enough to speak our truths. We are old enough to disrupt these cycles of abuse. We are old enough to share our own stories. We are old enough to equip our children with this knowledge. We are old enough to say “no!” and to teach our children to do the same. We are old enough to make consent an everyday practice. We are old enough to hold our friends, families, significant others, children, representatives, judges, and priests accountable.
We are old enough to uproot this invasive plant and to uproot it together.
*Anabaptists might note the importance of this location. Historian Silvia Federici makes the connection that witch hunts were most prevalent in places where heretics, such as the Anabaptists, had been previously persecuted.