Dr Rocío Figueroa Alvear is an abuse survivor and Catholic theologian who has done extensive research into sexual harm in the Catholic Church.
OPINION: The crisis of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is not just about perpetrators and victims. It’s not a case of a few bad apples preying on the vulnerable.
As a Catholic theologian and abuse survivor who has researched sexual harm within the church, I know it’s much more than that – it’s about an entire structure that has enabled the abuse to continue.
On the one hand, we have the silence, the mishandles, the cover-ups – those in the hierarchy who would prefer to protect perpetrators and the “image” of the church than defend survivors – and on the other, we have an unhealthy culture that has perpetuated the abuse.
The testimonies from survivors at the Royal Commission of Inquiry Into Abuse in Care have revealed that many of our churches in New Zealand have not been victim-centred communities.
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Sadly, these churches have not felt responsible and have not contributed to the process of renewal and healing – and in many cases, victims have not been heard, nor offered justice or reparation.
As a society it is fundamental we face the gravity of sexual harm, which refers to unwanted sexual contact with a person using the threat of coercion, when the person is below the age or incapable of giving consent.
Te Rōpū Tautoko, the Catholic Church group that engages with the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, found that a total of 1680 reports of abuse were made nationally between 1950 and 2021 by 1122 individuals against Catholic clergy, brothers, nuns, sisters and lay people, with 592 alleged abusers named. Almost half the reported abuse involved sexual harm.
The 1960s and 1970s were the decades when the most reported abuse was alleged to have happened, with three-quarters before 1990.
It’s worth pointing out, however, that estimates suggest only about 10% of sexual harm incidents are reported to police. So, the frequency of sexual harm is likely to be much, much higher than these figures indicate.
The testimonies given in the Royal Commission confirm the terrible wounds that survivors carry. We cannot say that abuse is a problem of the past when we have survivors within our society still suffering the long-term consequences of it.
One of the key features of sexual abuse committed by Christian leaders is the spiritual power used to seduce a minor, and the profound spiritual consequences of the abuse for the victim.
Because a spiritual leader represents the voice and love of God for the victim, to be betrayed by one of these “representatives” has enormous consequences on the spirituality of the victim.
Because most of the victims were members of a church community and faith shaped their lives, losing that faith meant the loss of something deep within themselves.
Many of the victims have since questioned God’s benevolence and have lost that faith that was a component of their identity.
One element that survivors constantly address is the hope that their testimonies can help us to avoid these crimes occurring again in the future.
But first, we need to understand the factors that have enabled sexual abuse.
Within the Catholic Church, there is a combination of sexual abuse with the abuse of spiritual power.
Those of us in the Catholic Church need to eliminate the idea of a separated, exalted, and elitist priesthood at its very roots.
The dual identity of the priest as a representative of God and a perpetrator of abuse make it hard to denounce the harm they’ve caused.
When clergy hold all the power, it becomes dangerous – they become a group influenced by the forces of power and privilege, a group immune to accountability.
That’s not to mention the situation for women in the Catholic Church.
Many are viewed as second citizens, and the fact they are absent from decision-making is a perpetration of a patriarchal system: a hierarchical, vertical, and male-dominant culture.
Of course, none of this is helped by the fact that the topic of sex continues to be a taboo topic in many Christian communities.
If we are not able to talk about sex in a healthy way, we will be less able to talk about its perversion.
As members of Christian communities, and of society in general, we must take responsibility in responding to survivors.
Victims have been treated without respect. Perpetrators have damaged their dignity as human beings.
To restore the damage, we need to listen to their voices, believe them, apologise and bring about justice for them.
In many cases, the response of the church has been legalistic, an approach that does not restore justice and may retraumatise victims because they are seen as a threat or a problem to solve – more like an object of concern than a person deserving of respect.
It is important to note that the need for an apology from the abuser or the community has been cited as one of the most important priorities of victims.
When public expressions of acknowledgement and responsibility are given, victims feel vindicated and perceive a restoration of their dignity and moral worth.
The apology must be accompanied by compensation, as survivors have felt humiliated when low compensation has been offered.
A financial compensation cannot just be symbolic – it needs to be compensation that can make a difference in the life of a survivor. A symbol or a token is not real reparation.
Survivors have claimed that financial support must be accompanied by legal support. As the Catholic Church has a legal team, I think it needs to offer survivors a team of canon lawyers and civil lawyers paid for by them.
If there is no reparation, financial compensation, legal advice, real apologies and structural changes within our church community, all attempts to respond to survivors remain empty words.
As Christians, we must be the community that Jesus wanted: displaying real compassion towards survivors, real justice for victims who have suffered enormously, and real humility to accept our wrongdoings.
It’s time our church began a deep renewal.