The 16-year time delay between alleged crimes against three children in 1991 by St Peter’s Adelaide chaplain Rev John Mountford and the dropping of charges this week highlights the difficulties that child victims face in reporting crime. Whether Mountford is morally guilty or innocent of the charges remains a mystery but legally he is a free man.
What is not a mystery however, is the mechanism by which pedophiles in churches have so successfully evaded prosecution for crimes against children over decades, by hiding behind the cloak of religious confusion. Pedophiles in the church have adopted, to their advantage, religious disguises that have made them virtually immune from prosecution for serious crimes.
In many instances, crimes have been willingly re-defined as “sin” that could be wiped away for the perpetrator by a senior church cleric with a simple prayer of “confession” and the pronouncement of “absolution”. However, no acknowledgement or apology for the crime was given to the victim, their family or the congregation betrayed by the offending priest.
If the churches where pedophiles have been harboured for decades are to regain any credibility, the continuing confusion between sin and crime must be openly and clearly ended.
Only the police have the authority to investigate and charge offenders with crimes. For churches to set up “protocols” for receiving reports of alleged crimes is abhorrent, because it leaves victims vulnerable to the religious cover-up of crimes for the sake of the protection of the offenders and the church institution to which they belong. The reporting of crimes or suspected crimes against children only requires an ability to dial 000.
Now, 15 years after the allegations against Mountford surfaced, it is difficult to imagine what the outcome of a police investigation might have been or how the alleged victim might have fared.
Researchers in the field of the sexual abuse of boys by clergy are only just beginning to probe the complex emotional and spiritual damage caused to victims. In his article Paedophilia: The Public Health Problem of the Decade, Professor Bill Glaser says research now shows that victims of child sexual abuse are up to 16 times more likely to experience disastrous long-term effects including persistent nightmares, drug and alcohol abuse, life-threatening starvation, suicide and a host of intractable psychiatric disorders requiring life-long treatment.
Professor Sandra Leiblum reported this year at the 1st World Congress on Sexual Health in Sydney that child victims of clergy offenders exhibit the most severe long term psychological and health effects.
Most people are aware of the difficulties faced by adult women victims of rape, of the low reporting rates and the relatively low conviction rates. Child victims of sex crimes are at several added disadvantages. The offender is often much bigger and stronger physically. The offender also has the authority of an adult to order children to behave as they are instructed and has legitimate authority to punish the child for disobedience. The adult also has the authority to define right and wrong to the child.
Clergy offenders have the added power of spiritual authority over their victims. Clergy represent God on earth. They define good and evil for other adults in their congregations. They have perceived legitimate power to absolve the sins of adults. In addition, child victims see that the adults around the offender accept his authority, kneel at his feet and take communion from his hands.
For a child victim of sexual crimes by a priest to report those crimes, is impossible in most cases. If victims of clergy sex crimes do find the courage to tell anyone what is happening to them they have to look into the face of evil and become a whistleblower, risking the wrath and ostracism of the congregation, and possibly even their own family. It is understandable that many victims are unable to embark on this process or if they do, to see it through to completion. However, if society does not empower victims to embark on the journey with all the support necessary, then society is the loser because offenders remain at large and other children are at risk.
Bill Glaser notes that “it is difficult for most people to understand that a paedophile’s offending activities are only the end-stage of a long and complex process often called ‘grooming’, which begin with the nurturing of deviant fantasies, proceeds through the long-term planning and rehearsal of the abuse and culminates in a complex relationship that, for the child, is both exploitative and loving, cruel and kind, perverted and normal, all at the same time”.
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