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‘We are still dealing with it’: Dr Kenny laments church abuse of children

Sister of Charity and Pediatrician Nuala Kenny.

After being involved in a groundbreaking Canadian commission to look at child sex abuse within the Catholic Church, Dr Nuala Kenny, paediatrician and Catholic Sister of Charity, was confident the problem was on its way to being solved. That was back in the 1990s.

Since then she has often been left wondering ‘have we learned nothing’ as church sex scandal after scandal has erupted worldwide.

Dr Kenny was on the island this week to speak about child sex abuse within the church, and other issues related to bioethics.

She is the author of ‘Healing the Church: Diagnosing and Treating the Clergy Sexual Abuse Scandal’.

She served on the Newfoundland Archdiocese of St John’s Commission of Inquiry following the Mount Cashel revelations of the 1980s. This scandal involved the widespread abuse of children in the Mount Cashel orphanage in St John’s, Newfoundland. In 1988 she became a professor and head of the paediatrics department at Dalhousie University and chief of paediatrics at the Izaak Walton Killam Children’s Hospital (now the IWK Health Centre) and later, deputy health minister for Nova Scotia.

“When I first joined that Committee I had no idea the scale of the problem,” she said. “No one did.”

“The genius contribution of the report that the Committee generated was that we recognised the systemic and cultural factors surrounding the issue,” she said. “The abuse occurs when you have a systemic and cultural environment that allows it to happen. It was an issue for the Catholic church then, and 25 years later, we are still dealing with it.”

She said abuse by priests carried an extra punch because it violated the victim’s spiritual trust as well as their physical and emotional well being.

“Priests have the same crimes and pathologies as ordinary people at the same rates,” she said. “That comes as a shock to some people who think that if you are ordained somehow you become sinless. We need to look at why the characteristic response from the church to sexual allegations has been, denial, secrecy, protection of image and minimisation of harm.

“For a church that is supposed to be compassionate, protecting of the vulnerable, all of the things that are Christ like, why have we been so locked in this denial, secrecy and so forth.”

She said, in February a United Nations Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child did a review of the Catholic Church’s general response to individual victims and more globally, and identified the same negative pattern.

“I am very concerned, upset, that our church has not behaved in a Christ-like manner,” she said. “My ministry is to the protection of children. I know how Jesus was in the scriptures to the vulnerable, particularly children.”

But she said the problems of sexual abuse were not exclusive to the Catholic Church.

“The Roman Catholic Church has become a kind of scapegoat because any offence anywhere in the world hits the headlines everywhere,” she said. “Something happens in Chicago in the Catholic Church and you hear about it in Bermuda.”

She said sexual abuse was primarily about an abuse of power rather than about sex.

“The likeliest person to abuse is a child is a dad, grandfather, mother’s boyfriend, or a coach,” she said. “One common denominator is that there is often alcohol involved. The first thing alcohol does is lower your inhibitions.”

She said the typical profile of a sex offender was an immature male who was lonely, stressed and had trouble relating to his peers.

She said many people had tried to make the problem about one issue such as celibacy within the Catholic Church or about homosexuality.

“Some people want to say this is about celibacy,” she said. “It’s not. It plays a role, but the role is in relationship to the way we relate to priests. We hold them above us, which can make it very lonely for them. They find it hard to socialise and be friend with people. Other people want to say this is a gay issue, but a mature homosexual, psychologically, in terms of human development, is no more likely to offend against a child or youth than a mature heterosexual. It isn’t a gay issue. It is much more complicated than that.”