Sexual violence: “The past versatility of the authority of the Catholic clergy and its wide scope of action have favored the risk of abuse”

Blandine Chelini-Pont is a professor of contemporary history at Aix-Marseille University and an associate member of the Societies, Religions, Secularism Group (GSRL-EPHE). A specialist in the cultural, political and legal interactions of religion, particularly in the United States, she is the co-author, among others, of geopolitics of religions. A new role for religion in international relations? (The Blue Rider, 2019).

The French episcopate has recognized the systemic nature of sexual violence in the Catholic Church. Why is this qualifier relevant, in your opinion?

In his resolutions of November 2021, the Conference of French Bishops recognizes that this violence was made possible by a “global context”where the weight of ” practice “ and “mentalities” allowed them to continue, not to be denounced or sanctioned.

This weight evoked, between cult of secrecy and impunity, goes back very far. The fear of scandal accompanies the whole medieval history of the Catholic Church. The mala famathe “bad reputation”, could only corrupt the “perfect society”, this vision of the institution which justifies its domination over souls and territories, as well as its own justice.

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The mala fama presides over the distinction, which appears between the XIIe and the XIIIe century, between the so-called “occult” crimes and the notorious crimes of the clerics. The logic is as follows: the vices unknown to the cleric, whatever they may be, are dealt with in the discretion of the internal forum (judgment), by discreet investigation, fraternal correction behind closed doors and confession, a weighted sacrament absolute secrecy. As for the notorious crime, that of the public square, which provokes the scandal (or sarcasm!) of the Christian people, it requires an edifying “external forum”: the trial for infamy, public and humiliating penance, excommunication, ban on practicing the priesthood, in addition to permanent civil bans and fines.

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However, the notorious crime most frequently tried is homicide, considered the most terrible. In the other cases, the justice of public scandal, supposed to preserve or restore the dignity of the Church, was permanently thwarted by the logic of the civil impunity of the cleric and his social prestige.

You talk about the Middle Ages, but hasn’t the Church evolved since then?

The fear of scandal continued in another form. The progressive qualification of the “sex crime” in the law of the Church – which does not distinguish between immorality and criminality – will not change the culture of the hidden and the good reputation.

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Sexual violence: “The past versatility of the authority of the Catholic clergy and its wide scope of action have favored the risk of abuse”