A Few Bad Men, Two Bad Cultures

A recent article tells that the Catholic Church knows that there has been a good deal of sexual assault on nuns by priests, particularly in Africa.

In a world plagued by AIDS, nuns are sometimes singled out as victims because they are perceived as safe. Anyway, it's a horrible thing. Your instinct might be to blame and want to punish the priests who did this. I know I get that feeling. However, I get another feeling too.

There are social forces going on here that exacerbate the problem. The systemic problem is sexism, both in many African countries and in the Catholic Church. The church only allows men to be priests. This would not be so bad, except for the fact that priesthood comes with authority over nuns. There is a built-in sexual power differential in Church culture.

Similarly, in Africa, many countries are very male-dominated (as described in the article). Mixing these two sexist cultures results in a situation that is very bad for women. On top of that there is the fear of AIDS.

If it were just a problem of "a few bad eggs," then you'd expect the abuse rates to be relatively constant across countries. But it is not, pointing to a cultural and geographical influence.

I'm not saying that these men are any less to blame. That's not the point. The point is that if you want to solve this problem, you need to change the systems in which they happen. We live in a time of cultural acceptance, which is a good antidote to the way things were, which was a state of explicit bigotry. However, we should not let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction to complete moral relativism. Sometimes cultures have aspects to them that are bad, given almost everyone's values.

I am reminded of the torture done by Americans. The reaction of the public, and the government, was to bring to justice those who allowed this to happen. Again, it was the "few bad eggs" reaction. As Zimbardo describes in this excellent TED talk, those military people who did these crimes are in part reacting to a system that allows, or even encourages such things to happen.

Pictured: Rollerblading nuns. 
By April Sikorski from Brooklyn, USA [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Bookmark and Share


Also endemic is the belief the role that deference to authority plays both in the culture of the Catholic church and in particular ethnic societies. The taboo of sex and abuse compounded with the "sanctity" and authority of priests as community leaders means that it is difficult to accuse or speak out against priests. The Catholic church has a policy in America of moving priests around as allegations follow in their wake: This protects them jurisdictionally and institutionally.
I think you should be careful about painiting "African" society as monolithic. There are dozens of countries on that continent and dozens of distinct cultures. What I think you should focus on are commonalities of patriarchy (which are not characteristic of all societies btw), economic barriers (where the Church has all the resources and opportunities) and pervasive paradigms of sex and shame and sexual violence.
We saw the same arguments ("a few bad apples") come out of the Lindy England and other inquiries into Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. I think there are parallels we can draw that are not confined to ethnicity or dogma or ideology, but rather to patriarchal hierarchies. These are similar between the military and the church. Zimbardo's comments and insights 40 years after his experiments continue to resonate. On the other hand, the priesthood and military rely on insular mechanisms, respect for authority, silence and maybe there's a chicken-egg causal problem: does the military or priesthood attract a certain kind of person, or does it make ordinary people into monsters? or a little bit of both? Canadians are grappling with this after the 2010 scandal involving Col. Russell Williams, although he might be distinct because he has been diagnosed a sociopath.

Popular Posts