Many times I feel uncomfortable about having to write about certain subjects on certain days of the year. It is an uncomfortableness that arises from the depths of my gut because what is stirred up in my inner self is the consciousness that there are subjects which abound in everyday life but which suffer from remaining hidden or banality because of the fact that they are “normal”. This normalizing process, described by Hannah Arendt[1] in her day, makes me turn in my chair and promise myself once more that this subject, with the help of the present text, will stop being a subject for just one day.

The reality of abuse is one of the most serious things affecting women and children. Today I am going to concentrate especially on women, because it is November 25, the day of the struggle against violence against women. To the same degree there could be included here the girls who as future women suffer abuse from an early age. Violence against women is a public health problem according to the WHO, and a very serious violation of human rights. I think that we can broaden this statement by saying that it is a very serious structural social problem since 30% of women in the world suffer violence of some kind (physical, psychological, structural, etc.) at some time in their lives. Your mothers, daughters or sisters have already suffered from it at some time. Ask them. We are frequently exposed to that violence and it impacts negatively physical and mental health and our own identity and autonomy which is seen as being affected and constantly attacked.

Today I am not going to talk about the effects of this violence, nor of percentages, nor of ways to alleviate what has already occurred. Like Hannah Arendt, I am going to talk about a greater reality that aids violence against women: the culture of abuse. The practice of abuse as a way to relate to one another in our societies is totally wide-spread and contaminates all the societal structures: politics, business and economics, culture, the arts and also religion.

To define abuse in Spanish is not easy. It is a word used very widely and excessively in daily language. In its definition, there is no distinction established between those practices which contain physical violence and others that don’t. They should be evaluated differently. Neither is there a difference drawn between those practices that have structural causes and those that are derived from the conditions surrounding them. In both of these cases the ways of intervening in them are different. All of them, however, have a common denominator: fear. Abusive practices are apparent where fear for their own security or life (or for those of their most beloved beings) is provoked in other people. The nature of abuse is perversely cruel. It has as its objective the exercise of power. In the majority of cases the aggressor considers the exercise to be legitimate and, in this way, subjects the victim to their control as an object to be used and enjoyed. The power is exercised with impunity because many times it is protected by unjust and unequal structures within the society or by the silences which in domestic life change into taboos many behaviors and fundamental questions of personal relationships.

Abuse is exercised in a public way when the structure of domination/submission is recognized in the culture and in its institutions. For that reason, societies have difficulty in recognizing violence against women as something bad and churches to judge it as sinful. How many times had we heard before the #MeToo movement of 2018 in public discourse that abuse against women is a structural evil within our societies that makes subjects of half of our citizens? How many times have we heard from the pulpits of our churches, synagogues and mosques any arguments against violence against women in these last three years following #MeToo? Rather, we pass over the subject by silencing it, offering excuses like the fact that it is a complicated matter or that we don’t know anything about it or that we are not aware of any cases.

The nature of abuse has another common denominator which is silence, the silence with which institutions keep these matters quiet without assuming responsibility for them. When the subject of abuse in the Catholic Church began to be discussed thirty years ago, Elie Wiesel said: “Let us remember that what is most painful to the victim is not the cruelty of the oppressor but rather the silence of the one observing it.”[2] Silence is a lie that we end up telling ourselves and we allow others to tell us. We believe that this lie protects us from the violence, but what it does is to undermine the foundations for the health of our churches and institutions. It rots the structures, weakens relationships and extends death and pain to thousands of women who feel used, humiliated, disgraced and violated in the deepest part of their dignity. Afterwards, they are questioned as suspicious and left to their own devices, which is what the specialists call accumulated victimization.[3]

We can ask ourselves, is one day enough to talk about the abuses caused to women or should we break the everyday silence about these matters? Confronting that question and with the viewpoint of Mary in the Magnificat, we should respond that we ought not to continue keeping silence and lying about the truth that we know. It is necessary to publicly proclaim not only to individual Christians, but also to the different Christian institutions, and especially the Catholic ones, that abuse against women does not form part of the world created and loved by God. Second, the churches should declare themselves against the abuse that has been suffered and is being suffered inside of their organizations.

The abuse that is expressed in a public way is only the tip of the iceberg of the abuse that is practiced in private in the relationships that are established between men and women in our institutions. Abuse is directly related to the clericalization of religious authority,[4] a power exercised by men over women, whether they be lay or religious, which increases the asymmetry and inequality. In these relationships, when the spiritual confidentiality which is naturally given to persons in whom we recognize a spiritual and religious competence, is used to abuse another person, the duality is increased and the vulnerability of the abused person grows. This horrible imbalance occurs in an intimate space of confidentiality that perverts the relationship and destroys the true meaning of the encounter, accompaniment and care. Therefore, they are abusive relationships where the limits of a fiduciary relationship of care are violated, barring the consent of the abused person, causing confusion about the proper nature of the relationship and betraying the confidence deposited not only in the priest or religious, but also in the church to which they belong. Besides, it presumes a corruption of the ministerial responsibility which has been received by the grace of God and confirmed by the Christian community.

The nature of abuse is none other than the abuse of power whose ultimate goal is domination and possession. Power is always relational. If it is used without consent and without consensus it always moves within dualities of domination/submission: doing violence to the limits of relationships, violating the professional ministerial role, using authority and power in an abusive way, taking advantage of the relational vulnerability in which the person who trusts is placed, taking advantage of the absence of consent. These are some of the characteristics of abuse. [5]

We can and should take a further step. Let’s ask ourselves if the pastoral conversion of our parishes, religious and congregational institutions, dioceses, bishops and episcopal conferences goes through not only the recognition of this abuse against women, but also the taking of measures that carry with them the formation of all the members of the Church and its declericalization, with new horizontal relationships where there is an expression of shared power that does not subject women. There is a need to avoid silencing, to listen to victims, not to become suspicious of them, to ask for forgiveness publicly and privately, to design and execute processes of reconciliation and reparation, etc. In short, they must accept the abuse as a part of the recent history of the Church and advance toward a goal of curated and reciprocal relationships with the help of processes of reconciliation where the abused persons are at the center.

Perhaps I offended someone with this reflection. Perhaps someone will say that the institution is well worth some silences. But this text has come out of the guts where God lives to share mercy with us. And the guts, like those of Mary, always clamor for justice in memory of the victims.

[1] Cf. Arendt, Hannah, Sobre la violencia (On Violence), Encuentro (Madrid, 1989 [1969]), 63.

[2] Wiesel, Elie, Sex in the Forbidden Zone. Ballantine Books (New York, 1989).

[3] Varona, Gema and Martínez, Aitor, «Estudio exploratorio sobre los abusos sexuales en la Iglesia española y otros contextos institucionales: Respuestas preventivas y reparadoras desde la justicia restaurativa» (“Exploratory Study about Sexual Abuse in the Spanish Church and other Institutional Contexts. Preventive and Reparational Responses from Restorative Justice”), Eguzkilore: Cuaderno del Instituto Vasco de Criminología 29 (2015), 7-76.

[4] [4] Cf. Arenas, Sandra, “Desclericalización: antídoto para los abusos en la Iglesia” (Declericalization: Antidote for the Abuses in the Church), in Daniel Portillo (ed.), Teología y prevención. Estudio sobre abusos sexuales en la Iglesia, Santander, Sal Terrae 2020, pp. 127-144.

[5] Compte Grau, Maria Teresa, “Dimensiones ignoradas: mujeres víctimas de abusos sexuales en la iglesia” (Ignored aspects: Women Victims of Sexual Abuse in the Church), in Mikel Lizarraga Rada (ed.), Abusos sexuales contra menores en la Iglesia católica. Hacia la verdad, la justicia y la reparación desde Navarra, Pamplona, Gobierno de Navarra (2020), 101-134.

[Translation by David Brooks/Image by Alexandra Haynak from Pixabay]

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Doctor in Education (UCM), Graduate in Fundamental Theology (UPCO) and visual artist www.silviamartinezcano.es. She is Professor of Arts and Education in the Comillas Pontifical University, and Professor of different areas of Fundamental and Pastoral Theology in the St. Pius X Higher Pastoral Institute and the Theological Institute of Religious Life (part of the Pontifical University of Salamanca). Her special areas of research are interdisciplinary, those being Trinitarian Theology, Theological Aesthetics, visual and cultural studies, the study of religions, Art and gender, Education and gender. She is president of the Association of Spanish Theologians (ATE) and a member of the European Association of Women in Theological Research. She is currently editing the collection Biblical Women (Ed. San Pablo).
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