I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Religion - Child Molestation

I am sure that this will not be my last post on religion but, prompted by the worldwide scandals about catholic priests, I feel I have to start talking about it.

I was born and grew up in Italy, where the catholic religion is in the fabric of society. Even many parents who never go to church feel there compelled to baptise their children. And the prime-time evening news show the pope or talk about him several times a week. In every classroom of every public school, a crucifix hangs beside a picture of the Italian president on the wall behind the teacher’s desk.

Italian cities are full of catholic churches, and it is not uncommon to come across priests, friars, and nuns on the street. Not surprisingly, this is particularly true in Rome, where the pope lives, enclosed in his little totalitarian kingdom and protected by his Swiss guards. Incidentally, did you know that Rome is the only place where priests still wear a cassock instead of trousers? Although, to be completely fair, most of them wear trousers underneath, especially in winter.

As far as I can remember, I was never a believer. Probably it was so because my family was not religious either. I never saw my mother or my grandmother go to mass, and my father only went to church once a year, on palm Sunday, to buy a blessed branch of olive tree. But despite the lack of religious education I got at home, I was never allowed to say anything bad about god, Christ, Mary, or any saint. It was clearly a form of superstition: offending the saints would bring bad luck. The catholic faith, superstition, and pagan rites are not incompatible, as it is apparent in the worshipping of the virgin Mary and of patron saints throughout Italy. Also, if you enter a souvenir shop, you might find crosses and holy images beside pagan charms like those shown below (1).

In Italy, many things can be used as amulets. Horns (disguised penises), hunchbacks, the number 13, horseshoes, four-leaf clovers, and hare feet, to name the most common, are supposed to bring luck to their bearers.

Anyhow, I am digressing. It’s just that superstition is so fascinating... I’ll have to post separately about it.

Let’s get back to talk about religion. As a consequence of Mussolini’s 1929 agreement with the pope, the syllabus of all Italian public schools includes one weekly hour of catholic religion. When I was a child, it was unthinkable for parents to request dispensation for their children. As a result, during my thirteen years of schooling in Italy (at least at the time, the normal years of schooling in Italy were thirteen, not twelve like in Australia and in other countries), I attended some 400 hours of indoctrination into the catholic religion.

In primary school I had a little experience of [attempted] child molestation from the part of a friar. Our teacher of religion used to call a pupil to the front of the classroom to answer questions of catechism. Sometimes, he asked the boy (full segregation was the rule back then) to step up onto the platform on which his desk rested. The child then found himself facing the class while standing beside the teacher’s chair. In those occasions, the teacher at times encircled the boy’s body with his left arm or, behind the protection of his desk, pinched a buttock of the boy. I heard it from several class mates and it was well known within the class. That’s why when once the teacher asked me to step up to his desk, I said that I preferred to remain where I was. The same teacher organised events for children in the nearby parish, but I never attended them. One can only speculate about what happened to the children who did.

I obviously condemn abuses against the weak and vulnerable. Therefore, I cannot excuse or tolerate the acts of the priests who take advantage of their community role to molest children. But I understand them. The catholic church imposes wows of celibacy on its clergy. While most of us experience their first contacts with the other sex (or the same sex, no prejudice here), the young men who attend religious schools and seminaries are locked up within a repressive organisation that leave no space for their natural development. As long as the catholic church will insist on celibacy, a possible way for releasing the sexual drive of their priests will remain off-limits. The fact that protestant priests do not appear in the news like their catholic colleagues seems to confirm that celibacy is at the very least a contributing factor.

Anyhow, the pope should direct his bishops to pass any suspected case of child abuse to the police without any delay or preliminary internal investigation. And he should make this directive as public as possible.


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