Greater female presence may have stopped child abuse


This is an edited version of the front page article, published yesterday by L’Osservatore Romano, the semi-official Vatican newspaper. It was signed by Lucetta Scaraffia

THOSE CHANGES in western societies which have opened up for women spaces that were formerly reserved for men – and these are changes which are influencing other cultures in the world – have brought about a revolution in the definition of sexual roles, prompting the question of how to increase the role of women for the Catholic Church too.

This is about an equality problem that has been very clear in the Christian tradition right from the beginning, leading to an authentic revolution with regard to concepts of sexual difference . . . Whereas in past centuries the church proved itself more open to women than lay society, today the situation is totally reversed. Today there are strong and urgent external and internal pressures calling for the question to be confronted in the world of Catholics.

Thus far, the Catholic response has been confined to a theoretical level. The problem, however, is that this important theoretical elaboration has not been clearly followed by a (practical) transformation of female participation in the life of the Church. At the very least, that participation (by women), whilst it might have become significantly greater, has almost always been kept well clear of the sphere of decision-making processes and cultural development. It is only to be understood then how those (women) who have been excluded, often for no good reason, have begun to make themselves heard, if in an understated way.

This is not just a problem of social justice, of “equal opportunity” but rather that the church risks not availing itself of talents of primary importance. One example will explain: With regard to the painful and shameful events that have come to light concerning the sexual abuse and molestation of young people entrusted to the care of priests, we would suggest that a greater female presence, not at a subordinate level, would have been able to rip the veil of masculine secrecy that in the past so often covered the reporting of these misdeeds with silence. Women, be they religious or lay, are more likely to move in defence of young people when it comes to questions of sexual abuse. That way, the church would have been spared the serious damage that this guilty behaviour (silence) procured for it.

Daniele Comboni, who was beatified and canonised by John Paul II, had already foreseen the problem back in the second half of the 19th century. This great missionary was convinced that the presence of western women alongside his missionary priests would help them to behave correctly, above all it would stop them breaking their vows of chastity, a not infrequent danger in such isolated places where sexual promiscuity and their power in relation to (native) women and boys made that a not improbable temptation. Indeed, Comboni wrote that the “sister” (nun) is absolutely “essential” for the missions because she is both “a defence and a guarantee for the missionary”.

This historic example thus illustrates just one of the many possibilities of collaboration and reciprocal help that men and women can exchange in the life of the church, in the service of the human person. Indeed, there is almost no religious order which does not comprise both a female and a male branch, providing proof of that intuition which perceived in the role of consecrated women a gift that can be brought only by women.

Translated from the Italian by Rome Correspondent Paddy Agnew. Lucetta Scaraffia is a journalist and professor of history at Rome’s La Sapienza university

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