Catholic Church may be part of the problem in fight to eliminate rape

Bishop, Senator and author need to get their facts straight about unwanted sex

Bishop Kevin Doran: Needs to rethink his advice. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Bishop Kevin Doran: Needs to rethink his advice. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

In the month when Catholics from around the world come to Ireland to debate families and family life, Bishop Kevin Doran’s reminder of the church’s teaching on contraception, as reported in The Irish Times, remains problematic.

He said “But the fact that they are less likely to become pregnant also takes away from women one of the principle motives or freedoms for saying no to unwanted sex”.

The plain reading of this seems to be that, in the Catholic Church, there are legitimate and illegitimate reasons for refusing unwanted sex. Therefore, sometimes, unwanted sex is all right, in the eyes of this nominated representative of the church.

Two further commentators waded in to support the bishop. Writing in the Irish Catholic, Greg Daly, speaking about a tweet from Simon Harris said “Minister Harris twice equated “unwanted sex” solely with rape, heedless of how the term has broader implications.”

A plain reading of this is that unwanted sex is not always rape. In similar vein, Senator Rónán Mullan on RTÉ’s DriveTime spoke about people in relationships who were “emotionally constrained” and “consent to things against their will or deeper desires” but who wouldn’t call it rape.

Unwanted sex is non-consensual sex. Non-consensual sex is rape. That is the law and that is the reality

The Senator suggested that experts, including psychotherapists, be asked what it was. At Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, we have the psychotherapists and we have the lawyers so we hold ourselves out as experts. We agree many people will not name rape. But to the bishop, to the Senator and to the author, we will say one thing clearly. Unwanted sex is non-consensual sex. Non-consensual sex is rape. That is the law and that is the reality.

Profoundly worrying

The thought that three people who speak and write so well – two of them from a strictly Catholic perspective and the other a strong supporter of that church – could speak about unwanted sex as anything other than morally wrong, as well as legally wrong, is profoundly worrying.

It is worrying not just because of each man’s own extensive influence, but because it shows where the Catholic Church may be part of the problem in the fight to eliminate sexual abuse and rape, rather than part of the solution.

We know how, in the past, many clerics in the church told women in Confession to go home and be obedient to their husbands. We know how it tolerated and hid institutional, systemic and also casual sexual abuse and rape.

We know how, within the past decade, a cleric, as part of a bigger delegation, passed and ignored a victim of serious sexual assault in court to shake hands with the person awaiting sentence for that crime.

We know how devotion to the preservation of the institution of marriage and the married family has blinded many a faithful member of the church to the dreadful harm perpetrated within families.

We might have hoped that day was gone, or at least that the church wouldn’t want to draw attention to it. The three statements I have quoted say otherwise and suggest, shockingly, that there are circumstances in which prominent supporters of that church tolerate or excuse unwanted sex.

Violence against women

Is this to be the case at the upcoming Congress of the World Meeting of Families preceding the papal visit? That congress, to its credit, will discuss many harmful aspects of family life including violence against women, the silence around domestic abuse and the hurt which can happen within marriage. But if anyone there comes away from the congress thinking that there are any circumstances whatsoever in which any form of unwanted, non-consensual sexual activity is acceptable, then the Catholic Church today has failed and will continue to fail those who are, and who will be, victims of sexual violence.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The congress could conclude that its moral duty and a key future action will be to ensure that every member of every congregation, and every pupil taught by the church, will truly and fully understand that sex should always be consensual. It could ensure that every church institution around the world will be a place of sanctuary and support for those who suffer sexual violence.

The congress could say that women should not have to make excuses to avoid unwanted sex. Catholic women (and men) should be taught to have a voice and an authority to speak for themselves and to freely and voluntarily consent to sex.

Catholic men (and women) should be taught that sexual activity should only take place when the other person is fully consenting and that any other type of activity is likely to be criminal as well as a moral outrage.

And reflecting on those views, the bishop, the Senator and the author might rethink their advices and build a society which understands, but never tolerates or excuses sexual violence.

Noeline Blackwell is chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre

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