A national consensus should be built on the method to combat child abuse.
We are supposed to be living in times of “transparency”, whatever that hackneyed expression may mean. There are now very few icons. Fewer are the sacred cows. There are no holds barred at all when it comes to probing the lives of public figures and the functioning of hallowed institutions. The Vatican and the Catholic Church of Ireland have in the past few weeks come under separate clinical scrutinies.
Allegations are flying in the media about Pope Benedict XVI and his older brother Georg Ratzinger (85). First is the charge that the Holy Father, as an Archbishop at the Munich diocese, had approved housing for a priest who had sexually abused an 11-year-old boy. Years later, the priest was said to have been given a suspended sentence for child abuse offences. He is possibly still functioning in Bavaria, although he has not come to adverse notice again. As for the Pope’s brother, for 30 years he was associated with a choir near Berlin that had reported many instances of abuse of choir boys.
Although Ratzinger claims the allegation goes back to a period prior to his time at the choir, one Thomas Mayer surfaced suddenly to complain that he had, in fact, been sexually assaulted by older boys in the choir when Ratzinger was in charge. (This is typical of many instances of sexual attacks on children. The victims remain reticent and come up suddenly with charges after a lapse of decades. This raises credibility problems even if a reported assault did happen.)
Close on the heels of the controversy surrounding the Vatican comes a report from Ireland where the Catholic church is embarrassed by revelations that Cardinal Sean Brady had, way back in 1975, forced at least two child victims to take a vow of secrecy about their experience with Father Brendan Smyth. Brady had been directed by his Bishop to probe the happening reported from counties Louth and Cavan. When interviewed, two abused boys confirmed the physical violation but were asked not to share their stories with anyone else.
The findings were passed up the hierarchy, following which Father Smyth’s right to practise as a priest was withdrawn and he was advised to seek psychiatric help. The matter was not taken to the police nor was anything done to monitor the offender’s activities thereafter.
Shockingly, Father Smyth went on to abuse more children. Ironically, the revelations come 35 years after the abominable happening. While the abuse is still actionable by the police, there is a view that administering the oath of secrecy to the victims by Father Brady itself constitutes an offence. The priest, now a Cardinal, has taken the position that his action of 1975 should not be judged by present-day standards of juvenile safety, and that he was satisfied with what he did in deactivating the offending priest.
There are indications that we have not heard the last of what seems to be a ballooning controversy on the role of the clergy in putting an end to juvenile abuses within the church premises.
It is too early to believe or discard these charges before they are investigated in depth. They can, however, cause immense damage to the Vatican and the Irish Catholic church because child abuse is, rightly, now an explosive subject as it involves conduct that cuts at the roots of civilised behaviour. Even a hint of suspicion that an individual had indulged in it or that an institution had connived at a cover-up could lead to acute embarrassment.
The point is that sexual abuse of children is a reality wherever children are taught or made to live in a group under even a semblance of authority. Residential schools and orphanages are especially vulnerable. In India – not exactly known for transparency until the arrival in recent years of the visual media in full strength – there have been far too many such unsavoury episodes for comfort. Institutional abuse of children is rampant, but it seldom comes out in the open.
Recall the recent charge-sheeting of Dutch national William Heum (56), who has been facing trial since 2002 for child molestation. Recently, he was indicted for possession of child pornography. He is accused of having posted prurient material on the Internet in 2005 and is also said to have made a confession to the police, which he now denies. Heum has been in India for three decades and claims that he is a social worker associated with an orphanage in Mahabalipuram.
India is a favourite destination for foreign tourists looking for child sex, and there are several studies that highlight the laxity in procedures that facilitates access to potential victims. Take, for example, the case of Australian businessman Paul Henry Dean, who made India his home in the late 1970s when he disappeared from his native country to begin a new life as a holy man and healer.
After spending the initial years in an ashram in South India, he migrated to Andhra Pradesh and Orissa where he was living among leprosy patients. He also took to paramedical training of the local youth, aided by the slender knowledge that he acquired watching local doctors in action. It was in Titsagarh (Orissa) that he came to adverse notice for sexual contact with young boys, for which he was reported to the police.
In 2001, cases were initiated against him for engaging in unnatural sex and for violations of the Passport Act. It is also known that statements against him were recorded by the police in 2008. Dean has strongly denied all the charges. One does not know the fate of the investigation. The Australian government has also not shown any great enthusiasm to bring him to book because it is more than 30 years since he fled Australia. This case alone would indicate how easy it is to enter our country on specious grounds and remain here to indulge in objectionable activities.
Despite the fact that our child population is more than 400 million, and several studies – including the one conducted by the Government of India in 2007 – point to sexual exploitation of more than 50 per cent of our children, for the police in India, combating sexual assaults against children is of a low priority. Some senior officers have shown significant interest. They cannot, however, make any difference until officers in the lower rungs, such as deputy superintendents and station house officers, are also sensitised sufficiently so that they look out for prowlers like Dean. But then they need strong legislative support. The law is barely adequate to neutralise those who target hapless children, especially those in the lower economic strata who suffer from parental neglect and a poor school ambience.
Unlike countries such as the United Kingdom, we do not have a specific legislation that deals with sexual offences. The proposed expansion of the definition of “rape” in the Indian Penal Code may not address the growing problem of sexual exploitation of children.
It is gratifying that Union Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily has shown commendable interest in drafting a special law to meet the situation. The Law Commission’s 172nd Report and the National Women’s Commission’s draft recommendations are a good guide to drafting the contemplated law. The Supreme Court in its Sakshi ruling of 2004 suggested that major amendments be made to the existing criminal law or a new Act be enacted to deal with sexual violence against children.
Bringing in a new law goes only half the way in tackling the menace that greatly affects the younger generation. It goes without saying that all of us who have a stake in the welfare of our children need to spread the message against predators looking to satiate their reprehensible appetite for children.
We must remember that child victims of sexual assault experience the same level of trauma as rape victims. Unchecked, this evil poses a grave threat to the health of future generations. This is why there is a need to build a national consensus on how to combat it by strengthening the law and the enforcement machinery such as the police. The media can also play a positive role here.