Ian Boyne | Sin, sex and the Church
The problem of child sexual abuse is an endemic in Jamaica. And it has been for a long time. It is just that we are more sensitive about, and morally outraged by, this issue than previous generations.
It was a couple of years ago that it dawned on me forcefully that a very large percentage of our women were sexually molested as children. As I began to make enquiries, almost every woman I spoke to had some story about some sexually inappropriate action by an adult when she was a child. I began to make enquiries about some supposedly decent persons whom I knew as a child, and I realised that people could tell me stories about these seemingly straight-laced, holy churchmen.
One of them had come to me saying how he had been framed for molesting a little girl he was helping and he needed me to put him on to one of my big-name lawyer friends to get him off. I did. It was after he won the case that I discovered what that wretch had been up to for many years while carrying out his gospel grinding. My anger was indescribable.
My daughter, who is senior attorney with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, has prosecuted many carnal abuse and incest cases in several parishes across Jamaica. And she reports that there is a very high tolerance level for this perversion and criminality. Jurors are more eager to blame the "bad pickney dem", the "force-ripe gyal dem" who "a push it up pon the decent man them" and a "rub butter a puss mouth". These perverts can easily get character witnesses from upstanding members of their community or church.
Child sexual abuse is a culturally ingrained problem in Jamaica. But I suggest that religion complicates and facilitates it. Religion is complicit with the culture. I tell you why. Church members' natural, reflexive instinct is to protect "God's church". This is not man business you dealing with, they will tell you. In their reasoning, if the Church should lose credibility, the very mission of God could be affected. Eternal consequences are at stake. You secular people need to understand this reasoning.
Church people will say, in weighing the options, that if some souls could be lost through disappointment and disillusionment with the Church because a scandal is revealed to the police, those souls will burn in hell forever or will lose paradise. Christians feel it is better to protect the name of the Church for it has a larger mission of saving souls.
If you start reporting these things or sacking loose-pants pastors, people will lose confidence in the Church and anarchy will descend on Jamaica as people will "just bruk out". Keep the good name of the church. "Love covers a multitude of sins," as the Bible itself says, so let's just forgive the brother and move on. All have sinned and come short. Also, in the Jamaican competitive church environment, where sheep-stealing is a big phenomenon and church-hopping a favourite pastime of Christians, you have to hold down your scandals, for you might lose members to your competitor congregation down the road or in the community.
Why wash your dirty linen in public when the other church is sweeping its dirt under a bulky carpet? So religion is problematic. Child sexual abuse is not peculiar to the Church, and sexual abuse takes place in schools, state care institutions, sporting groups, etc. But there is something about the religious mentality that can foster a permissive environment for child sexual abuse. George Davis wrote a very moving column last Tuesday in The Gleaner, 'Forget the wolves, flee the shepherds', where he tells of his own knowledge of a playboy revival preacher impregnating a 13-year-old. The mother knew, but, "amazingly, the mother remained a key part of his congregation, reasoning that she had no right to hold a grudge when God had already forgiven the pastor". The theology of grace as practised by many churches is very accommodating of sin.
It is so sad but an undeniable fact that for most of the evils in the world, it is secular society that raises consciousness about them, not religious people or their institutions. There are many ethical principles in the Bible, but the Church as an institution has often lagged behind society in decrying the evils around them and in explicating biblical ethics. Whether you take slavery, sexism, racism, classism, or most other evils, it is usually after secular people have campaigned about these things that the Church catches up and then quotes scripture to say we knew this all along and you should be so happy we have a Christian heritage. So why didn't these things become abhorrent before worldly people devoid of the Holy Spirit started to struggle against them? Quite curious.
It is a fact that people in churches know of child sexual abuse and incest and do not report it to the police just to protect the good name of the church and 'the Lord's work'. The State, by pressing its authority and criminalising the withholding of information on child sexual abuse, is in this case an instrument of God. Paedophiles must find no cover in the Church. They must be locked away. We Christians can always visit them and show compassion to them in prison, where they belong. But they must feel the full brunt of the law. It is a shame that the State should take more interest in protecting children's rights than the Church.
Religion is problematic and can be harmful to children's best interests. Take the case of our sister nation Trinidad. A shocking piece of news revealed this month was that over the past 20 years, the twin-island republic had 3,478 cases of child marriages. Because of religion, in this case Muslim and Hindu religious traditions which allow child brides, that was facilitated. Now a new bill has been piloted to raise the age of marriage to 18 years as recommended by the United Nations. This bill is seeking to amend Muslim and Hindu laws. Trinidad's attorney general produced marriage certificates showing that girls as young as 11 and 12 were married to men up to 56. Because of 'religious rights'.
Trinidad and Tobago is only one of eight countries in the world where someone can be married as young as 12. And all those societies are religious. That's not coincidental. Religion has been problematic. The Muslims and the Hindus in Trinidad have been pushing back against this new bill, which would jail men for up to seven years for marrying a girl under 18. One Muslim opposition senator is protesting: "The Holy Koran informs us about it. Make the trials of the orphans easy until they reach the age of marriage. The age of marriage is defined in Islamic religion as the age when puberty starts." And according to this Muslim senator, "No change has been made to the Holy Koran since Prophet Muhammad came to this earth." These religious men insist on having their little girls to have sex with.
Religion is problematic, but not necessarily a problem. There are people with agendas who are salivating over the church sex scandals because this is a convenient tool to push those agendas. Gay people are delighted at this, for they can now say, "Leave us consenting adults alone. Keep your unholy noses out of our bedrooms and go chase down your own paedophiles and whoring pastors." Commentators who lack sophistication in theological analysis will ridicule the Church over this crisis and broad-brush every pastor and every church.
I believe that there are many godly pastors all over this country. Many honourable men serving their vocations without exploiting children and vulnerable females. But these allegations of sexual misconduct serve as a wake-up call for Christians to pay more attention to their behaviour. Christians must know that they are being watched and judged by 'worldlians'. Get used to it! You are the salt of the world, the light of the world, according to Jesus. You ought not to manifest the same darkness you are supposed to be exposing.
The media, the State, and civil society must keep up the pressure on the Church. That could well be the grounds for revival.
- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columnsgleanerjm.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.