Sexual Abuse & Cover – ups: Echoes in Church History.

A Church Protecting its Own

Yesterday, I prepared two posts on apparently unrelated themes that have been preoccupying my mind for some time. at Open Tabernacle, I have a draft post on the Irish clerical abuse scandal scheduled for publication, while here at QTC I wrote about the little known and neglected history of the church’s active persecution of homosexuals during the Renaissance.  This morning, re- reading a little further into this history, I came across two details which, combining both stories, suddenly puts both issues and the connections between them, into sharp focus.

In the mid-fifteenth century in Venice, the emphasis shifted from simply convicting and executing “offenders” to actively seeking them out, with an array of paid officials instructed to comb the city in search of sodomites and also “boys who were patiente”. In the modern world, young boys would be seen as victims of abuse.  In Venice at that time, boys as young as ten to fifteen were seen as willing accomplices, and were equally subject to torture and punishment.   From 1424 on, the sentence prescribed for convicted boys aged from ten to fourteen was at least three months in jail, and twelve to twenty lashes.  Later, the punishments for boys who were passive partners received the same sentences as their older, active associates. Boys, like Men, were subjected to severe torture to extract their “confessions”, in trials where prosecutors were the judges, and where the church and  state, sharing between them the assets of those convicted, had a vested interest in securing guilty verdicts.

Saint Dominic Presiding Over an Auto_de_fé Pedro Berruguete 1475 Prado Museum

That’s the background.  Now for the second snippet, which brings the modern story of abuse into dramatically sharp focus. Here, I quote directly from Louis Crompton:

The Venetian authorities repeatedly discovered members of the clergy in the sodomite subculture but were vexed that they lay outside their jurisdiction.  Men in holy orders could not be punished (apart from sentences of exile) except by church authorities, who ordinarily declined to degrade clerics – a measure that would have brought them within reach of Venices’s severe secular penalties. One senses that ecclesiastical bodies were unco-operative despite indignant protests from the council because public pilloryings or executions would have reflected on the morals of the church, which preferred to confine men to monasteries on bread and water.

(As further background, it is worth recalling that St Peter Damian, who is one of those now remembered as a key figure in developing the church’s strenuous opposition to  “homosexuality”, directed his complaints against the practice in the monasteries. ).

This has astonishing parallels with the present situation, which is best known in Ireland but is repeated world-wide.  In fifteenth century Venice, as elsewhere in the medieval and Renaissance worlds, and in the Catholic Church today, ecclesial authorities who have denigrated all forms of sexual love outside of marriage,   that have berated “homosexuals” for their supposed sin, that have actively fomented the conditions for homophobia and gay bashing in the modern age, or have actively prosecuted and burned  thousands in the past, have sheltered the offenders in its own ranks from civic prosecution. In Venice, the clerical “punishment” imposed instead of burning at the stake was “confinement to a monastery on bread and water”. In the modern world, the clerical punishment instead of secular justice, has too often been a simple transfer to another jurisdiction, “rustication” , or promotion to a Vatican sinecure.

In both cases, the reason the Church protected its own was for fear that open exposure “would have reflected on the morals of the church”  – almost exactly the words of the Murphy commission last November.

Recommended Books

Crompton, Louis: Homosexuality and Civilization

Greenberg, : The Construction of Homosexuality

Naphy, William: Born to be Gay: A History of Homosexuality (Revealing History)

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