Community should be a safe space for abuse victims

5 Rocio (1)

Theologian and sexual abuse survivor Rocio Figueroa has expressed distress over the “victim blaming” that has been happening in the wake of the resignation of former Palmerston North Bishop Charles Drennan.

“The first response of the community needs to be to listen to and believe the
victim,” Dr Figueroa told NZ Catholic. “The community must become part of
the solution of the crisis of sexual abuse and not part of the problem.”

Dr Figueroa said some people tend to blame women, saying that if they behaved differently they would have avoided the abuse. She said this perpetuates “the belief that women are at fault when they are abused. It also leads to a lack of accountability and responsibility by men.”

Popular children’s author Joy Cowley, who had been interviewed in secular media, had been defending the former bishop’s misconduct.

In defending the perpetrator, Dr Figueroa said, the woman is revictimised and retraumatised.

She said many studies show that two thirds of adult women do not speak out about their abuse because of shame and the fear of the reaction of the community.

“It is very hard for the process of healing if the victim doesn’t speak out. Our communities have to become a safe space in which women and men can talk and speak out and receive the support that they need,” Dr Figueroa said.

“Trauma must not be lived in isolation…. [She] needs compassion, support
and the love of our community.”

Dr Figueroa also said that negative reactions towards the complainant reflect a community that is grieving and “does not know how to react”.

“In many cases, the perpetrator is a respected person in the community, so
sometimes the immediate response of the people is: ‘Is she lying?’ Because if it were true, the stakes for the community are insuperable.”

Dr Figueroa said people are shaken by how wrong they were about the perpetrator.

“It makes us all insecure. But really, perpetrators are not monsters. They are
not horrible people that you will immediately recognise. They can have parallel lives” she said.

“This is why it is also important to support the bystanders because all the
community is grieving, not just the victim, not just the perpetrator,” she added.

Dr Figueroa stressed that this case was not just about the obvious breaking
of the vow of celibacy. “Here we are confronted not by a consensual relationship, but by an abuse of authority and power,” she said.

She explained that in Pope Francis’ motu proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You are the Light of the World) promulgated on May 7, 2019, which outlined the new procedures for reporting and dealing with sexual abuse allegations against bishops, there are two ways by which priests or bishops are seen to violate the sixth commandment: Through violence or force or through abuse of power.

“Cardinal John [Dew] said it was not sexual assault. If it wasn’t sexual assault, the only other possibility would be that her complaint refers to a sexual misconduct through abuse of power and authority,” Dr Figueroa explained.

“When there is an imbalance of power, it is almost impossible to have a consensual relationship. If the young woman had a complaint, it’s because she considered it (the relationship) was not consensual.”

On the issue of forgiveness, Dr Figueroa clarified, it is the action, not
the person, that is judged.

“We must not judge the perpetrator, but we can judge his acts. He has to be accountable. It is not just about a sin that needs to be forgiven, it’s about professional behavior. A professional ethic has been broken. And the person needs to be accountable and responsible for what he has done,” she said.

She added that the victim must not be forced to forgive the perpetrator.

“Forgiveness is the goal for all of us but we cannot impose forgiveness on the victim or on others. We cannot say, ‘You have to forgive’, because forgiveness is a long process of healing that needs time. Forgiveness is not a substitute for justice; forgiveness requires justice. It has to be accompanied by justice,” she said.

Following Ms Cowley’s comments, New Zealand Catholic Education Office chief executive Paul Ferris confirmed she (Ms Cowley) had been asked not to attend a retreat for Central Otago Catholic school principals organised by his office.

In a report by the Otago Daily Times, Mr Ferris was quoted as saying Ms Cowley’s presence ‘’could overwhelm the reflective nature of the retreat’’ because of media interest in her at the moment.

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Rowena Orejana

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