Is Sexual Abuse Torture? (Cristina Richie)

Catholic Social Ethics

Last month, speaking to a crowd in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis declared that “to torture persons is a mortal sin. A very grave sin.” Relating his comments to the United Nations’ International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the pope condemned “every form of torture and invite[d] Christians to commit themselves to work together for its abolition and to support victims and their families.” These exhortations paint a very different picture than UN Committee Against Torture findings on the Vatican’s handling of sexual abuse within the church.

Last month, speaking to a crowd in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis declared that “to torture persons is a mortal sin. A very grave sin.” Relating his comments to the United Nations’ International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the pope condemned “every form of torture and invite[d] Christians to commit themselves to work together for its abolition and to support victims and their families.” These exhortations paint a very different picture than UN Committee Against Torture findings on the Vatican’s handling of sexual abuse within the church.

When questioned about how well the Holy See adhered to the 1987 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the Vatican had signed, representatives from the Holy See “argued that not all forms of sex abuse can be equated to state-sponsored torture under the terms of the treaty.” This seems to indicate that, in the eyes of the Vatican, either some forms of sexual abuse are not torture, or that there were loopholes in the Convention that might permit certain types of sexual abuse as another species of act that were not subsumed under “other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” Christians might rightfully ask, given the conflict between the UN and the Holy See, “Is sexual abuse torture?”

The UN Convention Against Torture, in Part 1 Article 1, defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” in order to obtain information, punish, intimidate or coerce. This definition fits what most people think of when they hear the word “torture” and includes physical mutilations, the use of torture devices, and other painful, debilitating techniques. But this is just one side of the ugly face of torture.

Torture practices are divided into two general categories of “intensely painful physical techniques: those that leave marks, and those that do not.” The first kind is generally called “torture 1,” or just plain “torture,” and the second kind “torture 2,” or “torture lite.” This second, less often discussed type of torture, includes psychological methods of demeaning people such as lying to prisoners about the death of loved ones, exposure to extreme temperatures, and waterboarding. These activities are horrendous while they occur, but since the victim emerges physically unscathed (though they often have tremendous emotional and psychological problems afterwards), these methods are difficult to prosecute as “torture.”

Quite often sexual abuse is not recognized as torture because it does not leave marks and therefore can go undetected. Since the legal definition of rape is broad and includes “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina [or anus] with any body part or object,” there are ways in which a person could be “raped” that would be considered “torture lite” but that would not leave a permanent physical disfigurement. At the same time, there are forms of sexually-based abuse that would leave physical marks including electrocution and some types of forced penetration that stretch and break the body.

Assuming that the Vatican took the position that clerical sexual abuse was not “torture” in the plain sense [i.e. “torture 1”], they may have been technically correct that sexual abuse was not an instance of the sort of torture usually covered by the Convention. However, this does not mean that sexual abuse should not be considered torture. Sexual assault, just like torture, violates a sacred part of the human being and affects every interaction that the victim will have for the rest of her or his life. In many ways sexual abuse is worse than death, as it is forced on someone against their will and can never be forgotten.

Sexual abuse is an intrinsically evil act that amounts to torture. In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II says that acts which “radically contradict the good of the person” are intrinsically evil, “always and per se… quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstance” (no. 80). Pope John Paul II did not specifically include rape and sexual assault in his description of intrinsically evil acts, but he did note that prostitution and trafficking of women and children should be considered intrinsically evil alongside physical and mental torture. While I do not agree that all activities John Paul II lists as intrinsically evil are morally equivalent to each other, in the realm of evil actions that one person can inflict on another, there is room to include sexual abuse within the terms of the convention from a legal and theological standpoint. I would therefore count sexual assault as torture, although the Vatican does not.

Ignoring the torturous realities of sexual abuse- both within the church and in the military, on college campuses, and abroad– exacerbates the misogyny that sanctions men in power to do as they please with the bodies of others. Sexual abuse and other forms of “torture lite” that do not leave permanent physical scars allow organizations to operate under a cloak of immunity from responsibility for crime. While it is expedient for those in power to claim that sexual abuse is not torture, it is devastating to the thousands of sexual abuse survivors, and deadly to dozens each year. Putting a hedge of protection against perpetrators by labeling sexual assault as something other than “torture” is literally killing men and women, boys and girls around the world. But, when legally prosecuted as torture, justice can be satisfied for victims and healing can begin. The Vatican owes each victim of sexual abuse recognition and reparation. Sexual abuse is torture and must be considered as such.

Cristina Richie is an adjunct professor of religion and ethics in the Boston area. Her work has appeared in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals and magazines including Black Theology: An International Journal and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She is working on a PhD in theological ethics at Boston College.

One thought on “Is Sexual Abuse Torture? (Cristina Richie)

  1. I’m going to have to re-read this a couple of times. About three different related but distinct definitions of ‘torture’ seem to be at play here. It’s not unlike Archbishop Levada’s request for clarification of the term ‘child abuse’ about 11 years ago. I was in disbelief and sent him the page from James Garbarino’s book the Psychologically Battered child in which the distinction between ‘abuse’ as used by law and the judiciary for prosecution, and ‘abuse’ as used by mental health professionals for ‘healing’ of the victim of abuse. It turns out that the ‘definition’ he was seeking out was an all together different third one — canonical definition of abuse.
    I’m finding the same kind of conflation here rather than the necessary distinctions. I’m thinking that you’re conflating terms in an effort to get to the concept of ‘justice’ — to do justice for the victim of this type of abuse calls for ‘accountability and repentance.’
    I need to re-read this before I’m satisfied that I’ve understood this correctly and answered it correctly, but it’s a thought provoking essay because it shows the many levels that seem to make the issue more complex the farther away from the injured party and the perpetrator of the harm.

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