Sexual predators in the church – Book review

Rita Perintfalvi: Unforgivable – Sexual predators in the church (Kalligram, 2021)

Watching the 2015 award winning film, Spotlight was a strangely soothing experience – which is a weird thing to say about the investigation of child rape in the Catholic church.

Yet, that is what I felt when I finished watching and I wondered why. Was it the way the story was told? Was it the actors? Or was it the hope it gave?

It wasn’t either of those things. After watching it again, I realized why it felt so reassuring – despite the gruesome story. It was the fact that none of the journalists ever questioned that the public would be interested and outraged. They didn’t fear indifference – because people in Boston were unafraid to get outraged. It usually led to change.

And there were a few things that didn’t happen during the investigation that was nice to not see. No one was trying to intimidate the journalists. No journalists feared for their safety, their jobs, or for their family’s livelihood. They were not threatened to be fired for their investigation and their families weren’t fired either. Their own loved ones didn’t put pressure on them to stop investigating.

Of course, it had happened because they were smart and kept it a secret. But everyone who ever stood up against an authoritarian power structure knows that it is rarely enough. The roots of such a structure reach into the psyches of people and our loved ones. Members of these regimes infiltrate every aspect of society and worse things can happen than just a court employee removing files that would incriminate his beloved church.

Fighting to uncover abuse in an authoritarian power structure like the church is not just an investigative challenge, or a matter of keeping the investigation confidential. Deeply entrenched power resides in the minds of its victims, not just in legal and political tools. It is not just the church or the state that would turn against you if you tried to rock the boat – it would be your whole family, your loved ones, your parents, grandparents or children, and your only allies would be determined activists. In other words, people who are unpleasant to be around, by definition. Either because they are traumatized victims or because they are disagreeable human rights advocates that the church deems “troublemakers” and who are often insufferable because their sense of justice comes at the expense of their social skills, like the ability to go with the flock and take the hint.

Had this investigation happened in Hungary, the journalists’ very own families would have put them under pressure, and more nastiness would have happened than just an arrogant gift to a Jewish newspaper editor by a power-drunk bishop. If Boston is morally compromised by the influence of the Catholic church, imagine the depth to which an eastern European country is compromised under the influence of centuries of authoritarian socialization – by both church and state. And today it is less and less possible to separate the two in the era of rabid political christianism (that is curiously similar to other brands of religious fundamentalisms it is supposedly protecting us against).

Rita Perintfalvi is one such disagreeable person. Not only is she a theologian, she insists that women are people, too. Even in the Catholic church. Tellingly, she is not airing these views in Hungary, but in Austria. As she put it “If I tried to make a living as a theologian at home, and I would say what I think, I would quickly lose my cathedra and I could go and sell langosh,” the Hungarian equivalent of flipping burgers. (See what foreign money does? No wonder Orbán wants to list everyone whose livelihood is independent from the Hungarian power structures.)

But her views that women are people, too, is not what antagonized the Hungarian church – or at least not publicly. It was her book on child abuse in the Hungarian Catholic church.

Perintfalvi did something that seemed unthinkable after a decade of Orbán’s political christianism: She started the debate about sexual abuse in the Catholic church by releasing a book of interviews with around a dozen victims, experts, citing data and literature from more transparent countries (like Germany) where the investigation into child abuse in the church is in a more advanced phase. Like, it started.

Perintfalvi’s book is more than just a juicy account of which genital went where. She puts equal, if not more, emphasis on the legal, psychological, social and spiritual aspects of the grooming and the rapes as well as providing a thorough analysis of the perpetrators, the serial predators who refined their tools over the decades of unpunished child molestation and used every power they held, spiritual, intellectual, familiar, and political, to render their victims helpless in every possible way. Helpless to resist, helpless to seek justice. Helpless even as adults.

The emphasis on the spiritual aspect of these rapes is perhaps the most revealing and Perintfalvi’s greatest contribution to the discussion. Spiritual power alone would have given the perpetrators enough leverage to rape their way through most of the children in their reach and get away with it.

Spiritual power over the children is easy to understand when the child’s inexperience alone would have been enough for successful grooming. But it gets worse if we also consider the spiritual power the church holds over the parents. Reading about children without families or from dysfunctional families falling into the beds of predator priests is rage-inducing. But hearing stories where the precious parents were also complicit and willing to look away is even more disturbing (in Perintfalvi and in other accounts of child abuse by church).

Which parent would not throw their child under the priest if they think it might be necessary for cookie points with god or to keep eternal hellfire away from their spiritual skin after death? What if that rapist priest is god’s way of testing parents’ faith, they ask, faith being the degree of blind submission to anyone who claims to come on behalf of god. Time and again we are met with devout parents who turn a blind eye over their child’s spiritual and sexual abuse, claiming they didn’t know it, they didn’t believe it – but really, just being people with a moral compass compromised by being conditioned to submit to religious authority.

Such stories should finally put to rest the damaging assumption that every parent always wants the best to their child – or at least they would protect their children. It is not helpful to the countless people for whom this is simply not true, like in cases where parents don’t really mind to sacrifice a child or two in the off chance that it brings them closer to spiritual rewards. Or they are just cowards. Or they just hate their kids or being a parent. Or it had also happened to them and it would be an uncomfortable thought that their parents could just have stopped it. So they continue the tradition.

The institutional abuse of the victims is naturally also present. Not being believed, or being threatened with consequences is enough for most people to stop reporting abuse, especially if they are also under pressure from spiritual authority.

Even the legal system is blind to these abuses as churches tend to enjoy a de facto exemption from any laws they claim is against their ecclesiastical dogma. And while the book thoroughly discusses the possible link between the monstrously arbitrary celibacy rules and child abuse, it might also be worth mentioning that any organization that enjoys a de facto exemption from laws by “handling issues within the church” and not handing over perpetrators to real authorities is a haven for aspiring pedophiles. We should not be surprised that they converge around churches, celibacy or otherwise. Tightly knit inner groups of big churches as well as smaller cults virtually all contain an element of child rape. The mind boggles at the amount of evidence and the shrill lack of connection made between the two.

Every part of Perintfalvi’s book reads a bit like Douglas Adams’ fairy cake. Place any piece of it in the Total Perspective Vortex and you can see the whole of creation because “since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation … from, say, one small piece of fairy cake“. (Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, 1980) Every paragraph of victim testimony, for instance, is followed by a lengthy explanation of why it is not the victim’s fault, how a child can not be expected to withstand such grooming that not even a grownup could, being under the double pressure of personal charisma and spiritual submission.

Perintfalvi keeps reminding the reader – and especially the reader who is only there for the juicy details – not to forget to blame the perpetrator. What he allowed himself, what he did to a child. She does so while also being sensitive to the fact that sexual immaturity and confusion is priests is often a result of systemic forces and prior victimization by yet another predator. Someone can be a victim and a perpetrator at the same time. A victim is still a victim if she is not without moral blemishes. These are obvious facts that the quick-to-judge, black-and-white, and self-serving social non-thinking prefers to ignore.

The fact that this book came out in the 11th year of Orbán’s reign is shocking. Orbán’s political christianism is becoming shrill and all-consuming. It is not that he is so devout. Christianism is his blanket excuse for and distraction from every power grab and power abuse. The standard religionist agenda is divisive as it is anti-human and it is thus a great distraction from the real priority for the regime, kleptocracy. Religiously inspired policies cause real damage to people, they trigger real hatred and physical violence against targeted groups – but they are still just a distraction. Orbán’s anti-LGBT law was barely passed, for instance, when emboldened homophobes allowed themselves to break into a home in broad daylight – just to punish the inhabitants for a rainbow flag. But the entire anti-LGBT propaganda is still just a distraction from the late-stage kleptocracy.

Orbán’s political christianism cuts deeper than just homophobia. Women are now routinely regarded and even refer to themselves as birthing machines under the barrage of “pro-family” policies, pushing them into childbirth, marriage and life-long dependency by breathtakingly intrusive contracts they have to sign to get a homemaking loan – and threatening them with serious financial punishments if they dare to divorce or fail to produce the contracted number of offspring. (Infertility or domestic abuse are no excuse.) It is hardly surprising that so many people take the bait – they have no chance on the housing market as individuals or without the homemaking loans – but it will be equally unsurprising when the social scourge of being trapped in unwanted lives with ill-considered spouses will come home to roost. It happened when the communists enacted the same loan-for-babies scheme – which fitted under communist slogans as well as under nationalist-religionist ones.

And the resulting unhappy and abusive homes will be a wellspring of new potential abuse victims, the parents with the written-off lives will be more indifferent to the suffering of their children after they forced themselves to swallow their own suffering. The habit of submission dies hard as one ages.

Perintfalvi’s book has been a bestseller but the political consequences are nowhere to be seen – despite the supposed anti-pedophile law that has passed recently. The intellectually open parts of society is discussing it, but there is a second society who had no chance to even hear about it, being trapped in a government-created information bubble. So don’t expect bigger waves – like the ones that happened in Poland and Germany. Poland may be more religion-stricken than Hungary but the occupation of the media be the ruling political christianist regime is not as complete as it is in Hungary.

Indeed, the first reaction that came from a popular influencer priest was a 20-minute YouTube rant, claiming that his parish had “dealt with” child abuse cases perfectly well, thankyouvermuch. Which is a breathtaking argument considering that the number of completed child abuse investigations in the Hungarian Catholic church to this day is literally zero – meaning that whatever his parish did, it was by definition a cover-up. Also, if one is not allowed to listen to victims without a psychology degree (but no one else does), maybe one should not be allowed to rape them without one. You know, they may suffer damage if the rape is not done professionally.

Orbánist media has also attacked Perintfalvi, who, so far, has handled it with grace. It will be interesting to see how the issue develops once the media has had enough because media attention is all we can hope for. Legal or political consequences will simply never happen under this regime. The churches will remain choke full of taxpayer money and the priests will keep singing Orbán’s praise. More and more schools will be played into the hands of the church and get extra taxpayer money to run it – delivering potential new victims to robed predators. Hate targets of political christianism will suffer real damage and the ruling elite will be free to keep running the kleptocracy undisturbed, with the assistance of the priest men.

Under the end credits of Spotlight (2015), they listed the countries where child abuse cases by the Catholic church have become public. Fourteen years after the original revelations in Boston, Hungary was glaringly missing. It still wouldn’t make the list, twenty years later.

(Rita Perintfalvi: Amire Nincs Bocsánat – Szexuális Ragadozók az Egyházban – Kalligram, 2021)


Spotlight (2015)

The secret Jehovah’s Witnesses database of child abuse (The Atlantic, Mar 22, 2019)

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