The responses arising from the publication of the Ryan report have highlighted in no uncertain terms the urgent necessity for the development of a mature sexuality among adults. Contemporary Ireland has had and continues to have a complex, repressive and painful journey towards the recognition and acceptance of sexuality as a sacred and vibrant part of our nature. Within Catholicism the body has been much ‘sinned’ against. Certainly within Ireland a great fear and suspicion infected Catholicism where sex and sexuality were portrayed as potential dangers to one’s eternal salvation. Imagine something you prized, which you saw as beautiful, unique and essential to your life: contemplate your response if someone handled that prize with roughness or callousness or disrespect or violence. I would hope that your reaction would be of an immediate outrage – a ‘no’ that would erupt from deep within, born of a powerful sense of belonging and passion. However the reality is that such a ‘no’ has not been present and will not emerge until women and men are no longer viewed as ‘sexual objects’, until there is no longer the belief that children can be disciplined by violating their bodies and until sex and sexuality are held as integral to an intimacy with self and with others.
The sad thing is that we all colluded with the culture of violence, certainly physical, towards children. Parents, priests, politicians, male and female members of religious orders, lay teachers – indeed, all adults – accepted that it was quite permissible for the Christian and other religious brothers and sisters to have custom-made leather straps or canes with which to control children. Ireland is one of the few countries that did not sign up to the European ban on violence towards children within their homes.
We need too to hold a strong consciousness of the long term lessening and demeaning effects of the emotional violations of children and adults – ‘the tongue is mightier than the sword’. Indeed those individuals who told their stories to the Ryan Tribunal reported that what the brothers said to them was far more devastating than the physical and sexual violations. How we communicate is always more important than what we want to communicate. There is no such phenomenon as ‘hard love’ – “I’m only doing this for your own good” – that is an unconscious rationalisation masking the deep inner darkness of insecurities of those who perpetrate neglect. Love is unconditional, kind, caring, supportive, silent, enriching, empowering, enduring, individualising and arises from a solid interiority of an unconditional belonging to Self. The loving of others is not separate to the loving of Self; on the contrary, it is the latter that gives rise to the former. This reality is so well echoed in the words of Christ: “Love your neighbour as your Self” – the best kept secret in the Catholic Church; a secret that led to devastating emotional, sexual and physical results, not to mention a spiritual desert.
It is the responsibility of each adult to examine their current views on their own physicality and sexuality and how they view and relate to the physical and sexual presences of another. Physicality and sexuality unexamined can result in those essential aspects of the Self not being lived and, sadly and dangerously, going underground; such unresolved conflicts can lead to an undermining of children’s and other adults’ physicality and sexuality and often to violations. It is not an option that each individual take responsibility for Self and for one’s own actions – emotional, physical, sexual, social, behavioural, intellectual, creative and spiritual – it is a critical responsibility. It is not an easy process and it is essential that this urgent process is encouraged, supported and celebrated so that individuals – especially men – see that acknowledging our fears and vulnerabilities is not a weakness – rather it is a strength that is critical to maturity. The challenging of men to examine their lives is paramount because they occupy so many leadership and managerial roles – nationally and internationally – and I, for one, have major concerns for our political, social, economic, educational and spiritual future if men do not take up the challenge of knowing and taking responsibility for Self. It needs to be integral to the training for all professions – religious, political, social, psychological, scientific, medical, educational, environmental, financial, to mention just a few – for participants to be provided with the opportunities and support to examine their lives and resolve the inevitable conflicts that are present. Of course those leading and teaching these courses will need to have done their ‘home-work’ before they embark on teaching others. Maturity is a life-time process – new challenges will continue to emerge. The important thing is the intention to pursue maturity and not lose sight of it.
Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Clinical Psychologist and Author of Whose Life Are You Living and The Mature Manager.