What is Abuse?

This article in USA Today trumpets new reports of clerical abuse across Europe. The problem with the abuse scandals–whether they be reports of child abuse in the Catholic Church, schools, orphanages or homes is that the definition of ‘abuse’ has now become so broad that virtually any form of unpleasantness, real or imagined is considered to be ‘abuse’.

It used to be that ‘abuse’ meant prolonged physical or sexual abuse. It meant a vulnerable person was raped or beaten senseless on a regular basis. Then ‘abuse’ came to mean any form of sexual molestation or physical punishment. Then the definition was widened to include emotional or psychological abuse. If a child was threatened in any way that was abuse. Then if they were threatened psychologically that was also abuse. Emotional and psychological abuse was next, so as a result if you shouted at a child you were also guilty of abuse. Now if you look at someone the wrong way you’re guilty of ‘emotional and psychological’ abuse.

Now the definition is so vague and all encompassing that anyone who has ever lost their temper with anyone else can be accused of abuse or harassment in some form or another. They can find a lawyer and sue. I have listened, for instance, to a woman who was divorcing her husband claim how he abused her and their children. I asked what form this took, “Did he come home drunk and beat you and the kids and rape you or what?”

She looked shocked and wounded, “No, it was far more subtle and insidious than that!”

So what did he actually do? “He wouldn’t speak to me. He gave me looks that said how much he hated me. He didn’t spend enough time with the children.”

All of this may have been true. The guy may have been a lousy husband and a bad father, and it is arguable that this is bad parenting; but bad parenting or being a selfish person is not the same as abuse, and it is unjust to say that it is. It reminds me of the guy who was hounded out of his church because he was accused by his wife of having ‘an emotional affair’ with another woman.

The problem here, and it is a typical trick of the devil, is to play around with language in order to confuse and mystify. What has happened is that people now make no distinction between bad parenting or selfishness or being a lousy spouse and active serious abuse of others. The one sin is passive. The other is actively evil.

It is a great injustice to use the umbrella term ‘abuse’ for all these different problems because now when a man (and it is almost always a man) is accused of ‘abuse’ people assume that he is a pedophile, a drunk, a rapist or a man of violence when in fact he may simply have been a selfish and lazy person.

How many of the priests and religious now being accused in this latest wave of allegations are serious offenders and how many are guilty of ‘emotional’ abuse or ‘psychological’ abuse or ‘spiritual’ abuse? They may have been creeps and sinners, but such vague charges can never be proved. They’re subjective. One person may come out of a religious school claiming that there was ‘emotional and psychological abuse’ because he was expected to get up at 6:00am and attend chapel and would be punished if he didn’t.

Is it abuse simply because the ‘victim’ says it was abuse? This is the other injustice: the ‘victim’ is always right. The accused is always guilty. When the crimes become so vague there can be no proof; the law becomes subjective and sentimental and very grave miscarriages of justice result.

UPDATE: Here’s a good article on the subject by Andrew Brown of London’s The Guardian.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11987121652866343848 Bad Catholic

    We are a society of victims. Did I hear you say something that I don't like – you're abusing me by making me listen to your hate speech. I went to Church and you preached that something that I DO is a SIN! HATE SPEECH! Did I feel uncomfortable? MENTAL ABUSE!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10503510474554718305 Just another mad Catholic

    with all respect to Fr L and bad Catholic emotional abuse is a serious subject. Its more than just shouting at your kid/s, its not being there for them when they need you, its putting your own interests e.g. screwing every skirt in the neighberhood before theirs e.g. supporting them through a difficult time, about cutting yourself out of their life and then coming back 10yrs later and thinking that a hot chocolate every 8-12 weeks makes it all ok.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09583237860468104240 Belen

    abuse has been widened because society has FINALLY understood – thank God! – that there are MORE forms of abuse than just rape. Sexual abuse, e.g, includes all forms of forced kissing, touching a child/teenager in a sexual way, making them watch a porn movie/magazine or sexual acts, sex talks, etc. Emotional abuse includes degrading and negative messages. ALL forms of abuse are a serious subject. And Fr, with all respect, it almost seems like you disagree with the definition that ESPECIALISTS and PROFESSIONALS, not society, give to the term "abuse". It's your opinion against THEIRS

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr Longenecker

    I am not saying these other things are right. I'm pointing out to call all these things 'abuse' when most people consider 'abuse' to be actively violent actions is an injustice.Also, when a person is accused he is assumed to be guilty without trial of the worst offenses."Oh, he abused me!" is the cry and everyone assumes it is a violent or sexual offense when it may have been emotional or psychological 'abuse.'

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10595923965000317055 Dave

    Belen, it appears you assume that "especialists and professionals" (pardon my lack of all caps) have some sort of ultimate authority to give an unarguable definition to a particular term and that Fr Longnecker is some sort of lone inadequate voice of dissention. Unfortunately, most psychology specialists and professionals operate from faulty presuppositions based in a flawed world view. As Bad Catholic said, we live in a society of victims. This is mostly because we have bought into the bad pseudo-science of modern psychology.The truth of it is that apart from contact with active criminal behaviour, we are for the most part raised by and around fallible, sinful people who have character flaws and make mistakes. It affects the way they interact with us. It affects the person we become.Throughout our lives we deal with the same stuff. People have to live with us, too. If we don't listen to psychologist perpetuating the spirit of the age, we get on with our lives.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00997766157711823147 the owl of the remove

    I went to an Anglican private school in Canterbury from the age of eight to eighteen. If I sued for the amount of times I was slapped or beaten, I would now be a millionaire. This is utterly ridiculous – we are measuring things from 20/30/40 years ago with the "mind" of 2010. "The forces of Mordor" are gathering against God's Holy Church – offer prayer and sacrifice for the Holy Father.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00403184829256955768 Victoria

    The redefinition of language is a problem. Just look at the redefinition of 'marriage.'Most people these days seem to think that abuse is anything we don't like. I think that the broadening of the term is to indicate the seriousness with which the person 'abused' feels about the issue.When priestly sexual abuse is mentioned we always think of anal or vaginal penetration but according to a psychologist who worked with accused priests, inappropriate touching was the most common offense in his client group.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08110341406524333073 chimakuni

    it is a law in the state I live in that IF I argue with my husband and in the heat of that argument, he "perceives" that I am psychologically abusing him, he can have me arrested.How dumb is that? DUMB.Interesting how our society labels everything as abuse, except for the biggest abuses … i.e. abortion and euthanasia. Wonder why that is not included.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06962374096401238994 shadowlands

    chimakuni said"Interesting how our society labels everything as abuse, except for the biggest abuses … i.e. abortion and euthanasia. Wonder why that is not included."Excellent point! So obvious, I didn't think of that. The other day, I commented about asylum seekers and mentioned how babies are asylum seekers in their own mother's womb's these days, not sure of their nine month right to stay there, given by God.On a lighter note, and speaking of abuse as I sense it, they put far fewer crisps in a packet these days, over in England ( I think Americans call them chips, which is an abuse of the real meaning of chips )but I feel physically abused after eating such a small amount and would sue if able. I'm not able to, because I wouldn't be able to concentrate long enough, and would feel my time was being misused, and abused in doing so.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08006892067006702472 walter

    Although suits against the Catholic Church have received the majority of media attention, similar suits have been filed against many other mainstream religious denominations in the U.S.excerpt taken from this article:http://www.kosnoff.com/CM/Articles/Articles97.aspif you want to read it …but i too think a lot of this has to do with money the motive i mean.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02963290696331676531 Ben Vallejo

    Right on Father! If you raise a child the way he ought to be as a loving, compassionate, and productive adult as the Bible counsels, that would be considered "abuse"

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10606385448003416857 KT

    Thank you.I was recently involved in a situation where an employee made a formal accusation of bullying against his boss because he didn't want to have a discussion about his job description; he threatened a lawsuit. Who was bullying who?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10503510474554718305 Just another mad Catholic

    As a solution to our problem perhaps we can use natural law. We could classify abuse as that which diviates from how we should treat persons in our care according to natural law. (I might need to re-read my natural law textbooks next week) For example abuse of your children is either neglecting your natural responabilities as a parent without good cause e.g. you are bedridden) or actively harming your child in a manner that goes beyoned simple chastisement (I'm sure the church has written something on the manner over the past 2000yrs).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02487748842744745860 StevieD

    If you are going to get a minimum of $50,000 in the US for merely making allegations against a priest without any proof whatever,then it says much for the honesty of US citizens that not all priests and bishops have been laicised and/or imprisoned. I understand that no financial compensation is claimable in the US for abuse by teachers (who are much more likely to offend) as it could bankrupt local governments.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00403184829256955768 Victoria

    An interesting article from Andrew Brown of The Guardianhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2010/mar/11/catholic-abuse-priests

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05905718315014897758 Strength

    It seems to me the Catholic Church has been owning it's mistakes in mishandling "abuse" cases from decades ago. Thanks be to God! I'm thrilled the Church is taking responsibility. Maybe some of the victims will be able to have a foretaste of divine justice and a sense of hope amidst deep, deep betrayal. My prayer for them is that the pope's apology softens their hardened hearts so that the love of Jesus can heal their wounded souls. "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." (Edmund Burke)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06405021835510775527 Mike Cliffson

    Oh Belen,The name you use is Spanish, the 'e' before Specialists looks Spanish – if so, there may be in your individual case a linguistic confusion that I am sure is fed into this European report:In European Spanish at least, ABUSAR has ALWAYS been the common, not specialist, verb for bullying, abuson a bully, abuso the noun for bullying, etc. This has been confused over the past say thirty years in Spain by journalistic translations from English : abuse –> abuso, typical of careless translation ( horribly prevalent in Mexico especially for over a century) -whereas husband on wife open physical violence is properly "violencia domestica" , not abuso ,inappropriate brushings/touchings or breast and/or genitalia "tocamientos", not abuso, and so forth. Not nice, but not abusar. Mutatis mutandis, any journalist's translations from Spanish etc.This sort of slipshod mistake is corrected when nuclear power staions are involved, but becomes ingrained here. Why?

  • http://ceceliao.livejournal.com/ ceceliao

    A reader of your blog for some time – this post prompts me to finally say something.With all due respect Father – the allegations of abuse in Germany are not simply verbal abuse. They include repeated slapping and other forms of physical abuse as well as sexual abuse. German newspapers are reporting that the sexual abuse is primarily of boys.I know the per cent of priests involved in such evil is quite small = less than 2% of the entire priesthood. That is not the issue – the problem is those in the Church who seek to cover up these evil sinful acts, those who seek to minimize what was done often at the expense of those young children and those who think they serve the Church by such cover ups or attacks on those who were hurt.Those bishops and the rest of the hierarchy who for years thought the best way to handle this was to cover it up have done great wrong – they have wronged those children – they wronged those deeply sinful priests by facilitating their continued sin, they have done terrible damage to the Church. Right now the response of the Church in Germany is to 1) deny 2) blame the Freemasons for conspiring to bring the Church down ( yeah – German bishop is claiming this). These men have learned nothing from the scandals of the US and Ireland – they have failed to see that what happened was wrong – that they have the same obligation any sinner has to admit that wrong and atone for it as best they can. They will do more harm to the Church than any number of atheists/secularist etc. This is not an example of nasty words hurting someone's feelings – it was sodomy, fondling, slapping and other physical abuse of children placed in the care of these priests. These men were doing the devil's work. They deserve no shelter no cover up nor any minimizing of their harm. You do not defend the Church by trying to pretend that great wrong was not done. The Church needs to be proactive about this and identify remove and dissociate from all priests that they know engaged in such behavior. No more cover ups – no more sending to another parish. The very credibility of the Church is at stake.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr Longenecker

    ceceliao, why do you read so much more into my post than I wrote? I am not defending any wrong doers, nor saying the particular cases were less than they were. Instead I am commenting on a bigger issue in our society which is the misuse of the word abuse which ends up making people assume those who are guilty of much lesser wrongs are guilty of gross crimes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05905718315014897758 Strength

    We have all suffered and perpetrated abuse in one way or another. The problem is not the broad definition of abuse. The problem is what lies within. If one believes they themselves are not capable of abusing they will have no mercy for themselves nor the ones from whom they were abused.We sin. We need to receive and give mercy.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr Longenecker

    Mike Cliffson. Comments are short. The only reason I delete comments is if they are too long.

  • http://ceceliao.livejournal.com/ ceceliao

    Father – I think you do excellent work here with your site but on this matter you are flat out wrong. The only post you have on this scandal is about verbal abuse. The post can easily be interpreted (and you are an intelligent man and know that people misinterpret all the time) as meaning that the abuse now being revealed in Germany was verbal abuse. The tiniest bit of sensitivity to what happened in the US would have given you second thoughts about such a post – one of the biggest criticism of the hierarchy in the US was that the victims were attacked by the Church – you post attacks the victim. I agree many lay Catholic don't even want to hear about this anymore – because it is so troubling. But for those who are aware of these constant revelations – it is deeply troubling. Trust has been broken here and the priests and bishops had best start acting as if they understand they must win that trust back. So discussing the German scandals within the context of "is verbal abuse really abuse" shows a profound lack of understanding about how serious this matter is.I was educated thriough my BA at Catholic schools and I am profoundly grateful to my teachers for the fine education I received. But I too was slapped and whacked on the bum repeatedly for minor infractions as a child – it is not oversensitivity to recognize that this might not have been the best way to pass on the message of God's love. In the same way – verbal abuse is not a really great model of love.