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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