20 May 2021 | Enikő Botás
In the last year and a half dr. Rita Perintfalvi has become one of Hungary’s most divisive personalities. It is not enough for her to be a self-professed feminist theologian, she also regularly tackles sensitive issues that are not really appropriate to discuss in the Catholic Church. She stands up for the rights of women and LGBTQ people, and with her forthcoming book, she reached into a real hornets’ nest: revealing the stories of victims – abused by Hungarian clergy – mostly Catholic priests. We talked to Rita Perintfalvi about the publication of her book.
Rita Perintfalvi teaches at the Karl-Franzens University in Graz and is also president of the Ecumenical Association of Women Theologians in Hungary – and in her spare time she helps victims of sexual abuses in the church. And this is to be taken literally, because the theologian really started working on the subject as a hobby, without any support – and instead in a huge headwind. Over the past year and a half, she has been able to learn the stories of 35 victims, 10 of which she has finally elaborated in great detail in her book. Her book entitled What there is no excuse for – Sexual Predators in the Church will be published on 4 June.
Sexual abuses in the church are still very rarely mentioned in public discourse, probably the main reason is that the church tends to cover them up. That is why it is also so surprising that this book was written by precisely a theologian.
In the West, where the exploration of these cases had already begun 20-30 years ago, there have been examples of the fact that it was specifically theologians, church people, who got involved into this subject. In Germany, for example, Doris Wagner is a former nun who was sexual abused in her monastic order, raped by two priests, and wrote a book about it after her departure, which caused a huge stir. Her specific aim was to finally talk also about the fact that in the Catholic Church nuns are also forced to have sex in the name of holy obedience. By the way, she is one of my role models in the exploratory work, and the other one is Klaus Mertes, a Jesuit German priest (who wrote one of the forewords to my book, by the way), it was he who caused a scandal to break out at a Jesuit high school in Berlin in 2010. When he became the director, there were already rumours of abuses at the institution in the 1990s. And Mertes wrote a letter to every student who had learned there in the last few decades, and thus found 100 victims and two perpetrators. Of course, after that he was being also persecuted within the church, accused of stirring up his own nest. So in the West there are already examples of precisely people from the inside starting to deal with this, but I’m still also an outsider to some extent, because I’m not a priest. I have not taken a vow of celibacy, I am not under the same constraints as the perpetrators. From this point of view, I find it a little easier to criticise this thing.
When did you begin to deal with ecclesiastical abuses and how did the topic itself come about?
In February 2019, Pope Francis held a Vatican summit specifically on this issue, but, by the way, he had already stated the principle of zero tolerance right after he was elected Pope in 2013. This was certainly very novel compared to the previous two popes, since there are also rumors today that Benedict XVI and John Paul II potentially have been responsible for certain cover-ups. But Francis was different in this, and when he convened the summit, the President of the Hungarian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, András Veres, also went there from Hungary, and when he returned home, had naturally given an interview with the press. That was the interview that made me horribly outraged. He said that, as president of the Bishops’ Conference, he had heard of only some ten to twenty cases of sexual abuse in Hungary, and when asked how many victims he knew personally, he replied none. If he is one of the church leaders, how can it be that he is not interested in the victims? How can he not care that people have suffered? This was outrageous for me. And at the same time, journalist Péter Urfi started his investigative articles on the issue, which showed that yes, the problem is just as present in Hungary. Not just in the decadent West, as they argue. That’s where it all started, I wanted to see what the truth was.
Weren’t you warned, weren’t you afraid you were stirring up a hornet’s nest with this?
I’ve already stirred up a lot of hornets’ nests. For a start, by calling myself a feminist, which is a label that makes the journalists of certain media use the word “theologian” in quotation marks when writing about me. And in the same way, the LGBTQ issue – which I also often address – is very divisive. So I didn’t think too much about whether this was going to make it worse. When I met the first victim, her story was so traumatic that I felt, yes, this must be done. This cannot be left undone. She was a young, incredibly kind and sensitive girl, who had become a complete human wreck. She had suffered years of sexual abuse, which had lasting effects. It’s been many years since the abuse ended, but she’s still unable to work, she has no marriage, no relationship, I’m sure she longs to be a mother, but I don’t know if she ever will be. She needs regular psychiatric treatment. The literature calls this soul murder. The bodies of the victims may be alive, but a part of their soul is dead forever and cannot be brought back. And then the leaders of the Hungarian Church say that they do not know any victims? Why not? How can they be so insensitive?
Is it possible that these cases really do not get to the church leaders, that they are already being covered up locally?
A reporting system was set up a few years ago, which was made mandatory by Pope Francis after the Vatican meeting. This system was also introduced in Hungary in autumn 2019. But we don’t actually know if there are reports because the system is not transparent at all, which I think is a big problem. I have had a colleague who wrote to all the dioceses, because he wanted to know the data in the system, and he sent his request under the heading of requesting data of public interest. He was told that this was not data of public interest, and that no information would be released. Interestingly, there was no response from any of the sites for a long time, and then almost all the responses arrived in the same hour. In other words, there is no communication without prior consultation. So, we are now at the point where there is a system where you can make a report, but you don’t know if there are any reports. And lack of transparency is never good.
Then it is not possible to know how present, how serious the problem of sexual abuse really is in the Catholic Church in our country?
There is no way to know. So far, we have collected some 10-20 perpetrators in this country, but as I have studied the German literature, it seems that there are thousands of perpetrators and victims, too. András Veres said that he knew 10-20 victims, and I have found out about 35 in the course of a year and a half in connection with my book. I wonder how many there could be in total? I think it is a lot of people. I hope that my book will help the other victims to come forward.
We sat down with feminist theologian Dr. Rita Perintfalvi, president of the Ecumenical Association of Women Theologians in Hungary and lecturer at the Karl-Franzens University in Graz, to talk about the Polish abortion protests.
There is a reporting system that is either used or not. In addition, can we know how the Church deals with these cases in practice? How does reporting happen, what happens after it?
Cases can only be reported with a name, not anonymously. There is an online interface on the website of each diocese, it starts from there, but I do not know a lot about it, because the information is not transparent. I know from the victims that those who have been down this road and are lucky enough were sent to a psychologist, who talked to them, tried to assess the situation but did not really know what to do with it. These psychologists were not at all professionally competent on the subject of sexual abuse within the church, even though they were appointed to do so. And as a church-paid psychologist, they could not remain independent. Then came the hearings before church magistrates, followed by proceedings against the offending priest.
If a case is reported, does it have a consequence? Does something happen to the perpetrator?
I don’t have a view on that either. I know of one recent case where the priest was finally suspended, but only after four or five victims had already reported him. At first, only one victim reported him, and then the priest was simply moved to another place. After the transfer, however, there were more new victims, and this has finally carried weight. (Otherwise, there were probably ten victims in total, but not all of them reported it.) The procedure is in progress, but he is no longer acting as a priest.
How did you find the victims? Or did they find you?
First, I wrote some articles on the subject, then I gave some interviews, at the end of which I wrote that if anyone needs a theologian’s listening with understanding, feel free to contact me! Then I started a victim counter on Facebook, which meant that I always wrote posts about how many victims had already contacted me. I always had a brief narrative description and a number, and these posts reached the other victims, who subsequently went to find me by letter or through social media. By the way, these posts were very popular, though many did not understand what I wanted to do. What my purpose was, did I want to make a scandal, or frighten people?
Could people also be so disinterested in the problem?
There’s also a problem with believers, it’s called castle mentality. For them, the Church is a very important thing, like a castle, and they therefore want to protect its reputation at all costs. So, nothing should be said to the general public that could damage the credibility of the church. So, it’s not just the church leaders who want to protect their reputations by silence, but even the believers themselves. There was a victim I wrote a blog post about before I wrote my book, which included things that made the victim recognized by a male friend. This friend then almost bullied him into suicide. While the priest was indeed proven guilty, he was also convicted – at least in the church court. But he never had to answer for his actions before secular justice. Criminal lawyer Dr. András Gál examined all the cases from a legal point of view and found that in a number of cases very serious crimes were involved. I did not write all of these in the first volume of my book. But in spite of the fact that the actions were serious, none of the cases were brought before a secular court. Sometimes this was because the church itself talked the victim or his or her parents out of denouncing the perpetrator, so the crimes went unpunished. And the perpetrators live on happily.
Don’t even their own parents, their families believe them?
Believers think of a priest as God’s representative on earth, the image of Christ, and therefore they believe he can do no wrong. So when a child tells at home that he or she has been molested by a priest, the parents often even don’t believe him or her. One of the victims said that after she told her mother, the mother told her not to lie, why would she say such things about the priest. Another girl who was abused when she was 11 or 12 years old used to go to church on Saturdays to practice her readings with the priest when there were just the two of them and no one else. As she read at the ambo, the priest reached under her skirt from behind and grasped her bottom and massaged her thighs. When the little girl told about this at home, her mother just said, „But that’s just the way the father scares the children, he also does it to other children, too, stop being so squeamish.”
You have just mentioned the existence of separate ecclesiastical and secular courts. Will these perpetrators not be brought to justice? Is it all settled in the church?
No, they do not. What I want to achieve is a change in the law in Hungary, so that the church would have an obligation to report, because at the moment there is no such obligation. Even if they convict the person. Even if an inquiry is conducted before the ecclesiastical court, they find evidence, convict the person and declare that he did commit the crime, the Hungarian Catholic Church has no obligation to report to the secular court.
It is as if church people lived on a separate little protected island inside Hungary.
That is true, and it does not even count as covering up, as there is no obligation to report. There are countries where this obligation exists, and Pope Francis is also strongly urging that where such legislation exists, the Church should immediatelymake a report. I don’t think there has ever been an offender convicted in a secular court in Hungary.
How do you see the difference between a secular and a clerical abuser?
Church abusers have a spiritual toolbox that secular abusers do not. A priest can manipulate the victims by saying to them that he will bring them close to God. When he says he is really bringing them closer to God through carnality and sex, the victims believe it: „Through my body God loves you, believe me!” This is specific to church abusers, but not specific to Catholics, because it can be done by a representative of any religion, as they also have the sacral power.
We often talk about paedophile priests, but are they really all paedophiles? How does a priest become an abuser?
According to statistics collected in Germany, 28% – that is almost one third – of clerical perpetrators are paedophiles. Actually, paedophiles often chose priesthood because they know that this will grant them a close and intimate contact with minors. Another huge advantage is that priests do as they please, nobody really has any control over them. They have unconditional authority, and that is very appealing.
However, the largest group (58%) are people with poor psychosexual development. Child abuse was not their motivation in choosing the clergy, but this occupation might be an escape from their own underdeveloped sexuality, for example if they are heterosexual but do not know how to deal with women. This may easily be the case if they enrolled in a religious high school at 14 and then entered an order, so they never met a woman in their life. Their psychosexual development is stuck at the level of a teenager. So, when they start teaching in a religious high school, their psychosexual level matches exactly that of their students. Of course, they also feel sexual desire, they are presented with an opportunity, and it just happens. They do not even see it as an abuse. They just think about satisfying their own desire, irresponsibly taking advantage of their authoritarian position, and completely disregarding the damage they cause. Abuse is a double game: regarding psychosexuality, the priest is as underdeveloped as the teenager, yet this immature person holds enormous power and is ready to use it unscrupulously.
According to several studies, the Catholic Church is especially appealing to gay men, because they feel they can hide there. If they become priests, they will not be pressured to get married, or looked at with suspicion in otherwise extremely homophobic communities. It must be clear though that homosexuality is not the source of abuse as often alleged by conservatives. The source is the personality disorder caused by suppressing homosexuality.
Finally, celibacy may also be an indirect trigger for abuse – if combined with other factors. In conclusion, behind these cases of maltreatment, there is a distorted perception of sexuality that both attracts perverse people to clerical service and produces them.
And at the same time, it is precisely the Church that wants to instruct us non-stop about our sex lives; things like we should not have sex before marriage or use contraception, among others.
This is the biggest loss of credibility. The Church wants to be the flagship of morality in questions of sexuality, and then the things that happen within their walls come to light. Why would anybody listen to them after all this?
Did you have any allies in the Church while writing your book?
There were three Catholic priests who wrote and supported me in private. One of them even told me about an abuse case of one of his colleagues. He asked me if I could do anything about it… Obviously, there are decent people among Catholic priests who are perfectly aware of how serious all this is and that everything should be done to prevent it. But none of them would admit publicly that they support my investigation.
This is in fact really sad; I mean that they do not dare to talk about it in public. I think that admitting that sexual abuse is a real problem and committing to fight it would improve public opinion about the Church.
I agree, and it would also help them restore some credibility. Transparency and the acknowledgment of the real magnitude of the problem would be paramount. Together with doing something about it, of course. I must admit that some steps have been taken. An apology was published; even though I and the victims that speak in my book deem it far from sufficient, at least the church has apologized. Some measures have been introduced, a reporting system has been established, and father László Gájer has been commissioned. I expect a lot from him. So, things are going on. Unfortunately, they are not aware that these formal steps alone will not solve the problem. Because the problem is a lot more complex, its origin is rooted in the system. First, they should reach out to the victims, find them; but for that, they cannot claim to have no problem. They should not imply that there are no victims. Or even sue them if they dare to speak up. If they really wanted to find the victims, they would have taken vigorous action already.
Have you been attacked from within the Church?
There was a priest, at the very beginning, who attacked me publicly, but I guess he was ordered to keep quiet. When I published my first story on a blog called Felszabtér, a Catholic priest viciously attacked me and called me a cover-up… He kept writing comments for three days but did not know the blog was also read by victims, who started to argue with him. His answer was to dispute their stories. In that moment, I felt we could end up in a lawsuit, because he was indirectly threatening me. But then he disappeared. There have not been many attacks from the Catholic Church ever since, but rather from pastors of Reformed and Evangelical churches. They called me a parasite that sucks the life force out of the Church and thrives on scandal. Thus, I am becoming an enemy in my own Church and everywhere else. Partly, I can understand it because sexual crimes are committed in other churches too, not only in the Catholic one.
Could you tell us a bit about the victims that appear in your book?
I wrote about ten stories in the book. Five of these are “big stories” meaning that I analyse them in detail and also that they were relationships based on sexual abuse that went on for several years. These are not isolated actions but well-structured, manipulative, abusive relationships that are always based on a very strong emotional attachment, in which the victims almost act like brain-washed zombies – unable to defend themselves or to resist, they are not even aware of the danger. Often the reason why somebody cannot put up a fight is that they were brought up to obey, to do whatever the priest tells them to. And that the priest is always right. One of the victims was a young girl who was actually the daughter of the Catholic priest that abused her. She was a secret child in a family where the father lived as a Catholic priest from Monday to Saturday in his parish and visited the mother and daughter on Sundays. The 12-year-old child was abused weekly by the man for two years. This absurd situation made the child believe that she could not talk about who her father was because it was a secret, so she could not talk about the abuse either for many years, even decades. 30 years went by when she finally started therapy, a few years ago. Some other victims in the book were maltreated when they were somewhat older – between 14 and 17 – both boys and girls. These cases mostly took place in religious high schools. And a novelty: stories of abused adults. It is not only minors that suffer abuse, the victims can also be adults: seminary students, monks, nuns, married women. I write about two of these stories in the book.
Was it very difficult for the victims to open up?
These are deeply buried traumas that are not easily talked about. Victims will only speak up if they find somebody understanding, because their basic experience is that nobody believes them. Maybe it was a bit easier for them to talk to me because I know the Church well and understand the special dynamics of abuse typical in these spheres. I could immediately give them an explanation of why things had happened and what lay behind them. A non-clerical psychologist does not have this knowledge and perspective; they cannot appreciate the spiritual or sacral power of a priest, which is precisely the source of the abuse. And I also wanted the exchange to heal wounds. I wanted to make it clear for the victims that they were really not responsible, they did not have to feel ashamed. Many of them did not even dare to reveal the truth to their partners or their best friends, and now they are worried that they will be recognised when the book comes out.
It is terrible that the victims are afraid and feel ashamed, and not those who are guilty.
It is really hard for them to understand that they are not to blame. How could they when there is the holy priest that can do no wrong. This is why many victims believe that it was their fault to taint the perpetrator. And some priests actually take advantage of this, try to make the victim feel guilty and accuse the victim of leading them on. They force on the victims the idea that they are actually accomplices… They would be saying this to a 14-year-old girl, for example. And then they would threaten her and warn her not to talk about it to anybody or she would be in trouble. Victims often do not believe that they are not guilty, that is why they do not dare to talk about it.
Has there been any similar projects in Hungary before?
No, but there have not been many in Europe, either. Most books tell the story of one victim. Then there is a newly published German work (Erzählen als Widerstand) describing the cases of 23 adult women abused sexually in the Church, but a lot of people took part in that project. The whole German episcopacy supported it, at least morally. The work was carried out by five female theologians, and it received financial support from the Church. I, myself, did it as a hobby, with no clerical support whatsoever, even with a strong opposition from the Church.
You started it on your own, but did you find allies on the way?
Yes, psychologists Andrea Heves and Judit Csóka helped me a lot, and also two lawyers, András Gál and Bálint Bartos. I also had a communication counsellor, Gábor Daróczi. These five people together with the staff of the Felszabtér blog stood by me all the way. And of course, my husband, who has been threatened to be beaten up because of me and has been called the biggest loser of the world to have me for a wife. All this does not bother him at all, he is really proud of me.
There has hardly been a day lately when you were not attacked by the mainstream press. They see you as the devil himself. How do you cope with this?
It is true, they are writing about me daily, and that is all right, I’m just looking forward to seeing when they start writing about clerical abuse. Maybe they are waiting for the book to come out and then they will write about that every day. I was not always so cool about it, however. Sometimes they really got to me, but after a while I became immune to it, I hardened myself. This is part of being a public figure. More so with such a controversial topic. I often use my Facebook page to vent my emotions, which helps a lot. But I also have a supervisor, which is a must when your job is to help victims. Just listening to victims is incredibly stressful psychologically. My supervisor tells me that it takes a really strong personality to write such a book so quickly and intensely. He reinforced in me the belief that attacks just make me stronger. And the most beautiful and touching part is when the victims themselves encourage me.
In your opinion, what could be done to abolish abuse in the Church?
This issue has several levels. At the legal level, there is a need to impose the abovementioned reporting obligation. If one culprit is brought to a legal trial, that sends the message that they cannot do whatever they please. The offenders must realize that they are not shielded any more. They must know that they will have to answer for what they did. Also, these cases should not be allowed to lapse. Sometimes by the time a victim is prepared to tell the truth, it is already too late to take legal action. I also would like to set up a Victim Support Institute, which could somehow indemnify victims. This would also encourage more people to speak up. But in countries where there has been a significant change, the first step was that society understood the magnitude of the problem and it was society that pressed the Church. I say it as a theologian: in no country did the Church change on its own accord. That is one of the reasons why I wrote the book: to make society aware of what is going on.
There are also other things that could help, at least indirectly: to abolish celibacy, to change the negative way of thinking about homosexuality, and to change the position of women within the Church. According to Western theology, the problem would be solved by giving women a more significant role in the Church. Among other reasons because 90% of the abusers are male, only 10% are female. At the structural level, the Church is like a gentlemen’s club, a close male alliance. Secret-keeping is so strong because it all happens within an exclusively male community, and, as sociology has already proven, solidarity is extremely strong among men. And that solidarity would be broken if women also occupied positions of leadership. If there were female supervisors who could internally hold wrongdoers accountable, these taboos could not go on any longer.
What reactions do you expect to your book, and what would you like to achieve?
I am sure some will call me a hero for undertaking a task like this, while others will say some pretty nasty things. I will be called blasphemous, Christian hater, liar, probably even current political affairs will be brought up. My book is meant to be a wakeup call for society so that they realize how serious the problem is, but it is also for the victims. If they never got to understand what happened to them, this will help them figure it out. I also invite them, in the book, to contact me. So, most of all, I want to book to help and heal victims. And I also want it to heal the Church, because until they decide to face this, it will continue poisoning them from within. I do not mean to do any harm but to mend things; the only thing I want to destroy are the corrupt structures.
Photo: Pál Szűts
Translation: Anna Palotás, Timea L. Kovács