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Pastorate and pedophilia

by Reverend Hans Visser, Minister of St. Paul's Church,
Rotterdam, The Netherlands, , December 18, 1998.
Symposium: The other side of the medallon [coin]

Recently I had a talk with a colleague about pedophilia. In that talk he made the following remark: "One must have to be mentally disordered to kick on children". I have thought about this line. First I did not want to understand it, later I tried to feel what the person in question meant. Pedophilia is a sexual orientation which we find hard to imagine. This is a way of experiencing sexuality that I and others cannot share with pedophiles. Yet we must try to accept with our mind that that is how pedophiles are. But pedophiles are more than just sexual creatures, because they also have many other qualities, which make them to nice and valuable fellow humans. Professor L. Gooren taught me how to accept people with different sexual orientations. We cannot understand at all that a pedophile falls in love with a child, and vice versa a pedophile cannot understand what inspires me. All those differences have to be accepted. These differences cannot be denied or reduced to complete irrelevancy. As Gooren says, our task is to live with these differences and accept them as long as they do not encroach upon the integrity of a human, of a child. Not every form of experiencing sexuality is acceptable. There is also sexual experience among pedophiles which is unacceptable because the integrity of a child is harmed. That has to be completely clear.

Pedophiles nowadays live in a difficult time. They are not accepted by society. They are even hunted, stigmatized and criminalized. There is no space at the time for a good dialogue with pedophiles about their orientation. Very sad is the attitude of the major Dutch churches. They do not distance themselves from the pedophile as a person, but do distance themselves from his sexual orientation. How is it possible to accept a person without his orientation? Every pedophile act is seen as abuse. It is my firm conviction that the present hunt on pedophiles is extremely counter-productive. These people are left to their fate. We push them into a big swamp, they have to manage on their own, "as long as they do not touch my children".

But now the pedophile himself. He is in love with a child, but does not want to abuse the child, he knows the resistance of society, he does not want to do things in secret. He is also not at all interested in dirty porn movies, in which children are raped, abused, manipulated, but he can enjoy a picture of a nude girl or a nude boy. The mere face of a child can evoke emotions. That's not allowed any more. Because it is illegal to possess those. Pedophiles have been advised by their relief workers to burn all movies and pictures. They were sent into the woods. Yes, there was a pedophile who went into the woods literally, cycled a bit and met a child on a bicycle. He was moved by the child. He would like to do things, but turned his head, and cycled back home fast. He did not want to encroach upon the integrity of the child. Extremely sad he sank into his chair.

There have been times that pedophiles were dealt with in a wiser manner. It was the time of the Ikon-pastor, Rev. A. Klamer, who reached out a pastoral hand to pedophiles, listened to them and was close for them. It was the time that PSVG (Protestant Association For Family forming), which in its later days occupied itself with many aspects of sexuality, published a pamphlet about pedophilia.

I want to dwell on that pamphlet once more. The pamphlet wanted to make clear that not every sexual contact or every sexual relationship between an adult and a child implies abuse of the child. Certainly, some horrible situations exist as well, they may not be denied. Because of this it is of the utmost importance to know more about the experience of sexuality of children, and of pedophiles. In the pamphlet we read that pedophiles are people who feel attracted to children, also sexually. If one is not allowed to have those feelings, then it is clear a pedophile is not allowed to be himself. Pedophile people want to show their feelings for children. Also physically. That does not mean that they feel a need for intercourse, for penetration, because they know that children aren't built for that yet, that this may hurt children, that it may cross boundaries. Many pedophiles will thus not do this kind of sexual activity. Dealing with a child mandates respect and caution. Sexual contact may not be forced. The adult may not abuse his power. The child may not be manipulated. Research shows that children experience a certain pleasure from mild sexual contacts. Especially if they experience affection as well. Sometimes children undergo this passively, they may also become active themselves. The pamphlet tells that it is a mistake to look at children's sexuality from the point of view of our own adult sexuality and the feelings that go with it. If we do so, we project our own opinions, feelings and experiences, upon children.

Often it is the case that a child experiences no problems in the relation with a pedophile. Problems often start when the environment, for example the parents, panics, so the child gets the idea that something terrible has happened. That can damage a child. The pamphlet also tells us that sexuality must not be burdened with what happens secretly in the dark, that it should not be experienced as something that is dirty and not really allowed. This causes feelings of guilt which have nothing to do with being really guilty.

What the PSVG with her pamphlet and Reverend Klamer especially managed to do, was thoroughly listening to pedophiles and thinking about modes of behaviour with them. It remains saddening that this way of working has been given up by the churches in our times.

As already noted, we know too little about our children's world of experience. Children are often belittled, sometimes not taken seriously. Freud assumed that for children a latent phase with respect to sexuality took place. Later research showed that that is not the case. Children between six and twelve can show budding sexual feelings as well. A child however is vulnerable and deserves to be spared. Above it was already mentioned, and I will repeat once more that adults should not just project their own feelings upon the child. It will be a meeting between an adult and a child, where the child's freedom is remained intact. A child should not be doing something that it does not want. When children are in puberty, the situation has changed. Then there are pubescent sexual feelings. The child is on its road to adulthood. In that phase too meetings will take place between pubescents and adults. The pubescent remains vulnerable and has a right of protection. Because of this every pedophile who wants to deal with his orientation in a responsible way, knows that no manipulation, no violence, no threats should take place. He also knows that position of authority should not be used, because in a position of authority, power can be used. On itself it is understandable that a teacher falls in love with a pupil, but such a relationship is liable to a danger of the power factor. It might be the case that an adult does not use such a power, it might be that the adult indeed does not go further than the child indicates. But we do not know that for sure. Force and the offering of presents are also taboo. Because they can spoil a relationship.

In our culture there is often a deep-rooted negativity with respect to sex. Despite the sexual revolution there still exists a taboo. For many people, children as well, sex has to do with something dirty. Sex approaches abuse. It is a pity that sexuality is not experienced as good and beneficial. Historically, the church has contributed significantly to these deep-rooted negativity. It is regrettable that in our time both adults and children sometimes are exposed to a sexual commerce that is not good for people's world of experience. There are also pedophiles who, often influenced by this commerce, become very sex-obsessed, directed towards fucking and orgasm, and it can also be the case that some children sometimes see images on videos and movies that are not suitable for them, which in the long term can lead to a certain decay of the experience of sexuality. It is clear that sexual contacts between adults and children can be influenced extremely negatively by that; that the danger is great that in that case things happen that should have been left undone.

In this account about pastorate and pedophilia we can of course not neglect to also talk about the possible damage that is suffered by children from sexual contacts with adults. There are children who do not have a pleasant memory of that. And often it was the illegal sphere, the experience of things that one did not actually want. This damage can break up later in life. But this damage can also be dramatized. Society can suggest that we have been damaged. Exactly in a time when people think very negatively about pedophilia this danger has grown. I have the uneasy suspicion that sometimes certain feelings of guilt are forced onto people. That people are suggested that things have happened that should not have happened.

Often when evaluating relationships between adults and children, one observes that sometimes there is no reciprocity. A relationship between an adult and a child should be reciprocal. Both must be able to tell what's pleasant in the association, both must be able to show this silently or in words. A pedophilic relationship should also always be a joint experience and certainly not remain unilateral. I think that sometimes pedophiles overstep the mark on this point. They often fix the way of intercourse unilaterally. In all fairness it should be remarked that this situation also holds for all other sexual relationships; also those between adults, because there the reciprocity can be missing as well.

We return to the pedophile himself. As said he lives in a difficult time. A pedophile lives in a threatening reality, he is pictured by society as sick, degenerate, abnormal and evil. Sometimes even as a rapist or sex murderer. That makes him confused, and sometimes it happens that he drives out his sexuality, but that can have a negative result too. His dark desire, not understood by society, not rarely leads to suicide. The pedophile is stuck. He experiences feelings that fall outside the norms of society. It would be good for the pedophile if society adapted its norms slightly, in the sense of a piece of necessary acceptance. The reactions from society now are often extraordinary hard. Sometimes punishments are inflicted that are disproportionally severe. Where it should be noted that imprisonment of course accomplishes nothing.

Pastorate means that one protects people, that one pulls together with them, that one starts a conversation with them, that one listens to their motives. That protection also means that one does not walk away, that one does not hide behind societal prejudices, because then one lets the pedophile down. Pastorate also requires a carefulness in the taxations of interpretations that people give to their experiences. The pedophile has to learn to understand why there is so much aversion in society as well. Many parents feel their children as their property, want to protect that property and cannot stand the thought that an adult would experience something with their children. But children are not property, they are entrusted to their parents. They still require prot ection, and while growing old get more and more freedom to unfold. That protection must not imply that other adults are kept off. Parents also need to entrust their children to other adults, one can think of youth work, education and medical care. Parents then have a right to know that nothing happens to their children behind their backs, without deliberation, in secrecy.

The pastoral acceptance of the pedophilic fellow human implies understanding for his orientation. The pastoral acceptance does not imply that everything that happens is being excused. In the pastoral supervision there is always a ritical moment. Together the division is sought between what is good and what is not so good, between what is wise and what is less wise. Sometimes we will also have to advise the pedophile in these times urgently to abstain from certain things that perhaps on themselves would be ethical justified. The public opinion is merciless and against that harshness the pedophile has to be protected as well. We may not allow that people are destroyed or rejected by society. In the pastorate we also want to take the achievements of other sciences in account: medical science, psychology, sociology. It must be possible to refer pedophiles to good care workers, who can learn them to handle their feelings in such a way that they can be happy with them.

There are no recepies around about what is and is not allowed. Above we have noted that penetration is undesirable for several reasons. It can hurt the child and can be an adult form of sexuality that is strongly directed to orgasm. On the other hand I can't say that mutual masturbation is undesirable in all circumstances. It is imaginable that there are situations where it happens in a sphere of mutual respect and mutual enjoyment of intimacy. Then it would be ethically acceptable. But it is also imaginable that it is forced, that it does not happen spontaneously, and that the child does not like it at all. Then it is ethically reprehensible. It is not easy to decide that for someone else.

The reader will sense from the above that I want to accept the pedophilic human in a way that takes his orientation seriously. I also try to come to terms about that with him. Because he is entitled to that, that is one of the things I am a pastor for.

The Maastricht psychiatrist and sexuologist Gerard Roelofs recently said in an article that not every pedophile is a swine. He stated it clearly, pedophilia is not a deviation, it is a normal, innate variant of the human sexual preference. We must not wish that it all happens underground, because that will leave us even further off. The conditions for a good pedophilic relationship should be discussed. Roelofs makes a sharp distinction between sexuality with children below and above twelve years old. In his opinion in the case of children below twelve, there is no mutuality. Above twelve that is possible, in his opinion; in that case a sexual relationship with an adult is not necessarily harmful. Roelofs thinks that it is also a duty of society to find a form in which the pedophile can express himself, without damaging the child. That we are able to make a good distinction between mutual masturbation and a hard-boiled, nonsensical sado-masochistic game. What Roelofs also wants, is make pedophilia discussable in society. It is courageous of this man that he treats the pedophile in such a way that he knows what he has: someone who thinks with him.

My colleague Joseph Douce also was engaged in pastorate for pedophiles in France in the eighties. In the end it led to his death. He was killed and there are strong clues that that was related to his pastoral care for pedophiles, which was completely misunderstood. Joseph Douce remains for me a good example of a pastor, a shepherd. The good shepherd risks his life for his sheep. In the same way Douce gave his life in the pastorate for these people.

I still hope that that was not in vain.

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