In December 1989 Nicholae Ceaususcu was overthrown as dictator of Romania. Afterwards, the world became aware of his horrendous legacy – the thousands who had been placed in mental institutions without proper care, the abandoned children and children with disabilities who had been locked away in desolate places.
Children were forced to live in cage-like cots, seldom let out, seldom washed or nourished properly or given a change of clothes. Many could not walk, could not talk, couldn’t even smile.
And when rescuers examined these emaciated children they discovered that many had never been touched affectionately by another human being. They had seldom been picked up and hugged, or had their cheeks stroked, or experienced a tender embrace, or been kissed. They didn’t know what it’s like to be held close. They were deprived of the most basic need of every person – to be touched tenderly by another, to feel his or her warmth, the security and love that flow from it.
Jesus knew the importance of touch. We see it over and over again in the Gospels. Remember how Jesus reaches out and touches Peter’s mother-in-law. A gentle touch is all it takes and she is healed. She is able to get up and wait on him. His touch alone is sufficient.
Time and again in the Gospels we find the same story repeated. Jesus meets someone in distress and reaches out to touch them. He touches them, and their health is restored. The blind see, the crippled walk, haemorrhages dry up, the dead are restored to life. All because Jesus touches them. They are made whole again through his healing touch.
Jesus didn’t need to physically touch them, his words alone were sufficiently powerful, but he is tactile. Intentionally tactile. He knew the power of physical touch.
It seems strange now, but when I was ordained 30 years ago, I had never heard of the word pedophilia. I didn’t know what it meant. Sadly, we are well aware now of the sorry tale of sexual abuse in the church and in society. We all know what that word means now.
Whenever another church scandal breaks, I feel tremendous shame; the shame of being an official representative of an institution associated with such awful acts. I feel guilt by association.
We know that abuse isn’t confined to the church. We know too that abuse doesn’t have to be sexual in nature and doesn’t just happen to children. It takes many forms – physical, emotional, psychological, bullying, trolling, stalking, neglect, exposure to danger. The child who is malnourished or dirty, who sees parents constantly fighting, who is allowed stay up all hours or has unfettered access to the internet, who is left home alone or uses language about sex inappropriate for someone her age – this child may be a victim of abuse just as much as the one who shows obvious signs of harm.
The dependent person who is left dirty or unattended, the care home resident who receives few if any visits, the elderly parent who is shouted at or beaten or left without money – these also are victims of abuse. It happens to a frightening number of elderly.
Today we are reflecting on family as safe house, as a safe place, how we treat each other, specifically how we treat our most vulnerable. Three things strike me about home as safe place.
First, how we touch others. How we touch others can be positive or negative. It can build up or knock down; be constructive or destructive, life-enhancing or life-diminishing.
We can touch someone with a warm hug or we can touch them with a slap or a beating. In The Joy of Love, Pope Francis condemns the sexual abuse of children and other forms of abuse, especially domestic violence. “The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union,” he says. That’s why the church encourages separation in situations that are violent or unsafe.
We can touch someone with a word of encouragement or gratitude or love. Or we can touch someone with a word of contempt or anger or abuse. Bullying in schools and the workplace is a major problem, made worse by social media such as Facebook and Twitter. And we know what bullying can do. Think about how you touch others.
Second, we have a responsibility to protect each other. In the film Spotlight, about a newspaper investigation into sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston in 2002, a victims advocate tells reporters: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”
In other words, each of us has a duty of care to the young, old and vulnerable. Safeguarding is a responsibility of everyone. Each of us must keep a watchful eye for any signs of abuse or neglect of any person. This doesn’t mean being nosey. It simply means being responsible for each other’s welfare.
Third, we must respect the dignity of others. In The Joy of Love, Pope Francis stresses the importance of respect. Respect means never using our power to control or abuse or dominate. Every person – young, old, female, male, able-bodied, those with disabilities, family, stranger – is created in God’s image and so must be treated with dignity.
Every person is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and so can never be used simply to satisfy my own appetite. That’s what film maker Harvey Weinstein has been accused of doing. Using his power over young actresses for his pleasure.
“In our own day, sexuality risks being poisoned by the mentality of ‘use and discard,’” Francis says. This is a distorted understanding of sexuality. When we see other people’s bodies as temples of God’s Holy Spirit, each precious, each wonderful and unique, then we will always treat them with love and reverence. We will never consciously hurt another. Or fail to notice when abuse or neglect may be taking place.
Touch the other with love. Protect the other’s safety. Respect the other’s dignity – three keys to ensuring every house is a safe house. A place of care, peace, tranquility, protection, a place of joy, a place of love.