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Suicide, Abuse, and the Catholic Church: Parts 1 & 2.

One of my earliest memories from primary school religion lessons is that suicide is a grievous sin, one of the worst of all. If that is so, how serious is it to be responsible for another person’s suicide? And how serious is it if that person is a representative of the Catholic Church, or indirectly, the whole impersonal structure of the Church itself?

Part 1:

(First posted at Queering the Church yesterday, July 30th).

The Church has by now become accustomed to being sued by survivors of clerical abuse, of boys, girls, and adults alike. It is also now accustomed to paying out large sums, as the result of court judgements, out-of court settlements, or (in some cases) plain hush money, all for abuse.

In Pennsylvania, it is now facing a monetary claim on different grounds, still arising from a case of alleged abuse. Michael Unglo was an abuse victim in the diocese of Pittsburgh, where he was molested for several years by Fr Richard Dorsch, who was later defrocked and imprisoned.  After Unglo attempted suicide in 2008, Bishop Zubik promised him that the church would “right the wrong”  that had been done to him, and began paying for psychiatric treatment.  Earlier this year, he was told that a payment of $75 000 would be his last one. Two months later, he killed himself. (See “Suicide’s family sues Catholic church“, at UPI.com )

Now the family are suing the diocese for wrongful death, arguing that the diocese should have continued paying for his treatment.

I have no intention of getting into the rights and wrongs of this case, but there are some important and intriguing questions that arise here.

First, concerning this particular case, if the diocese had accepted initial responsibility for the treatment costs, why on earth did they suspend payment after only a couple of years? Mental health treatment around suicidal problems is never quick and easy.

More generally, if it becomes established that there is indeed wrongful death in this case, what will that mean for other abuse victims who have similarly killed themselves, before being offered treatment for that abuse? Very many survivors have received financial settlements for the damages received, and to pay for treatment. What of those who did not survive, and like Michael Unglo, took their own lives?

If it does become established that the church can be held responsible for the suicide of the victims of direct sexual abuse, what about suicides that arise from other forms of abuse – specifically, the mental and emotional abuse  inflicted on young gay men and lesbians, or the physical abuse they endure in the name of “Christianity”

Youth suicide is a far bigger problem for gay and lesbians than for other youngsters. They endure verbal and physical bullying, and sometimes serious assaults. The bullies and assailants will often defend their actions as doing the “Lord’s” work, or as punishing these people for their “sins”.  The Catholic church will insist (quite correctly) that it does not in fact promote such bullying themselves – but they consistently oppose state plans to counter bullying in schools, on the grounds that it will interfere with “freedom of religion”. This sends a clear message to some people that homophobic bullying is permissible under “freedom of religion”.

On the other side, the young people themselves are taught by the church that they are fundamentally “disordered”, and that developing normal and healthy emotional and sexual relationships appropriate to their orientation is sinful and must be fought against, or borne as a “cross”.  Is it any wonder that some conclude that this cross is one they are not prepared to carry, and instead prefer suicide?

The fact of disproportionately high suicide rates among gay and lesbian young people is well -established. The link to religious-based homophobia, indirectly encouraged or condoned by church teaching, is also clear.

I do not want to argue that any court would or should make a clear connection of church culpability to one specific person’s suicide. The “causes” of suicide are far more complex than that – but statistically at least, there is surely a case that the teaching and practice of some Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, should be held responsible for contributing to driving an unknown but probably substantial number of young people to suicide.

So: I repeat my earlier question.  Which is the greater sin – to take one’s own life in response to unbearable bullying and emotional suffering, or to drive Pat 2:many others to do so, in a sadly distorted interpretation of the Gospel message?

Part 2:

(Posted at Queering the Church a few minutes ago):

My post on the church’s culpability in youth suicide has brought this response in the comments, which has moved me , quite literally, to tears. I reproduce it here for your consideration, with no further comment – I have no words that would be good enough:

Thank you Terence for posting this thought provoking post. I would not want to comment directly on the Unglo family’s actions, though I have a good idea of their anguish and pain.

All I would say is that sometimes (and more often than appears on the surface) your two threads of thought intersect, tragically.
My wife and I are firmly convinced that young gays and lesbians are far more likely to be clergy sexually abused than their straight peers.

Here is our story, which is the story of our beloved son: Remembering Eric – 2nd Anniversary Of His Death the associated links tell some more about him and us. I know we had to fight my then-Bishop to have Eric’s funeral service in the local church building ~ because ‘the canons’ forbade the funeral of ‘a suicide’ in church. Heaping insult upon injury.

May Eric, and all the other suicide-victims of clergy sexual abuse … rest in peace, and rise in Glory!


John Iliff

Eric’s story” concludes with these word:

It was there in 1935 that he told his students:

‘The one who does not cry out for the Jews has no right to sing Gregorian chant’.

Today, we forthrightly submit that:

‘The one who does not cry out for the victims of clergy sexual abuse has no right to say the Catholic mass nor sing the Orthodox Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom’.


One Response

  1. I’ve always had a hard time buying the idea that a suicide (or any one act in general) sends you straight to hell. In fact, I’m not even sure there is a hell. But when it comes to people who suffer, living out of communion with the church until they die or take their own lives in relation to abuse suffered at the hands of the church, I sometimes think that the people who perpetuated abuse in the name of God are the ones who will go straight to hell.

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