The Catholic Church in France is reeling with a report that over the last sixty or seventy years tens of thousands have been abused by priests, nuns and religious.

The response, of course, is one of shock, dismay and horror. We condemn all forms of abuse–especially sexual abuse of minors.

However, it is fair to ask what the researchers consider to be “abuse”. It is not an attempt to downplay or dismiss the abuse claims in the least, but in the quest for truth, transparency, clarity and justice it is right to ask what, exactly, this abuse consists of.

Here’s why I ask: it is now a commonplace to throw around the word “abuse” like it is to use the word “affair” for adultery.

To consider that term for a moment, in my ministry I have come across numerous examples of women claiming that their husband “had an affair”. They have told their friends and relatives and their children, but when questioned, it turned out it was “an emotional affair” and when questioned further it turned out the man had looked up an old girlfriend on Facebook and sent her some emails.

The man’s life, marriage, reputation and family were destroyed. Sure, looking up his old girlfriend might have been a stupid thing to do, but it wasn’t adultery, and that’s what his wife implied by using the word “affair.”

While “emotional affairs” can wreck a marriage and cause harm, they are not adultery. Adultery is an intentional action of sexual intercourse with a person other than one’s spouse or with someone else’s spouse or both. Simply saying someone has “had an affair” is too vague and ambiguous.

A similar problem exists with the term abuse. A well known Catholic writer claims to have survived childhood sexual abuse, but it turns out she lived with a stepfather who was sometimes unclothed in their dwelling. Nudity in front of children is wrong and it may cause trauma and stress to a child, but is it sexual abuse? The writer in question perceived it as such, but was it actually sexual abuse? I’m not sure about that.

Is sexual abuse whatever the victim perceives? I heard about one priest who was charged with sexual abuse because a boys’ mother said she didn’t like the way the priest looked at her son.

When I served as a High School chaplain a student came to me complaining that her parents abused her. I took the claim seriously and worried about it, but when I asked for more details it turned out that the girls’ mother would yell at her to clean up her room. Was that abuse? The girl perceived it as abuse–so what do we do with a claim like that?

I came across a middle aged man who complained that he was abused by a Catholic priest when he was a boy. The crime? The priest told him he couldn’t wear his sneakers to serve as an altar boy. Was that abuse?

I am not attempting to dismiss abuse claims or gaslight victims. I am proposing that claims of abuse should be taken seriously and part of taking them seriously is to ask all relevant questions to find out what really happened so that victims can receive proper support and perpetrators proper punishment…and that those who are innocent of any real crime will also find justice.