Just days after the Oscar for Best Picture went to Spotlight, the movie detailing how the Boston Globe pursued the child sexual-abuse scandal and cover-up by the local archdiocese, a similar story was reported out of Western Pennsylvania. A grand jury investigation into the Archdiocese of Altoona-Johnstown revealed that hundreds of children were sexually abused by priests over a span of 40 years. And, once again, church officials were accused of participating in a massive cover-up.
It’s mind-numbing. But this problem isn’t limited to the institutionally sanctioned abuse within the Catholic Church. You may not realize it, but someone you see on a daily basis may have been sexually traumatized as a child. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that “as many as one out of four girls and one out of six boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18.” Most of these victims will later lead ordinary, private lives as adults. But others will be known only by their destructive coping mechanisms or psychiatric diagnoses, their histories obscured by outrageous behavior. And still other victims will become lightning rods for speaking out.
Most child sexual abuse is done by someone the victim knows and trusts, someone who is already an integral part of the victim’s family or community. It can be an enormous challenge for parents when someone they hold in high regard — perhaps a beloved family member — is linked to such a heinous crime. Children, especially young ones, don’t make this stuff up, but to collude in silencing a child is a simple matter. Facing the truth and seeking justice can be psychologically devastating and legally complicated, fracturing once-solid relationships.
As Spotlight attests, most perpetrators are not the suspicious, antisocial losers we want them to be. This crime thrives behind a wholesome public persona — witness former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky.
To believe a child who accuses someone you have always trusted — or want to trust — requires a willingness to admit that the world you believe in is a sham. If it takes courage for a victim to speak out, it can require equal courage to support that victim.
In a best-case scenario, a child has someone he trusts to turn to at the time of the incident. The belief and support of a single trusted adult can keep an unpleasant, frightening memory from turning into a lifetime of dysfunction and failed potential.
A child’s instinct for safety is unerring. If no one can be trusted, or if the perpetrator has made threats, that child will retreat into a protective but toxic silence, perhaps for the rest of her life. She becomes a scapegoat, allowing the rest of us to continue living in blithe oblivion. In Boston, Philadelphia, Altoona-Johnstown, and around the world, the sheer moral authority of the church was enough in many cases to silence victims and their families.
The responsibility for ending child sexual abuse lies not with the victims, and not with the perpetrators. It’s on the rest of us. It’s never too late to act, never too late to choose to believe a victim. What matters is that we do.
Even the Boston Globe got it wrong at first. Clergy sexual abuse survivor Phil Saviano, played in Spotlight by Neal Huff, made repeated attempts to interest Boston media outlets, including the Globe, in the Church’s widespread enabling of predator priests. No one took him seriously until the Spotlight team began its investigation. But when they did, what a difference it made.
In Altoona-Johnstown, no criminal charges can be filed as a result of the grand jury report. The victims are too old; the statute of limitations has run out. “In some limited cases,” the report reads, “the unnamed victim or victims are too traumatized to testify in a court of law.”
The report made two recommendations, the same ones that were made by grand juries in Philadelphia in 2005 and 2011: Both the criminal and civil statutes of limitations for sexual offenses against minors should be abolished.
State Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), another victim of clergy sexual abuse as a child, has been trying for nearly a year to reintroduce House Bills 655 and 951, which would, respectively, eliminate the statute of limitations on the sexual abuse of children and give past victims a two-year window in which to file civil suits.
Is Rozzi asking too much? The families came forward in the Altoona-Johnstown cases never saw justice for their children. Due to the systematic stonewalling they encountered, none of their claims were filed in time. It’s an abuse of the law. It keeps predators right where they want to be — just a whisper away from children.