Call The ‘Church Scandal’ What It Is: Sexual Assault By Priests



July 28, 2017
Lawrence Jack Cohen

It was big news across New England and beyond when Paul Shanley was released from prison on Friday. Shanley is a defrocked priest who was at the center of the exposure of widespread sexual abuse of children — and its cover-up — within the Archdiocese of Boston.

As I followed the coverage of this story, I noticed the repeated use of the word “scandal” to describe the sexual assault of children by clergy and the cover-up and abetting of abuse by the hierarchy of the Archdiocese. (For a sampling of this usage, see WBUR, The Boston Globe, The New York Times and the New Hampshire Union Leader.)

The word “scandal” implies a damage to reputation or a violation of propriety. Certainly the reputation of the Church was damaged, and certainly convicted pedophiles are guilty of violating social norms, but let’s call it what it is: a violent crime. I don’t think any of these news outlets would describe any other pattern of violent criminal activity as a “scandal.” Let’s also call the cover-up what it is: the protection of rapists at the expense of victimized children and adult survivors who courageously came forward despite disbelief and re-traumatization.

I think it must have been easier for higher-ups in the Archdiocese of Boston to shuffle “molesters” from parish to parish than it would have been to shuffle child “rapists.”

There’s another word that caught my attention in most of the coverage of Shanley’s release: molestation. CNN, for example, posted a moving video of Rodney Ford, describing the way that Shanley destroyed his son Gregory’s life, and naming the crimes for what they were: brutal rapes. CNN’s caption for this clip, however, referred to the crime as “molesting.” That word appears in most of the articles about the case.

Like “scandal,” the word “molestation” minimizes the traumatic impact of child sexual abuse. To molest someone is to bother them. Once again, let’s call it what it is: rape, sexual assault, indecent assault and battery. These are the proper terms in the statute.

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