Beyond Sandusky: the survivors’ movement | Opinion

Patriot-News - PennLive [Mechanicsburg PA]

November 14, 2021

By Jason Berry

Editor’s note: Jason Berry is the American investigative journalist who pioneered reporting on the child sex abuse crisis among priests in the Catholic Church. He later served as a PennLive/Patriot-News source for commentary as the scandal rocked Pennsylvania’s dioceses. In a special assignment, Berry was asked to reflect on the decade since sex offender Jerry Sandusky’s arrest for preying on young boys.

In March 1988, I was interviewing victims of pedophile priests when the phone rang. The caller referred to an article I’d written for National Catholic Reporter on a Louisiana priest who sexually abused dozens of boys.

“That happened to me,” stammered the young woman. She said she lived in a Catholic Worker house in Chicago. Although a victim, she continued to follow the witness of Catholic activist Dorothy Day. Most victims I’d met felt abandoned by God.

Barbara Blaine told me how, as a 13-year-old growing up in Toledo, she was bewildered when a parish priest invited her to special rectory visits. There he made sexual advances beyond her capacity to resist. She broke away from him while moving through high school and college, then graduate school for social work, but was trailed by guilt and doubt.

“I want to reach people like me — survivors,” she said, asking if I could help. “Victims” was the term I had been using, but “survivor” — the stage beyond victim — intrigued me.

I was about to go on Phil Donahue’s talk show in the first major TV airing of the church scandal. I gave her the producer’s number and, when the program was broadcast, it included a phone number where Donahue said people could call seeking help. In the room next to the Catholic Worker kitchen, Barbara Blaine took those calls.

That’s how Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests began. SNAP, the movement Blaine spearheaded, would grow into a powerful force. It drew media coverage, with protests at bishops’ conferences and eventually the Vatican, insisting a moral order had been broken.

Barbara died of a heart attack in 2017, at just 61. I think of her in looking back at the Jerry Sandusky saga, and how the survivors’ movement that influenced those events has grown well beyond the Catholic Church. It triggered social earthquakes that punished powerful men like actor Bill Cosby, Michigan State’s gymnastics coach Larry Nasser, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, singer R. L. Kelly, and director Woody Allen, among others.

The November 2011 arrest of Sandusky for sexually assaulting boys soon led to the firing of his former boss, Joe Paterno. The fabled head coach retreated into silence, dying three months later of lung cancer – or “a broken heart,” as a former player told Time magazine. Paterno’s statue came down, challenging generations of Happy Valley football fans to reimagine the past.

How much did the coach really know?Al Pacino gave a wailing, Lear-like performance as star of the 2018 HBO film, “Paterno.” But his portrayal offered no genuine answers, his body language suggesting the Greek adage, character is fate.

“Paterno died without being held accountable,” says David Clohessy, who worked for many years with Blaine as SNAP’s executive director. “But Penn State acted more proactively than the Catholic hierarchy and other institutions.”

Former PSU president Graham Spanier would spend two months in prison this summer for his negligence. And other top administrators saw their careers ruined by convictions on child endangerment.

This set striking precedents in the annals of justice, signaling a major easing in timelines for evidence and the institution of new laws governing people in power who fail to report crimes to authorities.

Few bishops have been prosecuted for recycling predatory clerics. Nevertheless, in the tidal wave of an estimated $3 billion in losses from legal costs and treatment for clerics, many dioceses and religious orders have mandated background checks on seminarians and lay employees.

Pope Francis has sacked several bishops in various countries for negligence or sexual abuse. He defrocked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick as an abuser, then ordered an investigation which showed Pope John Paul II refused to weigh warnings and instead promoted him. McCarrick, 91, is facing three sexual assault charges for abusing a Massachusetts youth nearly 50 years ago.

The church is a sovereign religious monarchy governed by canon law, a code of regulations in which the pope holds ultimate power. He’s a one-man Supreme Court when he wants to be. Democracies, conversely, hold the law to be an impartial arbiter of justice, changing in response to social realities.

“I don’t think Michigan State would have been as aggressive on Nasser without the Catholic scandals, Penn State and the #MeToo movement,” says Clohessy. “All of them have had a much greater impact on victims than employers. As more people come forward, many more are emboldened to break their silence.”

Penn State’s response to Sandusky may well be rooted in the searing 2005 grand jury report on the Philadelphia archdiocese. Under District Attorney Lynne Abraham, a team of detectives interviewed dozens of survivors.

The opening sentences sent a shot across the bow to lawmakers, signaling outrage at “how dozens of priests sexually abused hundreds of children; how Philadelphia Archdiocese officials – including Cardinal Bevilacqua and Cardinal Krol – excused and enabled the abuse; and how the law must be changed so that it doesn’t happen again.” It added, “What we found were not acts of God, but of men who acted in His name and defiled it. But the biggest crime of all is this: It worked.”

The same can be said for the long history of entitled men preying on women under their control in companies, colleges, schools, sports teams, film and TV studios among other workplaces. It worked – they got the sex they wanted.

But within two years of the 2005 grand jury report, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law extending the statute of limitations for lawsuits on abuse to age 30. Another law gave responsibility to employers and supervisors to report abuse to law enforcement – a law that was a game changer for Penn State.

Today, a bizarre digital world feeds on rumors, lies and conspiracies. In this climate, a handful of people continue to insist Sandusky was wrongly convicted. Never mind all the witnesses, forensic findings or facts.

And yet, in the post-Sandusky decade, the sick privilege of “it worked” has been eroding as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter give the survivors movement a broader consciousness in the public mind.

This threat to entitlements of the past has been met with backlash, including reactionary politicians making an issue of Critical Race Theory as a dogwhistle. Their efforts call for putting the history of lynching at the margins, along with the mob violence that made most Blacks unable to vote in the century after Reconstruction.

“The past is never dead, it’s never even past,” William Faulkner famously wrote. His lines refer to the chokehold of Lost Cause mythology – that valiant men fought the Civil War and, in loss, preserved a legacy of honor.

They fought, of course, to preserve slavery and create their own nation-state in a war in which 750,00 soldiers died. That vile legacy was preserved in depriving Blacks of the right to vote and a lot more. The myth still has its powerful defenders in legislatures including Texas and Georgia, determined to dilute the Black vote – the past that will not die.

As the Sandusky saga shows, it takes long struggle to reform the standards of justice by rediscovering the past. That means learning from a past coming into true light, the better to lift a battered American identity into alignment with today’s realities. They are the realities of the country’s increasing diverse social mosaic and the value of its pluralism as its strength.

Jason Berry is the author of three books on the Catholic Church, and most recently, “City of a Million Dreams,” a New Orleans history that uses jazz funerals as a lens on its heritage. He has just released a film of the same title.