Sexual Abuse—The Church's Millstone
By Janet Patterson
AMDG / Roman Catholic Faithful
[See Janet Patterson's other essays "Hope" and Driven from
Sexual abuse of minors—the very topic—brings forth a myriad
of emotions, from anger to disbelief. When the alleged perpetrator is
a priest, reactions may range from rage at the accused and/or Church to
disbelief and hostility towards the victim/s. The Vatican recently announced
its concern about due process under canon law for priests and clarification
about the definition of sexual abuse.
Under American law we are all entitled to due process. When a crime has
been committed, the court system is the venue to judge the guilt or innocence
of the accused. We are a nation built upon the premise that justice should
extend to all. Why does canon law even figure into this equation? Was
there or was there not a crime committed? If so, then let the justice
system do its work. If the priest’s guilt has been established,
he must face the legal consequences. These consequences should be at least
as harsh as those administered to any other sexual abuser.
Some confusion seems to exist about the exact definition of sexual abuse.
The legal system has defined the various types of sexual abuse, so a standard
already exists in America. We do not have to re-invent the wheel; we simply
have to follow the letter of the existent laws. Why the haggling over
the possible “nuances” of the bishops’ Dallas charter?
How about sexual abuse for which the statute of limitations has expired?
Should there be a moral statute of limitations—if the abuser legally
escapes the limitations, does that mean that no harm has been inflicted,
that the abuser can now have a clear conscience?
The reality is that over the years the Church hid information concerning
abuse from the faithful, intimidated many who sought support from the
hierarchy, and lied to the parishioners about the cause of the priest’s
removal. The harsh reality of sexual abuse is that most victims are unable
to reveal or deal with their abuse until well past the expiration of the
statute of limitations. By concealing, lying, intimidating, and stone-walling,
the Church leadership has effectively sanctioned the actions of the predators
in its midst. Those who have daily dealt with the spiritual, emotional,
and physical dimensions of their abuse can find no peace in the claims
that they should have “come forward” years before.
The zero-tolerance policy has also come under fire. If a priest has abused
only once in his ministry, should he be allowed to remain in the priesthood?
For those who answer “yes”, can the lifelong impact on that
“one”victim be so readily dismissed? In all likelihood, the
priest’s abusive behavior came to light only when someone stepped
forward with allegations. Despite the priest’s assurances to his
bishop that this victim was the only one, in most cases the reality is
that many victims preceded this abuse victim. By questioning the necessity
of a priest’s removal for only “one” offense committed
many years ago, we overlook the fact that the abuse was a crime many years
ago, is still considered a crime, and that the victim/survivor has had
life-long difficulties. In the scales of justice, is a child’s or
adolescent’s life less valuable than that of a priest? A priest’s
dismissal for sexual abuse cannot be more painful to him than the pain
his victim/s have suffered daily.
Another issue is that of “forgiveness.” When a bishop states
that he forgives his fellow priest, wouldn’t the person doing the
forgiving have to be the victim? If a crime is committed against a person,
do the friends of the criminal have the right to “forgive”
his actions? Does their forgiveness erase the damage done to the child
or to the adolescent? Another variable in this complex situation is the
reaction of parishioners to allegations of sexual abuse against their
pastor. In most cases, the priest is seen to be caring, dynamic, and charismatic.
Catholics then struggle to reconcile two contradictory situations—the
public perception of his integrity versus the private reality of his crimes.
Piercing the veil of denial is almost insurmountable at times. We each
have comfort zones, areas where all is right with the world, and we feel
secure in our perception of reality. When the horrendous specter of clergy
sexual abuse arises, many cannot accept the truth, since that threatens
the safety and security of their comfort zone. Denial is powerful in its
impact. Victims are left isolated, abandoned by their parish communities.
Sometimes outright hostility is shown to victims and to their families.
A different variable is minimization, or the trivializing of the abuse
impact. By downplaying the devastation the abuse victim lives with on
a daily basis, many otherwise decent, compassionate people further hurt
the victim. As survivors tell their stories, common themes occur—a
spiritual abyss, mistrust of others, desperate attempts to deaden the
pain, and a profound sadness. Comments such as “Get over it,”
“That happened so long ago; why bring it up now?” or “Remember
how much good the priest did” further wound the abuse victim. These
remarks stun victims since their lives have been permanently altered by
what others consider unfortunate, but manageable, circumstances.
A major factor in this issue is the role of power. Members of the hierarchy
of the United States, in general, seem threatened by accountability for
their actions. Often the laity is relegated to the role of second-class
citizens, as “unenlightened” so therefore unnecessary to consult.
Did any bishop, when getting medical advice about priest abusers, ever
have the idea that perhaps parents might have different ideas when it
comes to putting a molester within reach of their children? If any bishop
had said to parishioners, “Is it all right to allow a child molester
to lead your parish?”, the answer would be a resounding “No!”
coupled with disbelief that the bishop would even have to ask the question.
In order to control the followers of the Church, the hierarchy has exerted
a stranglehold on information throughout the years. Secrecy, lies, evasions,
and false perceptions have kept the hierarchical power base intact for
far too long. To truly be a Church of the people, the hierarchy has to
dismantle their many protective mechanisms and instead be truly approachable.
The laity is not the enemy. The money needed to maintain the power base,
with its expensive attorneys, came from the pockets of the average Catholic
in the pew. Surely using the laity’s money to maintain the hierarchy’s
control cannot be justified.
Also an air of arrogance is perceived among many in the hierarchy. Some
act as if they alone possess truth and insight into spiritual matters.
Why do some bishops and archbishops insulate themselves from contact with
abuse victims by having layers of diocesan personnel deal with victims?
If the Church is a family, why then are the spiritual “fathers”
reluctant to listen to victims and to their families? The message from
those abused is unpalatable, but the discomfort of the listener pales
next to the searing pain of the one spiritually abused. How can the Church
extend a healing hand when many “healers” have little in-depth
understanding of the ravages of abuse? Sexual abuse is not something that
disappears with its revelation. Bishops who truly want to help must be
willing to listen to the victims’ stories; in effect, they have
to allow themselves vicariously to suffer as the victim has. They must
“Walk the walk,” not merely “Talk the talk.” They
must allow themselves to feel the abandonment, depression, rage, and despair
victims undergo. Until they can look at an abuse survivor as a true brother
or sister in Christ, they cannot be effective in this ministry.
Church leaders need to heed Christ’s admonition :“Whoever
causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be
better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be
drowned in the depths of the sea.” Matthew 18:6 Abuse victims have
not sinned by being abused, but the abuser ravages the spiritual foundation
of his victims.
How can lay people effect change in the Church? First, by realizing the
power of their money. If an appeal for justice cannot prevail, often a
threat to the finances can. Church-sponsored charities and institutions
[provided they are true to the faith] must continue their services, but
the laity can exert pressure for openness and financial accountability.
Second, they can speak up in great numbers to stop this spiritual “Holocaust.”
Concentration-camp survivor Elie Wiesel could have been referring to
today’s sexual abuse scandal by his words: “Let us remember:
what hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but
the silence of the bystander.”
By not speaking up, we give tacit consent to injustice and to abuse.
To remain morally neutral is to allow evil to continue.
Catholic laypeople can collectively insist that no child or adolescent
be “sacrificed” to this evil. By speaking up, laypeople can
help the Church regain its image as a Church of Truth and Salvation.