Why is priest sex abuse often unreported?

By Jay Korff
July 12, 2019

[with video]

Survivors and experts who work in the field of child sex abuse will tell you there are many reasons why it’s difficult for some to report priest sex abuse. Denial, fear and shame are just a few of the reasons. So, we asked survivors and experts on this subject why sex abuse is so often unreported or reported decades after occurring.

“I always blamed myself," Becky Ianni says. "I was taught that he was sent by God so therefore God is punishing me. I must be a bad little girl. There must be something that I’ve done and I carried that through adulthood always thinking that I wasn’t a good person. That somehow, even though I did not remember my abuse until I was 48, that feeling of inadequacy was with me my entire life.”

Becky Ianni says Father William Reinecke sexually abused her for years when she went to St. Mary Catholic Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

“I knew that God could read my thoughts and I thought if he knows that this is happening then I’m going to hell so I just buried it until I came across this picture. I was looking through old pictures and I found this picture of myself with him and I started getting sick at my stomach, I started having anxiety attacks and a few days later I started having flashbacks to the abuse,” says Ianni.

The Diocese of Richmond and Arlington spent months deciding who would handle Ianni’s case since her abuser worked for both.

Ianni adds, “It was a challenge in the beginning. I went to the church in 2006 because I was still blaming myself for the abuse and I still felt I was going to hell because I told my husband and I had told a therapist and I thought I’m going to hell for telling on this priest because that’s what I was told and my therapist said why don’t you go to the church because maybe they will reassure you. They are going to tell you this is not your fault and they’re going to believe you. And so I went to the church and the first priest I met basically didn’t give me that reassurance. He said oh you have a complicated case and we are going to send all of your records to Richmond and in my mind I’m going to have to go through this again? I’m going to have to tell another group of people my story? And I was devastated. I felt like they were throwing me away and for the next year they argued back and forth, well you are Richmond’s responsibility, you’re Arlington’s responsibility and I felt like a liability. I didn’t feel like a human being who was really hurt. And I fell into a very deep depression and I gave up hope. I gave up the church and I gave up god because I thought I’ve been abandoned.”

Dave Lorenz with SNAP in Maryland says he was abused at the age of 16 by Earl Bierman. Bierman is one of America’s most notorious serial pedophile priests who died after serving prison time for admitted sex assaults on children.

Lorenz says, “And my mother called me one night and said Earl B is being accused of all this horrible stuff. And I said yeah. And she goes, did he do anything to you? And I said yeah. I was 34 years old. I’d been married for almost 10 years and I’d not told anybody before that time. So, that was a slightly unusual circumstance because I sort of got pushed into coming forward. I could’ve gone a lot longer without, And I wanted to come forward but I didn’t know how to. Even when you do want to come forward how do you start that conversation with somebody that you’ve been abused and you’ve been hiding this secret and this shame and this guilt. It’s a very difficult thing to overcome.”

Tom Doyle, an active priest for decades, was a lawyer at the Vatican Embassy in the 1980’s.

“A priest had a unique position in society. They enjoyed an exalted position where they were trusted more than anyone. Catholics were taught if you say anything bad about a priest it’s a sin and God will punish that and so priests were held up on a high platform.”

Doyle is a court certified Canon Law expert who helps abuse survivors, works with grand juries in the United States and consults with nations, including Australia and Scotland, investigating priest sex abuse.

Doyle says, “The parents, often times, if the kid said something to them, parents would not believe them. Father would never do that. You must have misunderstood or they’d punish them which was even worse and that was common as well. You can’t say that about a priest. It’s a sin. Never say anything bad about a priest. They wouldn’t say anything because they were intimidated. They were afraid. And many kids, younger kids like 8, 9, 10 they were totally confused and stunned by what was happening to them because they knew nothing or very little about sex. They knew that whatever was happening was being done by a priest and so they were totally confused. Is this right? Is this wrong? Priests don’t sin. They don’t do anything with sex so something is wrong here. And a number of victims I’ve talked to who were sexually violated at say 8, 9, 10 years old they said we didn’t report it to anyone because we didn’t know what to say. We didn’t know what was happening. We didn’t know the words to say that will describe this. Father touched me. Well, maybe he put his arm around them. The parents were never suspicious. They didn’t believe that. Once in a while you’d find parents that were savvy and even back then knew. Something is fishy. We don’t want our kids alone with a priest. But by and large most of these kids came from devout Catholic families where a priest was held on a pedestal. If a priest was invited to dinner it was a tremendous honor that father came to our house for dinner. And the kids were all spiffed up, shined up and put on their Sunday best and they sit there and Father sits at the center of the table and pontificates and that’s the way it happens. And then if father wanted to become closer to the family he’d wheedle his way in and start the grooming process with whatever child was his target. That’s the way it worked. It’s disgusting. It’s semi-unbelievable to most people but that’s the way it actually happened.”


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