Initial Reaction: When Will This End?
A grand jury in Pennsylvania released a scathing nine-hundred page report today that laid out credible accusations of child abuse against over three hundred Catholic priests in dioceses across the state. According to the report, these predators molested over a thousand children since the 1940s. The Pennsylvania Attorney General sent an open letter to Pope Francis and implored the Holy Father to abandon efforts to silence victims.
This situation is beyond the pale. Like school shootings, horrific discoveries of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church continue to occur, despite the epidemic levels of pain and suffering. In both situations, powerful leaders have opted to do nothing and look the other way. Congress has failed to resist the powerful American gun lobby and enact meaningful gun safety laws. Likewise, the Vatican has failed to instill a culture of ethical accountability in the Church. Sadly, unlike gun violence, which is a uniquely American phenomenon, Catholic child sex abuse happens all over the world.
I don’t need to be verbose to convey the horror of this new revelation. The abuse that these priests inflicted on these children changed the way that their brains functioned. They were never the same.
Nazis in WWII are often portrayed in movies as ravenous monsters. While many of them were that, there were many Germans that simply went along with the group-think of their time. Normal, moral people somehow supported the modern era’s personification of evil. That acquiescence to darkness is what made the Holocaust so chilling. Normal people, not monsters, allowed and championed genocide. They turned a blind eye because resistance was inconvenient.
This phenomenon is what has happened to the Catholic Church. Otherwise pious and service-orientated clergy members succumbed to the culture of abuse. Protecting the church’s reputation was deemed more important than protecting children’s innocence. They thought it was easier to move pedophile priests to new communities and suppress victims from speaking out than to admit Catholic fallibility to the world. They have allowed their pride to create a human rights catastrophe that will never be forgotten.
This story, and accounts like it, affect me in a profound way because of my family. Regrettably, I have several family members that have been victims of child rape, but my mother’s story has impacted me the most.
As a kid, my mother attended a Christian (not Catholic) boarding school, which taught sixth grade through twelfth grade. One of the teachers at the school molested and raped my mother, along with several other girls. The abuse began in middle school and lasted until her freshmen year.
Decades later, my mother and the other victims testified at a Church investigation; the teacher was still employed by the school at that time. Four women told four, almost identical stories. Because the statute of limitations had passed, no criminal charges could be filed. The Church decided to not fire the teacher. Instead, they put him into early retirement, pension and all. Because he was an employee of the Church, when my mother paid her tithe, part of the money went toward his retirement.
My mother blocked the traumatic memories out of her consciousness for many years. In her mid-thirties, the memories started to resurface and she fell into a pit of depression and self-destruction. She was institutionalized and marginally recovered after she got out of treatment, but she was never the same. It’s only been in the last five years that she’s started to act like her old self, before the memories came back to haunt her.
The Catholic Dilemma
Today, my mother hates the Church that she grew up in. She hates it because of how they handled the incident and because there were other instances in other schools that were “dealt” with in a manner reminiscent of how the Catholics have dealt with their abuse problems. The whole experience made my mother believe that the Church was evil. Period. While she doesn’t say this, I think that she also believes that the members of that Church are evil too. She sees them as another version of the complicit, otherwise benevolent Germans that stood silent during the Holocaust. While I understand her mindset, I think that this is an oversimplification of reality and causes division that isn’t helpful.
My guess is that it’s a difficult time to be a Catholic right now. This recent news has caused strong reactions within the Catholic community. There are a few apologists that ignore or debate the specifics of the report or try to equate the Catholic pedophile epidemic with homosexual deviance. Fortunately, there have also been a multitude of progressive and conservative Catholics that have expressed outrage at the Church’s failure to handle the situation appropriately. I applaud their righteous outrage.
That outrage signifies a willingness to break tribal alliances when it’s morally necessary. It’s sad that it took this level of catastrophe to spur that response, but progress is still good. In the past, many Catholics have tried to defend the Church against these accusations because of how intricately linked their lives were with the Church. These organizations are pillars in their communities, they’re part of the fabric of the cities that they dwell in. It’s hard to stand up to something like that. The pressure that these people are putting on Church leadership shows that their identity is beginning to be tied more to the Church’s teachings and less to the Church’s institutions. Whatever you think of Catholic theology, pretty much anyone would prefer a Christian to identify with their principles than with the corporate politics of their Church’s administration.
I spoke to my mother about this news over the phone today. We both cried because of the trauma that she went through during her childhood. To any Catholic apologists that feel threatened by this news, I’d ask several things of you. First, no one is attacking the Church’s teachings (at least not because of this situation). Please don’t view the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s letter or the Grand Jury’s report as attacks on Catholicism. They’re not. Second, please try to put the children first. At the end of the day, they’re all that matters. Third, I’d like to offer my condolences to you. I know that this news must wound you deeply because of how much you have invested in the Church and in your faith. I know that you are repulsed by child abuse. I’m sorry that abusive actions independent of anything that you did have stained such an important part of your life. Finally, please keep the pressure on your church’s leadership to make meaningful changes to stop this from happening again. Please speak up and put Catholic principles over Catholic institutions.
Thoughts and prayers are worthless. Action is needed. Please do not be complicit in the institutional abuse of children. Stand up and represent the faith that you so vigorously defend.