Birds of Pray

As I finished reading the autobiography of a fellow survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I had to pause.  I have read many such accounts.  Some are very clinical, dealing with the psychology of sexual abuse — what “we” know about its origins, its effects, and so on.  This one was different.  What so struck me (and shook me) about Alan Davies' account was that it was about Alan, and at the same time it was about me.  The boy and the man that Alan describes in his book is me, with a few adjustments for time and place — but only a few:  we were born a month apart, he is British, I am American, his sexual victimizer was his father, mine was only called “Father” by the boys who trusted him, a title of honor he no longer enjoys as a real estate agent in Northern California.

Just Ignore Him, Alan Davies

Imagine me alone but for my dog Dennis asleep on my lap, Kindle balanced on his back, in a state of amazed disbelief as I read page after page of Alan’s book, Just Ignore Him, as though I were reading about myself.  The morning after I had finished the book, I awoke from a very vivid dream.  I want to memorialize that dream below, then include a short précis regarding sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church; sounds clinical, yes?  But I hope you understand — I’ve started many times to put my own story down in words.  Started, and then stopped.  It is surprisingly difficult, even for someone who loves to write.  Is this a story that anyone would want to read?  Is this a story I would want to read?

I don’t believe in angels or demons, star signs, crystals, or a god that intervenes in our lives by keeping pianos from falling on our heads because we said the right words in the right order while lighting a candle and fingering our Rosary beads.  I do believe that by writing his story — honestly, courageously, vulnerably — and publishing it, Alan gave strength to so many who have a story like his to tell.  Perhaps, one day, I can draw on that strength to write mine.

A person who wants the victim to be quiet is on the side of the abuser. Mine wants me to be quiet, and all other abusers would also want me to be quiet, in case their victims take a lead from my speaking up and raise their hands and confide to their friends, and possibly to the police, and realise [sic — UK spelling] the shame is not theirs to carry.
(Alan Davies, Just Ignore Him, p. 194)

I am inside a house that is under construction in my dream.  Buckets, trowels, painting tarps, and a plaster encrusted, rusty wheelbarrow litter a cold floor that has the damp smell of newly poured and set cement.  I am hosing off a patio covered with layers of debris and dust, and this reveals beautiful brickwork masonry underneath it, and what looks like a trap door with a padlock securing it closed.  I reach into my pocket and produce the key, unlock the latch, and a boy emerges from the dark of a cellar.  I recognize him, but only as someone I once knew; he has a kind, soft face, and a mop of dirty blonde hair.  I have the very real feeling that I expected to find him locked in that cellar, as though I had been looking for him for some time.  He takes me by the hand, and says in a wonderfully innocent but distant voice, “c’mon, we have to go.”  The boy and I get into a car I used to own many years ago when I lived in West Hollywood, me behind the wheel, and I back onto a very busy highway at dusk — seeing a break in the traffic I accelerate backward, but I cannot stop once I do this; my foot is frozen on the accelerator unable to move, and though my hand reaches the gearshift it is as though it is not attached to any mechanism and selecting ‘Drive’ has no effect.  I have the sensation I am falling backward from a great height, even though the boy and I are safely ensconced in the grey leather seats of my 1997 Nissan Maxima with our seatbelts fastened.  The car leaves the road and comes to rest in a very verdant green field:  lush, primordial, Eden-esque.  The boy and I are now outside the car, hand-in-hand, looking at it — it is undamaged, it looks as though someone has parked it there with great care.  The boy lets go of my hand, looks up at me affectionately, and says, “we’re back where it began, leave him here with me, you go on without us.” 

I do have a story.  And it’s mine to tell.  But it can be hard to put into words, not because of its salacious details, of which there are plenty, but because people do not want to hear it, and some work very hard to make sure that you don’t.  Those aligned against the story being told have the advantage of decades and centuries of practice at deception, and the ability to enlist the listener, and often the teller, in their dark enterprise.

And the good guys are the bad guys.  In fact, even after they’re exposed as the bad guys, so many are invested in them being the good guys that it is hard to see them any other way — you cannot denounce them, because truthful criticism is characterized as bias and even bigotry.  Accusers become a threat to be dealt with, a danger to the system which relies on mass ignorance to flourish.  Anything and everything must be sacrificed to protect that system… anything.  And anyone.

When the Roman Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis was first identified in the United States in the mid-80’s last century, Vatican officials called it an American phenomenon; when subsequent revelations exposed similar scandals brewing in Canada, Ireland, England, and Australia, they framed it as a problem of the Church in English-speaking countries; but reports out of Germany, Belgium, France, and Austria surfacing in 2010 during the papacy of Benedict XVI torpedoed that explanation, so the Vatican was forced to re-frame it as a problem of the developed world, with its sexual libertinism.  By the time reports of widespread sexual abuse of children by priests in all corners of the world emerged, the Church had run out of scapegoats.  It was forced to confront the reality that it is the common denominator and that sexual abuse by its clergy is a systemic, foundational problem inherent in its structure and its patriarchal, misogynistic, authoritarian culture.

Sexual abuse by a priest is not so much about the sex (though that is hardly inconsequential) as it is about the complex emotions surrounding the sex, emotions that the victim is unable to process, let alone reconcile with what he had been led to believe about the Church and the clergy.  Feelings of betrayal don’t register, and not only are victims confused, but uninvolved Church members are conditioned to look upon them with a skeptical eye because their story is so far out of bounds.  People fail to see it is the perpetrators themselves who are defining the boundaries.  But let’s examine the incontrovertible truth of the matter:  whether the victim of clergy sexual abuse is 16 years-old or 8 years-old, they are both victims of an asymmetric power imbalance between priest and child that goes beyond age and touches on the very being of the cleric as contrasted with his lay victim; assumptions about the perpetrator’s “goodness” or purity of intentions cannot be scrutinized because of the nature of the clerical state as it is understood in Catholicism.  It’s as though a victim has no “right” to declare his victimization; in a very real sense, the Church reinforces a culture in which the accusation is seen as out of bounds.

What, then, accounts for the preponderance of sexual abusers in the Roman Catholic clergy, where 9% of RC priests act out sexually with children?  In 2016, after a 25-year ethnographic study of the sexual behavior of supposedly celibate Roman Catholic priests in which he found more than half (50%) were involved in sexual relationships of one kind or another, psychotherapist AW Richard Sipe wrote to Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego:

Sooner or later it will become broadly obvious that there is a systemic connection between the sexual activity by, among, and between clerics in positions of authority and control, and the abuse of children. When men in authority — cardinals, bishops, rectors, abbots, confessors, professors — are having or have had an unacknowledged-secret-active-sex life under the guise of celibacy, an atmosphere of tolerance of behaviors within the system is made operative.

It is this observation, I believe, more than anything else that describes the conditions which have led to the phenomenon of widespread tolerance of sexual abuse within the Catholic clergy by the hierarchy and the subsequent worldwide coverup.  Anyone who has ever thought, or uttered, the words “Father would never do that” is complicit in the coverup.  We ought not to assume a priest is innocent simply because he is a priest.  To the extent that we realize a priest is just as capable of sexually violating children as a guy in a van luring them with puppies and lollipops, we can congratulate ourselves on coming to the realization that ordination does not purge the desires characteristic of this particular human depravity from a man.  That said, it is also true that ordination does not create or unleash a child molester any more than homosexuality does.  It is not inevitable if you are gay that you will molest and abuse boys any more than a straight man will inevitably molest girls.  Nor is their any causal link between priesthood and sexual abuse; these two things must not be conflated.

In fact, when it comes to adult men who sexually abuse boys, research indicates such men cannot be called “homosexual” since they do not possess a sexuality attracted toward anything other than their desire for control and power, and the sexual gratification they obtain from manipulation; sex (here defined as physical contact with one or both parties' genitals) is not irrelevant but it’s frequently not the prime motivating factor in these cases.  It should also be pointed out the law is very clear that sexual abuse is not limited to oral or anal penetration; for example, the touching of buttocks (even through clothing) without consent, the sharing of pornography, even graphic language or exposing oneself (flashing), can all be considered forms of sexual abuse.  From 2003 until 2007 I was a plaintiff in the landmark Catholic clergy sexual abuse cases in Los Angeles known as Clergy I and Clergy II.  That excruciating experience, which I neither sought (I was persuaded to join the case by one of my co-plaintiffs) nor welcomed, afforded me an education in this shadowy, shame-filled world, and though we ultimately settled with the archdiocese in our favor, it amounted to a reliving of times I’ve struggled my entire adult life to forget.

There are very bad men, these birds of pray, amongst us.  We must cast as suspicious an eye on the man in the Roman Collar now as we once did at the spotty man in a trench coat hanging out by the playground in days gone by.  And we must hold the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church accountable for transparently dealing with the criminals in their midst.  I stand with thousands upon thousands of victims of clergy sexual abuse as one of them.  Telling my story, assigning blame where it belongs, demanding accountability, is part of the process of healing from a wound inflicted long ago by the priest-principal of my Catholic high school, but it is also a pledge to behave protectively of the vulnerable by shining a light on the truth.  Without that light, many victim-survivors are left feeling like the hurt and anger percolating inside them does not exist.  Even the Bible says, "Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).  If you or someone you know is a victim of clergy sexual abuse, help and support is available.  Two outstanding organizations are:

If you know or suspect someone is being sexually abused by a clergy member, notify the police, immediately.  The silent are just as guilty as the predatory.

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