Shocked but Not Surprised

Here we go again.  After a two-year process, an 884-page Pennsylvania grand jury report was released at 2pm Eastern time today.  It details seven decades of sexual abuse by priests and religious order members and its cover-up by the Roman Catholic Church in the dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Scranton.  These six Pennsylvania dioceses were given copies of the report last May, but in a further attempt to cover-up the systemic and unapologetic rape of children, legal chicanery from several clergy members, including former Erie Bishop Donald Trautman, kept the report sealed until the state Supreme Court ordered its release today, with certain names redacted.

This is a day of a kind unknown in the history of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.  The scale and scope of today’s revelations is truly staggering.  The grand jury identified 300 accused priests across the six dioceses and 1,000 victim-survivors. 

Seven decades' worth of subpoenaed clergy personnel files and other Church records were the basis of the grand jury’s findings.


The grand jury used their report not only to outline specific allegations of sexual abuse and institutional cover-up by clergy and the Church, but also to issue recommendations for preventing and punishing sexual abuse in Pennsylvania in the future.  The recommendations included eliminating statutes of limitations for criminal cases of sexual assault in Pennsylvania, as well as creating a two-year window for civil cases to be brought by people who were previously abused but have been unable to pursue civil claims under the statute of limitations.

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.

A reality it has still not confronted in any meaningful way.  Perhaps it doesn’t know how.  And that is a tragedy of epic proportions, no less because millions look to the Church for answers to some of the most fundamental questions of life.  The purpose of a church, of any religious community, is less to do with the religion itself and more about the group that has gathered to remind one another of what they believe is true.  Through a shared identity, expressed by enacting rituals, they become a small part of a much larger whole — it is tribal, and in that sense it is primal.  Of course this is true of any community; but a religious community — a “church” — purports to answer existential questions about humanity and reality.  And proposes a divine, supernatural answer, mediated by specially chosen leaders, the priests.  That’s what makes sexual abuse by priests so devastating — to the community, they’re standing in for God, and so it’s God who is perpetrating the harm felt by victims.  I know of what I speak, as a victim-survivor of clergy sexual abuse.  Furthermore, as a victim, you’re not just experiencing an existential assault; your body is being harmed, which in turn harms your sense of self — your psyche — at a time when it is not fully developed or even expected to be.  It’s a whole-of-being offense. 

The question remains — why this Church, why these staggering numbers, where 9% of Roman Catholic 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 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 or sexual preference for anything other than the prepubescence (in the case of pedophiles), immediate post-pubescence (in the case of hebephiles), or mid-to-late adolescence (in the case of ephebophiles) of their victims; 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.  Power and control is.  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.

These birds of pray are 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.  We must hold the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church accountable for dealing with the criminals in their midst by speaking up, and by rejecting the Church’s culture of institutional protectionism.  This is no small task, particularly because the community of believers is so heavily invested in the blamelessness and unquestioned authority of their divine totems, the priests.  Those who speak out against them are a threat to be neutralized.  When one recognizes the symbolic significance of the priest as an arbiter between the supposedly sacred and the profane, it is easy to see how accusations of criminal misconduct strike at the very heart of what some people believe about reality and the nature of the universe.

But it is important because of the truly pervasive nature of the problem and the equal ubiquity of the denial and coverup.  And the suffering of the victims.  I say that now as a successful litigant in a four-year landmark civil case brought by 508 victims, myself included, against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, its religious orders, and institutions.  Settlement cash in hand today is a paltry substitute for innocence stolen long ago, but it is a measure of justice, a starting point on the healing journey, some compensation for damage done, recognition of a dark, hidden truth, and, I hope, a motivation for institutional change.  A critical part of the settlement we reached in 2007 had nothing to do with financial compensation.  As plaintiffs, we felt it was absolutely essential that the Church in Los Angeles publish the personnel files of the priests accused of sexual abuse to demonstrate what was known, when it was known, and how it was addressed.  A protracted legal battle, even post-settlement, was waged by the archdiocese to keep these records from exposing decades of incompetent personnel management, criminal coverup, and duplicity, but truth won out in the end and they are published here —> Los Angeles Clergy Files.

I have, at times, struggled to identify publicly as a victim-survivor of clergy sexual abuse.  I was a reluctant participant in the 2003-07 case at first and took some convincing; I suppose my reasons are as complex as the phenomenon of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests itself.  I desparately did not want it to define me — I did not want to be “that guy.”  But ultimately I realized a person who wants the victim to be quiet or remain hidden is on the side of the abuser, and I concluded my silence made me that person.  My abuser and the Church want me to be quiet, and all other abusers would also want me to be quiet, in case their victims take my lead and raise their hands and confide to their friends, and possibly to the police, and realize the shame is not theirs.

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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