The plague of sexual abuse is worse than you think.
Like you, I was disgusted by the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, released on Tuesday, Aug. 14. Unlike you, perhaps, I read the whole report, mainly because my job required it—every excruciating account of sexual abuse by 301 priests across six dioceses, with more than 1,000 victims. The fact that most of these events took place more than 25 years ago, over a period of seven decades, provided little comfort. News is simply information that you haven’t heard before—it does not matter much whether it happened yesterday or a century ago.
Like you, I experienced a range of emotions—anger, sorrow, sadness. Above all, fear. There is the fear of what is to come. The grand jury report covered only six dioceses of the nearly 200 Catholic dioceses in the United States. Surely the news will only get worse as more dioceses release their records. They should do so at once. Such disclosures, as the editors write in this issue, “should be anticipated and embraced, not resisted until they are imposed” by civil authorities. “One of the few remaining ways that the church can offer mercy to survivors of sexual abuse,” they continue, “is to demonstrate through such voluntary disclosures that we value the sacred dignity of the victims more than the church’s reputation and security.”
The problem within the church is bad. The problem in our families and in our neighborhoods is even worse.
Yet as painful as that necessary process of disclosure will be, there is something that terrifies me even more, an ominous question that has kept me tossing and turning for much of the week: If things are this bad within the church, how bad is it in our homes and neighborhoods? This is not “what about-ism.” By asking this question I do not seek to deflect attention in any way from the church’s abysmal failures or the objectively evil acts of the abusers in its ranks. The problem within the church is bad. The problem in our families and in our neighborhoods is even worse.
Consider the following: Nationwide, one in five girls and one in 12 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday; 95 percent of boys and girls are abused by someone they know; 50 percent of victims between the ages of 1 and 6 and 25 percent of victims between the ages of 12 and 17 are abused by a member of their own family; 84 percent of child sexual abuse occurs in homes. In 2014, 1.8 million adolescents in the United States were the victims of a sexual assault. The overwhelming number of victims are females. The overwhelming number of perpetrators are males, more often an older child under the age of 18. And these government statistics are merely a best guess; most incidents involving the sexual abuse of a minor go unreported.
As we seek to understand the specific ways in which the sexual abuse of children was enabled and covered up within the church, we must not forget the myriad human tragedies that are still unfolding even closer to home.
As we seek to understand the specific ways in which the sexual abuse of children was enabled and covered up within the church, we must not forget the myriad human tragedies that are still unfolding even closer to home. The grand jury report details horrific acts by members of the clergy and their protectors over a period of 70 years. They were grave offenses against the most vulnerable among us. It is also true that what is happening in our homes and neighborhoods on an even greater scale is happening right now, as you read this column.
How are we to make sense of it? I am no expert. The social sciences, psychology, theology, even words themselves, all seem inadequate in the face of such horror. Yet it is also clear that some ways of talking about the problem are demonstrably unhelpful. Who among us, for example, when faced with the overwhelming evidence that sexual abuse is committed by males against females, in our families and neighborhoods, would ask whether some vague “culture of heterosexuality” causes this phenomenon? Who among us would think it reasonable to ask whether heterosexual males should be barred from parenting or teaching because statistics show that most acts of child sexual abuse are perpetrated by men who identify as such?
There is no part of human history, no part of human existence, that is untainted by this evil. The crimes within the church are real. They are horrific. The greater horror, however, lies in the terrifyingly banal fact that such crimes are common everywhere. There are, of course, important dimensions of this phenomenon that are specific to the church: various manifestations of clericalism and inadequate screening and formation of priests among them. But as we begin the work of addressing those issues, we must not yield to the temptation of thinking that the church’s problem, while having unique dimensions, is a unique phenomenon. That would be a grave disservice, not only to the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of members of the clergy, but to victims everywhere.