The current crisis in the Catholic Church regarding the sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy certainly demands our attention. Sexual abuse, any abuse, of our children is clearly wrong. But, we must remember, it is equally wrong whether the perpetrator is the child’s daddy, uncle, friend, or church leader. Any abuse of children should provoke the wrath of us all and should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
As a victim of sexual abuse—first by a family friend, and later by a Catholic priest—I am appalled and angered at the recent emphasis on clergy abuse. The media and class-action lawyers nullify both the spirit and intent of our child-abuse laws, and make a mockery of our judicial system.
If I were to make public allegations against the priest who abused me, what would happen? He would, of course, be presumed guilty immediately, with no consideration given to the validity of my accusation. He would be forbidden to continue in his ministry. His name and photo would appear in local, regional, and state newspapers, and on local, even national television. The details of my accusation would be table talk from one end of this country to the other.
His reputation would be destroyed, and his future would be forever changed. All this would happen whether or not he was guilty.
On the other hand, if I were to hunt down and accuse the family friend who abused me, another story would develop. There would be, perhaps, a small article on page nine of the local paper. My lawyer would seek an indictment and arrest. After making bail, my perpetrator would continue to live his life, work in his chosen profession. He would stand trial, and, his word against mine, probably go free. His life would get back to normal, even if he was guilty.
I certainly believe that anyone who molests children should pay. But I suggest that the current emphasis on clergy abuse is disproportionate and inappropriate simply because it ignores and downplays child sexual abuse by members of all other groups. Why don’t we seek to expose all members of the local plumbers union who are abusers? Or the firefighters union? Or factory workers? Or rabbis? Or journalists and newscasters? The Catholic clergy doesn’t own this problem. Pedophilia knows no cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic, or religious boundaries. We all own the problem.
Another element in the crisis is the potential for financial compensation. If I were to accuse my priest abuser, the class-action lawyers would make sure I ended up with a substantial sum of money. The going rate for clergy sexual abuse seems pretty high. My nonclergy abuser, however, probably wouldn’t end up paying anything to compensate me for pain, suffering, and the loss of my innocence. That certainly takes the choice out of my hands. Go for the dough! I know at least three persons who have made allegations against priests whose primary, more severe, abuse was at the hands of men who were not priests. Those other three men will never be prosecuted, will never pay for their crimes. You can be sure the priests will pay. And, ultimately, the Catholic people will pay. Each payment made to victims places more burden on us, the working and retired parishioners whose contributions support our church.
And what of the priests who are accused unjustly? We have a recent, much publicized example in Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. His health, future, career, and ministry were all damaged by a man who later recanted the whole story. The cardinal graciously forgave the man, but the toll it took quite possibly hastened his death. There are priests, and bishops, being falsely accused during this recent hype—and members of the media must bear some responsibility for that. They will jump on any story, no matter how farfetched, how absurd, simply because it makes great copy. But these false accusations are yet another kind of abuse, and they cause inordinate trauma to the victims. People in the media will somehow be called to bear their pain.
My own sexual abuse happened more than thirty years ago, in Boston, Massachusetts. I have had many years in which to recover and heal. Even if there were no statute of limitations for this crime, I would choose not to accuse my perpetrators. As brutal as the abuse was, as significant the loss of innocence, as devastating the betrayal of trust, I have come through it to the other side. I am much stronger for having dealt with the pain. My perpetrators are dealing with worse than I have been through. They must live with themselves. It satisfies something deep within me to leave them in the hands of God.