In the summer of 1958, when I turned seventeen, I discovered and reported a case of an adult sexually abusing minors. For me the episode had some of the melodrama of a young adult novel, but it was nothing at all like the painful, often life-shattering experiences of survivors of sexual abuse. No surprise, then, that I did not think much about it for many years. That changed in the 1990s when as a religion correspondent and columnist for the New York Times I reported on the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests and later, in 2002, when I wrote about the flood of similar revelations that began with stories in the Boston Globe.

Then last November Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State who also headed an organization for troubled youth, was charged with abusing numerous boys. The charges raised questions about what university officials, including famed football coach Joe Paterno, had done when they first learned of Sandusky’s proclivities. Penn State’s president was fired, as was Paterno, who died in January.

The months that followed have brought stories of ultra-Orthodox Jews raising religious impediments to reporting sexual abuse promptly to legal authorities in New York City; of repeat abusers escaping scrutiny in New York and Los Angeles public schools; and of long-festering complaints of abuse at Horace Mann, an elite private school in New York. In Oregon, the Supreme Court affirmed that the Boy Scouts had to release some twenty thousand pages of files kept since the mid-1960s to track, with far less than total success, reports of accused Scout leaders.

On June 22, after a trial full of graphic testimony about abuse by Philadelphia priests and inaction by church officials, Msgr. William Lynn, the head of priest personnel for the Philadelphia archdiocese, was convicted on one count of child endangerment. On the same day, after a trial with similarly graphic testimony, Sandusky was convicted of multiple sexual assaults. Three weeks later Louis J. Freeh, former director of the FBI, issued a report concluding that by hushing up reports of Sandusky’s conduct Penn State officials, including Paterno, had showed a “total and consistent disregard” for the welfare of children.

A knotted thread runs through all these cases: Who knew what—and when and how firmly did they know it—and what responsibilities did they believe such information entailed? I say knotted because these episodes occurred in different circumstances and decades. My own experience has made me deeply aware that what seems so obvious now about dealing with victims as well as perpetrators was once not so. The way society responds to the sexual abuse of children has changed profoundly. That awareness of change over time, as well as difference in environment, has tempered my views about the more distant past but magnified my shock at the criminal negligence of recent decades while increasing my suspicions of one-size-fits-all explanations.

But first my story. In 1958 I was a staff member at a Boy Scout camp, a place I loved as both a camper and a staffer. In a millisecond I can conjure up the sight and sound of the poplar leaves quavering in the breeze near my tent or the feel of the stones under my homemade moccasins on the path to the lake. But this particular sequence of events began in a car. It was crowded with fellow staff members. We were headed toward a nearby Wisconsin town to enjoy our weekly day off. Those of us still under drinking age would poke into a few stores or walk up and down Main Street hoping that something exciting would happen. It never did. But once a week even boredom provided relief from teaching eleven-year-olds how to weave lanyards.

In the car, someone called the assistant camp director “a faggot,” and I protested. I was no premature defender of gay rights, a term and concept that would not enter my head for years. Indeed, my entire understanding of homosexuality was vague. It was enough that calling someone homosexual, especially in crude slang, was to say something bad about him; and my good liberal Catholic parents had imprinted on me, particularly during the high tide of McCarthyism, that (1) name-calling was the argumentation of fools and (2) you didn’t toss around derogatory labels without evidence.

My fellow staff members brusquely dismissed my protest. “Just talk to the trainees,” they said. Trainees were fourteen-year-old junior staff members who were the equivalent of gofers working for room and board and a shot at staff positions in future years. I had been a trainee. I had also supervised the work of trainees, for example a rather indolent kid with a hangdog look named Harry Ford, who later made a considerable name for himself under his full-size moniker “Harrison.” During this summer another trainee was part of the handicraft staff headed by my brother James, two years my elder, with myself and a co-worker. We all bunked together in a cabin that also stored tools and materials for leatherwork, woodcarving, basketweaving, and those damned lanyards.

“Just talk to the trainees.” OK, I proceeded to do exactly that—and found out nothing. At first. Finally, one trainee, a kid whose rough and foul-mouthed attitude made him an exception to the suburban propriety of the others, told me the story. It was a story too familiar today. Favors, gifts, seductions, trips out of town, time in motels, the whole range of conduct, or at least (as far as I could detect) non-forcible conduct, that in recent years has been described in endless civil suits and media reports.

Among the young victims named by this informant was the trainee sharing our cabin. This information explained a lot of the striking change in his demeanor and behavior that had taken place over the summer, to say nothing of the many times that the assistant camp director had invited him to go along on errands away from the camp. What complicated the situation enormously was that the actual camp director, a professional employee of the Boy Scouts of America, was away. The assistant director, the accused molester, was effectively in charge of the camp. That led to the bizarre events that would make melodramatic chapters in a young adult novel.

The first of them happened at night, after Taps had been sounded over the camp PA system and campers were in their bunks. I began complaining to the trainee in our quarters about his shirking of tasks and all the favors he had been enjoying from the assistant camp director. The assistant camp director suddenly stormed into the cabin, shouting “I heard that! I heard that!” He demanded that I repeat my complaints in his presence, which I was happy to do. A long, heated, and crazy argument followed, first in our cabin and then out in the dark, sandy parking lot stretching between our cabin and the camp office, which was also where he had quarters. My brother’s much later recollection was that it turned pretty clearly on accusations of serious impropriety, even if those were never explicitly spelled out, with our insisting that we had no intention of accusing anyone unjustly. My recollection is that the alleged impropriety was simply the undue favors and absences from work being showered on our trainee. I don’t remember any reference to things sexual, or recall how much I actually knew at that point. In retrospect, I realize that, regardless of what I knew, behind the assistant camp director’s fury was what he thought I knew or was in the process of finding out.

This argument took some very strange turns, as one might expect when all the monsters were swimming below the surface. At one point the assistant camp director accused us of filling people’s minds with socialist ideas! What people he had in mind I don’t know—campers or other staff members? This was heavy stuff in those Cold War days, as it still appears to be in Republican primaries. But maybe he was right. We were undoubtedly teenage radicals of a sort that came from growing up on the Catholic Worker and papal social teachings.

“I have often wondered what the outcome would have been if we hadn’t both been there,” James recalled decades later. “One person in a position of power has a lot more leverage to browbeat a junior into embarrassment and silence—if the junior has no one to compare notes with.”

We had in fact gathered a pretty full inventory of accounts of abuse when a more bizarre thing happened. Late one evening the assistant camp director invited James and me to accompany him on some errand away from camp. We thought it best to accept in order to allay his suspicions. We piled into his car and soon were heading down a steep hill on a country road toward a T-shaped intersection ending in a 90-degree turn to left or right. Suddenly he turned off his headlights and accelerated toward the intersection. Only at the last minute did he turn them on again and brake. What was that about? Was he trying to frighten us, to prove his desperation or his dangerousness? We pretended not to have noticed.

At about that time another professional employee of the Scouts arrived at the camp. My brother and I knew him from a mountain camping trip that he had led to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. We took all my information to him—after dark. He immediately made his own inquiries among trainees. He pledged to take action upon the camp director’s return.

The delay was brief but more than a little bit uncomfortable. On the last night, someone said that the assistant camp director had been seen walking the periphery of the camp with one of the rifles kept in his cabin for the shooting range. To make sure that he was not still stalking around armed, I volunteered to crawl through the small pines and underbrush to the space beneath his cabin, which was raised several feet off the ground on pilings. It was a bright idea mixing adolescent bravado with a sense of invincibility. I do remember wondering, however, as I snaked through the grass on my belly like some imagined commando, what a .22 bullet would feel like. Under his cabin, I heard his footsteps and music playing. That was somehow sufficient evidence of our safety. I crawled back, and we retired in confidence.

The next day, there was a flurry of activity. The camp director arrived. Cars from the suburban area that the camp served pulled in and out of the parking lot—evidently with the parents of trainees. Some kind of meeting, obviously preceded by a round of phone calls, took place off the premises. It involved the accused, the trainees, parents, the director, and the other Boy Scout professional. My guess is that there was a local law official.

Before the day was over, the assistant camp director was packed and gone. So were most of the trainees, including our cabin mate. I felt like I could exhale.

Yet all this was disorienting. Soon after this departure I entered the camp office and stepped into the assistant director’s vacated quarters. Everything was gone except a large wood-handled, single-bladed pocket knife. I took it and kept it. I don’t know why. Surely not as a remembrance of the man, for whom I felt no fondness. Indeed it might not even have been his. It was just a trace of something already passing into obscurity. I had been introduced to matters I previously knew nothing about. I thought I had done the right thing. I felt some satisfaction in the outcome. Yet no one in the camp administration spoke with me about that outcome. Even the few of us who had brought this matter to light did not discuss it among ourselves. It was all done and gone, like the assistant camp director, like his victims. Except for that sturdy, sinister pocket knife.

I have had to learn much more in the last decades about sexual abuse of minors, as have we all. I have learned from news reports, books, legal documents, interviews I had the opportunity to conduct with abuse survivors and their advocates, with molesting priests, with therapists, social scientists, bishops, and lawyers. I am still learning.

Although I changed my mind about the man whose reputation I initially defended, I have never shaken my resistance to branding individuals without solid evidence. It is a reflex that still flashes “slow down” whenever I sense a rush to judgment, something accusations of sexual abuse are now very apt to provoke. But in two other ways my teenage experience did affect my later views.

The minor one, applicable to the Catholic scandal, was the simple fact of first encountering this kind of abuse in another organizational setting. In principle, most people recognize that the church is hardly unique in being afflicted by such ugly crimes. They have plagued school systems, athletic programs (as recent headlines testify), and to a frightful degree (as we still shy from examining) our taxpayer-supported correctional institutions for youth. In practice, for complex reasons, public awareness has often seemed to assume that here was a singularly Catholic problem. This was of course especially true of Catholics, understandably appalled by our own church’s failings, wary of anything that could be offered as an alibi, and rightly focused on removing the beam in our own eye before worrying about the speck in anyone else’s. To a large extent, that reaction was my own. But my firsthand experience also planted resistance to explanations that attributed the abuse to exclusively Catholic practices or beliefs.

The comparison of my Boy Scout experience to the church’s is not entirely flattering to the latter. In the mid-1990s I attended a reunion of camp staff members (Harrison Ford did not show up) and noticed various preventive measures in place—for instance, rules barring staff and campers from using showers at the same time. Here was evidence of a degree of awareness that I had yet to see in Catholic institutions. At the same time, when I belatedly read Scout’s Honor, Patrick Boyle’s remarkable account of the Boy Scouts’ handling of sexual abuse, I discovered striking parallels even in the 1990s with the church’s reflexes. But what about celibacy and clerical culture? I have no doubt that these were significant factors in the Catholic case, but how significant? Married Scout leaders and Scouts’ parents also proved capable of being as naïve, blind, and self-protective in defending abusers as any celibate cleric. So were married officials in other organizations. What about permissiveness toward homosexual conduct, a favorite conservative Catholic explanation of the church’s conduct? That was hardly a Boy Scout or a Penn State problem. What about blind obedience to superiors or doctrinal conformity or sexual repression? That might well apply to some of Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox community but was hardly the case at the culturally liberal Horace Mann. In short, my initial encounter left me allergic to explaining sexual abuse in sweeping or single-factor terms, usually ones that coincided with their proponents’ preexisting convictions, whether about homosexuality or (in my case) the need for a more participatory and democratic church.

Much more important to me was the way that my experience highlighted the importance of cultural change—1958 was not 1985 or 1995 or 2005.

In 1958 my reports and those of the young staffers I had wheedled information from were thankfully believed by adults in charge. In 1958 the perpetrator—of course, assuming, without any trial, that he was the perpetrator and that I had not contributed to some terrible miscarriage of justice—was promptly removed. Not only in 1958 but a decade or even two decades later, that was not the way many church officials were receiving accusations involving priests. But was there any reason to believe that this individual was unable to work at another camp, possibly even some Boy Scout camp, in subsequent summers?

He was in fact a teacher who had bounced from one high school to another in the Chicago area. In 1958, were his prospects of finding yet other positions in school systems seriously affected by the events at our camp? And what of the victims? Was there any reason to believe that they were offered any therapy or their families any guidance? Was anything said publicly to encourage unknown victims—whether from that summer of 1958 or an earlier one when this man had worked at the camp—to come forward?

Of course the answer to all those questions was no. More revealing is that, as far as I can tell, in 1958 no one even seriously asked the questions. Certainly I did not until decades later.

And what about questions that continue to baffle me? What about those older staff members, all decent guys, who firmly suspected and vocally deplored the assistant camp director’s conduct: Why didn’t they feel compelled to pursue the matter further? My inquires had even revealed that one staff member, then attending a school where the assistant camp director taught, had one day happened on him in a sexually compromising situation with a student. The stories from Penn State and Horace Mann have revived my bafflement.

The main point is this: Culturally speaking all this was long ago and in another country. It is astonishing that people fail to recognize how much our society has changed in regard to sexual abuse of young people. People were as appalled by it in 1958 as today, although one reason was the shame that cloaked many aspects of sexuality from respectable view and professional attention. What has changed dramatically is not this revulsion but our growing fund of knowledge and sense of responsibility for prevention and healing. That is why, on the one hand, it makes no sense to treat the 1960s and 1970s in particular through the lenses of the 1980s and 1990s; and why, on the other hand, it makes more recent cases of negligence, whether by religious leaders, school officials, or athletic coaches, all the more shocking.

Consider therapy for victims and their families. If they or the Boy Scouts had sought it back in 1958, what would they have found? Long after, it remained common professional opinion that the best thing for victims was not to make a big deal about their experiences. In 2005, the New York Times ran a profile of Dr. Richard B. Gartner, a psychotherapist and author of a then recently published book on treatments for boyhood sexual abuse. It was only in the mid-1980s, Gartner said, that he came to doubt the prevailing psychoanalytic tendency to treat memories of such abuse as fantasy or wish fulfillment. “I began to look in the professional literature,” he told the Times. “There wasn’t much to be found, and most implied that this [sexual abuse of boys] was very rare.... So I had to make my own way.” In New York City, no group therapy existed for victims, Gartner said, until he started a group in 1991.

If Gartner was correct, psychoanalysis was coming to a serious awareness of the extent and ramifications of childhood sexual abuse in about that same mid-1980s time frame as the Catholic bishops.

Consider the legal situation. In 1958, laws mandating that caregivers report child abuse of all kinds did not exist, nor would they generally until the 1970s. Even today many families hesitate to pursue criminal charges or civil suits, given the public exposure and trauma that would mean for victims. How much more so in 1958?

I know that even suggesting that such changes have taken place upsets many people, who feel that it may mitigate responsibility for abuse. This worry was voiced in the wake of stories about star teachers at Horace Mann who harassed and seduced male students, often with tragic consequences, in the 1980s and earlier. First, in the June 6 issue of the New York Times Magazine, a Horace Mann graduate described administrators in that era who seemed willfully myopic and trustees whose unresponsiveness, even now, appeared governed by legal concerns. Not an unfamiliar picture, but this time at an outpost of the New York Times’s affluent, liberal demographic rather than a priest-ridden parish. The article elicited a flood of emails from former students, a good number relating incidents of abuse. Much more provocatively, that article was followed by a page-one interview with a long retired, greatly revered Horace Mann teacher who acknowledged sexual relationships with students. Now eighty-eight, the teacher, portrayed as a gentle Buddhist and masterful mentor, described his infatuations as all pursued “in warmth and affection and not a power play.” “In those days…it did not seem really wrong,” he said. “I may have crossed societal boundaries. If I did, I am sorry.”

This rounded but nonetheless self-exonerating portrait may have contrasted with the standard black-and-white rendering of accused priests or bishops, but Horace Mann, to its credit, promptly dropped the teacher’s name from an endowed chair. Still, at least one Times columnist worried that a “revisionist history” was emerging. “It skews reality to imagine that the sexual abuse of children is an issue that only recently has seen the rays of the sun,” wrote Ginia Bellafante on July 1. She pointed to a 1974 television episode of Marcus Welby, M.D., and books published in 1980, magazine articles in the 1950s, and earlier government reports.

Bellafante’s concern that a new “defensive narrative” might breed some kind of rationalization of abuse is legitimate. But the history is history and should not be bent to present purposes, whether to excuse or to arraign; and a lot depends on exactly how far back one is looking and whether one’s focus is on the abusive behavior itself or on what was more widely known about perpetrators or what were established procedures for prevention, detection, reporting, exposure, and removal. Was abuse seen as rare, an aberration eliciting an ad hoc response? Or was it a foreseeable problem for which one should be prepared? Were molesters imagined as sinister strangers? Or were they more likely family members, bighearted coaches, charismatic teachers, community-oriented Scout leaders, kid-friendly priests, or a guy you had worked with for years?

Much credit for changing our understanding of such matters is owed to the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s. It insisted on opening to scrutiny many of the darker aspects of family and sexual life, and it spoke uncomfortable truths about sex and power differentials. Child welfare advocates, crusading journalism, litigation, extended (perhaps sometimes even exaggerated) views of liability for harm in a wide variety of areas—all have played a part. Maybe Marcus Welby, M.D., did, too. Psychologists and law- enforcement experts added to our understanding of sexual abuse, sometimes by their research and sometimes by their failures. Victims of same-sex abuse have probably found it easier to speak out as taboos surrounding homosexuality have diminished. Relentless “pushing of the envelope” in regard to public displays of sexuality and even the scandals involving national leaders, however confusing to young people’s sense of norms, may have facilitated exposure of sexual crimes without euphemism.

A major change in our culture was a growing conviction that to protect potential victims in the future and extend help to victims in the past, known molesters should be identified, prosecuted, monitored, treated, or otherwise limited in their opportunity to abuse again—and this applied no less to apparently respectable members of the community than to isolated deviants. If this had been a factor in anyone’s mind in 1958, it was not acted upon. Perhaps my Scout camp leaders thought that the accused had been taught a lesson; more likely they thought that the camp and its reputation were now safe and, as for the rest, out of sight, out of mind. It was much easier then to think that way than in, say, 1990, but still they were not blameless. I did not, however, know the full story.

In 2005 I was invited to speak about the sexual-abuse scandal in a series of lectures at the University of Dayton. I decided to mention my camp episode. I phoned my brother to corroborate my own memories. James was always the family memory bank, able to recall playmates from our early grade-school days or teachers from high school. Perhaps it was a sign of the abhorrence surrounding sexual predation that we had not discussed what had happened at camp in decades. I wouldn’t overstate that. He had started architectural studies in Chicago, then enlisted in the Navy, and afterward completed his studies downstate in Illinois. I had lived at college and then married and moved to New York for graduate school. We worked and raised children eight hundred miles apart. On family visits, we had much else to talk about. When I spoke with James in 2005 he told me something I had completely forgotten and something startling that I had never known.

What I had forgotten was that in the fall of 1958 the assistant camp director sent me a letter. The letter came from a small town in northern Michigan where we presumed he had taken a job as a teacher. In the letter he protested his innocence and pointed out that he, too, was a Catholic. How could I have reported on him, a coreligionist? Catholics, he suggested, should stick together. On the phone, James reminded me that for days I had stamped around the house in anger at this hypocrisy.

What was entirely news to me was an experience James had while serving in the Navy, a few years after our summer camp days. A sailor with whom he had once shared quarters was being discharged. He dropped in to say goodbye. My brother was aware that he hailed from the town in Michigan where the assistant camp director had gone. “I always meant to ask you,” my brother said to him, “whether you had ever known of—” mentioning the assistant camp director’s name. At that, according to James, the young man “exploded.” He, too, had been a victim.

So could my “success” of 1958 and the prompt response of the Boy Scout camp be described as having merely, as the phrase goes, “shuffled” off a molester to abuse elsewhere? In a way, yes. That assistant camp director and schoolteacher died a few years ago. I found his obituary and learned that he was a decorated World War II veteran. The funeral service was at a Catholic church, and he was buried in that Michigan town. Was his only additional victim my brother’s Navy friend? It seems unlikely.

Back in the 1990s, when I began to mull over this story, I went searching among old camping gear for that pocket knife. I never found it.

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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Published in the 2012-08-17 issue: View Contents
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