sexual abuse before the Great Enlightenment
In January 2002, speaking about sexual abuse in his capacity as president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, then-Bishop Wilton Gregory uttered the memorable words: "We have all been enlightened."
In the months that followed, as one diocese after another was shaken by revelations of abuse and cover-ups, bishops regularly offered the explanation that back in the 1960s and 1970s, society didn't recognize the gravity of sexual abuse. Cardinal Law spoke of the "learning curve."
What were things like before the bishops' Enlightenment?
In 1995, the bishops' committee on women issued a statement entitled Walk in the Light: A Pastoral Response to Child Sexual Abuse. The document emphasized the critical importance of an effective pastoral response:
We are compelled to speak even knowing that the Church carries a heavy burden of responsibility in the area of sexual abuse. Some ordained ministers and religious brothers and sisters, as well as lay employees and volunteers, have sexually abused children and adolescents. We are acutely aware of the havoc and suffering caused by this abuse and we are committed to dealing with these situations responsibly and in all humility. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has established an ad hoc committee on sexual abuse by clergy to help church leaders take appropriate action. Each diocese has developed comprehensive policies concerning sexual abuse, which often apply to employees and volunteers, as well as to clergy and religious. We are fully committed to preventing child sexual abuse and to restoring victims to health.
The message was firm and clear: The bishops understood the problem. They were taking steps. Every diocese would enact policies. Don't worry. Trust us. Again, that was in 1995.
Seven years, later, the US bishops who gathered in Dallas, battered by adverse publicity, delivered essentially the same message. Now we really get it. Now we're really putting policies in place. Trust us. They had been enlightened.
But why hadn't the enlightenment come earlier? Say, perhaps, in 1995, when a committee of bishops was studying this very problem? The text of Walk in the Light provides a clue:
While we recognize that sexual abuse of boys is significant--some studies estimate it at 20 to 25 percent of all child victims--the overwhelming number of sexual abuse victims are girls.
Here the bishops were obviously using the overall statistics, which count the hundreds of men who fondle the teen-age daughters of their live-in lovers. That is a serious problem. But it's not the problem that the bishops' committee set out to discuss when they mentioned the "heavy burden of responsibility" borne by the Catholic Church. The problem for the Church-- the problem created by wayward priests-- is the sexual abuse of adolescent boys. In 1995 the bishops were not ready to confront that problem. The message written between the lines in that passage of Walk in the Light is clear enough: "Don't look behind that door."
But now in 2010 the US bishops have been enlightened-- how many times, I couldn't say-- and the John Jay report has confirmed that 80% of the incidents of priestly abuse involved boys. Are they ready yet to peek behind that door? No, that would be an "unwarranted conclusion."
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