Emotional Health

Sexual Abuse of Children—Holding Those Who Know Responsible

Though I have addressed this issue many times before, the recent revelations of the systemic and horrific sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in Pennsylvania are literally mind-boggling. Most of us have difficulty imagining any trusted figure, let alone hundreds, harming children for their own “pleasure,” not to mention their superiors covering up for them.

The New York Times gives these details:

“Bishops and other leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania covered up child sexual abuse by more than 300 priests over a period of 70 years, persuading victims not to report the abuse and law enforcement not to investigate it, according to a searing report issued by a grand jury on Tuesday.

The report, which covered six of the state’s eight Catholic dioceses and found more than 1,000 identifiable victims, is the broadest examination yet by a government agency in the United States of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The report said there are likely thousands more victims whose records were lost or who were too afraid to come forward.”

Some priests were reported to have committed acts on children as young as 18 months. One apparently raped a little girl while she was in the hospital recovering from a tonsillectomy.

Putting aside the philosophical question of how a man who has committed himself to serving God can reconcile such behavior with his faith, the question remains how does any person not act in the face of such behavior to prevent it? While we can argue that child abusers must be psychologically disturbed, what excuse do their superiors have—men who don’t abuse children yet cover up for those that do?

The recent HBO film “Paterno” addresses this question directly. Joe Paterno, the beloved and phenomenally successful coach of the Penn State University football team, is portrayed as having been told early on about his assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, who repeatedly abused young boys. Eyewitnesses, reliable sources, reported they had seen lewd acts occurring in the gym showers. This is a step above most reports, in which it is usually the victim’s word against the abuser’s.

The film portrays Paterno as deeply troubled by the allegations, and yet it accurately portrays the way those that “know” manage to compartmentalize, forget, and deny such accusations. They literally can’t deal with this information, so they don’t. In Paterno’s case, his life is all about the game. Information that doesn’t pertain to winning was irrelevant.

But it is more than that. Human beings have natural defenses against “seeing and knowing” things that are too hard to digest. Horrific knowledge that is outside our realm of experience and that is threatening to our vision of a safe reality is often repressed or at least suppressed. People differ in the way they use defenses, of course. Some are sensitized to danger, and see it lurking around every corner. But that is a very hard way to live, and most of us adapt to the uncertainty of the daily dangers we face (car accidents, terrorists, mortal illness, etc.) by putting it out of our minds.

Paterno (beautifully played by Al Pacino) is portrayed as a sympathetic character but the film does not let him off the hook. Neither did Penn State, and though he died shortly after the scandal blew up, his legacy has been significantly tarnished.

When looking at these events we have to ask ourselves, how do we assign blame, decide punishment, and most important, prevent this kind of abuse? Do we become endlessly vigilant, taking the stance that everyone has the potential for such behavior? Do we throw all abusers in jail, perhaps even castrate them, as has been known to happen, and some people recommend?

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