The Pennsylvania Dioceses: Saddened and Sickened But Not Surprised

This week the grand jury in Pennsylvania released a staggering 800 page indictment on the history of clergy sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. Read report here It includes all but two dioceses, which are the subject of other grand jury indictments.

I wish I could say I am surprised, but I am not.  I wish I could say I am not sickened, but I am.  I wish I could say I am not sad, but I am.  This is one of the sickest things I have ever read in my life. I have worked in the field of clergy sexual abuse for over twenty five years and dealt with over one thousand cases of abuse in just about every religious tradition, so I have some traction in the arena of what is sick.  This is beyond the pale.

The women and men of the grand jury are to be commended for their thoroughness, tenacity and courage to speak the truth.  They reviewed over a half million pages of documents tracing the history of clergy sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church of Pennsylvania.  They make it clear that there are many other cases that are not documented and many other priests who are not named.  Some of these survivors and abusers are lost to the history of collusion that is the hallmark of the Roman Catholic Church.

Sadly, the Roman Catholic Church is not the only religious institution with a history of collusion. I have worked in every major Protestant denomination, the major Jewish traditions, Buddhist communities, Muslim communities and more.  What religious traditions across the board share is a desire to avoid scandal, blame victims and shield clergy from being held accountable for their behavior. While there is some progress in some areas it is too little too late.  Institutional religion across traditions still has a huge problem and their progress in addressing it is glacial at best.

What differentiates the Roman Catholic Church from other religious communities is that victims in other traditions are often vulnerable adult women and men who seek out their clergy for advice, counsel and spiritual support. While there are children who are abused, the statistics suggest the preponderance of victims are abused as adults.

It confuses people because there is the assumption that two adults are, by definition, consenting.  What is not taken into account is that the pastor/priest/rabbi/imam has a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of the community members who seek them out for assistance.  True consent is contingent on both parties having relatively equal power and resources.  Clergy, by definition, have more power and resources than their congregants or their congregants would not seek them out for help.

Beyond that, there is a sacred duty to shield the vulnerabilities of community members and aid them in the development and growth of their faith.  This is true regardless of the religious tradition.  The role of clergy carries sacred trust.

Sadly, there is another similarity that saddens and sickens me: the collusion of religious institutions regardless of their faith tradition.  It is an embodiment of institutional evil at its most profound level.

The ones who are left with all the pain, confusion, shame and self-blame are the victim/survivors. The damage done to those abused by clergy cannot be overestimated.  The rates of suicide, alcoholism and substance abuse are astronomical.  They often have difficulty with intimate relationships, confusion about sexual identity and deep spiritual wounds, all of which are often suffered in silence.

That said, survivors of clergy sexual abuse are also some of the most faithful, courageous and tenacious women and men I have ever met.  As they do their healing work they will no longer be stonewalled by religious institutions or blamed for what was never their fault.   Whatever progress religious institutions have made in dealing with this crisis is thanks to survivors who have the courage to speak their truth.

When the Boston clergy sexual abuse crisis was unearthed in 2002 people believed it was the harbinger of grand reform and change in the church.  Sadly, that has not proved to be the case.  Institutional evil and collusion proved, once again, to be stronger and more pervasive.  Whether the crisis in Pennsylvania is a portent of change remains to be seen.  I wish I were more optimistic than I am. 

As long as religious institutions have career “politicians” who are climbing the ecclesiastical ladder, as long as there is a stronger energy for avoiding scandal, as long as there is deep faith crisis that puts everything ahead of justice for those who are injured, as long as institutional identity comes before the identity of being a faith community, nothing will change.  It is one thing institutions across religious traditions have in common with the Roman Catholic Church. 

Chipping away at these monolithic religious structures begins with listening to victims and not blaming them. It is high time religious institutions listened to the witness of those abused at the hands of their leaders.  If churches compensated victims to support their healing, rather than spending billions of dollars on lawyers, the church would be on the right track. It is high time religious leaders stop siding with abusive clergy at the expense of those who come forward to call institutions to accountability.  It is high time survivors received the thanks and gratitude of religious institutions for their willingness to speak truth to power and keep on speaking until someone listens. 


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