In recent years, the Catholic Church has come under great scrutiny in terms of the sexual abuse of minors. Painful though it has been, it has been salutary in many ways. That such abuse has occurred, even once, let alone with the frequency we have all discovered, is both tragic and scandalous. That the Church has been scrutinized, and called to account by many, has meant that an increasingly serious and comprehensive set of protective measures has been put in place to root out the sexual abuse of minors. This both helps to protect the young and purify the Church.
Consider the graph to the upper right and we shall see that the reports of this sinful and abusive behavior came rather suddenly on the scene in large numbers about 1960, and peaked in the early 1980s. I recall that, about that time (1985), in this Archdiocese we were rocked with some allegations that brought some very painful sins to light. Cardinal Hickey however, began a very through investigation of the problem, and was one of the bishops at that time who undertook a rather sweeping plan to ensure that young people were protected from this in the future. As a seminarian during those years I was expected to attend seminars that alerted us to the problem and we were all given extensive psychological testing and background checks to ensure we were free of any past sins and offenses in this matter, and free of any tendencies toward them.
As you can see by the graph above right, the number of reported incidents drops precipitously after the mid 1980s. While it is true that in 2002 the issue heated up in the news, the incidents that came to light at that time were largely from 20 to 30 years prior. The real anger at that time had more to do with the failure to discipline and remove abuser priests, a failure that had, or was still occurring, in certain dioceses. But in terms of actual incidences, you can see that the number has come dramatically down to its current level. Though not zero, which is the only acceptable number, we do see a remarkable drop. The graph at the left indicates a dramatic drop in the number of abuse cases by priests ordained after 1985. This too demonstrates that, by that time, most dioceses were very careful to do background checks and perform psychological testing that prevented abusers from entering the priesthood.
Hence, the painful period where sin in the Church has been laid bare has had the salutary effect of purifying the Church and, even more importantly, seeing that children are adequately protected from abuse.
So where do we go from here? How serious are we, as a society and a Country, about making sure that children everywhere are protected from sexual abuse? For if our concerns are really about the children, then we must come to see that the Catholic Church is not the only place children have sexually abused. And we must come to see that some non-church settings, children are still being abused in large numbers.
One of the most dangerous places for our children in terms of sexual abuse are the public schools. Consider clicking on this Google news search for stories about arrests for sexual abuse of minors allegations in the last month. You will see page after page of news items about teachers being arrested for sexually molesting the young people under their care. The search “teacher, student, sex, arrest” yields over 550 news reports (30+ Google pages). (Hat tip to Mark Gray for this Google information)
Note two observations of the media coverage of this. First, the stories are being covered. Hence it would be wrong to say the media is “ignoring” the story. Secondly, however, there seems to be no connecting of these stories. They are all considered to be individual cases, unconnected if you will. These stories tend to be framed as an individual teacher who is just “a bad apple.”
And this failure to connect these individual cases and see them as linked to an overall problem that must be addressed, endangers children.
When the abuse cases in the Church arose, they were seen collectively and it was proposed (rightly to some extent) that there was a problem in the Catholic Church, that something linked all these cases together in the wider culture of the Church. Some (incorrectly) blamed celibacy, others the culture of clerical exoneration, still others to the lack of oversight and discipline by the bishops, and “cover-ups.”
Problem in the Public Schools? But in considering these (very) numerous cases in the public school system, few in the media or elsewhere seem to be willing to propose that there is a problem in the public schools, that there is something that links these cases together. What exactly that problem is, is currently debatable. But the point is, who is demanding investigations? Who is demanding a systematic analysis of the public school system or insisting that further measures be instituted to protect children? Who is looking into the kinds of background checks that the schools perform before they hire teachers? Are there psychological tests to weed out potential abusers? Are there seminars for the teachers to help them recognize the signs of potential abuse taking place on their campuses? Are students taught about their rights and what to do in bad situations? Is there a climate of openness and concern that encourages students to report situations which make them feel uncomfortable, or when they feel they are receiving unwanted attention from a teacher or staff member? What are the procedures for dealing with credible allegations? Are public school systems properly vigilant in protecting children from predators?
Who is asking these questions and probing the “wider context” of the school systems in this country? Are we doing enough to protect our children? Apparently not. Look again at the Google link listed above. We are not dealing with a small problem here, it is widespread, and sadly, common.
Are we willing to take this issue of the sexual abuse of minors to the next level?
And while we are at it, are we willing to address the sexualization of children that takes place in our culture especially in ads, on sitcoms, in movies and music? Why do we tolerate TV shows that depict sexually active teenagers? Why is it so difficult for mothers to buy modest clothes for their daughters at most stores? Why do companies like Abercrombie and Fitch which advertise padded bras and swim tops for 8 year olds, and sell thongs to preteen girls, continue to make money? In short, why are we as a culture not more outraged at the sexualization of children and young teenagers? Sexualizing children and teens does not help protect them from predators who are already confused. If we are serious about protecting the young from sexual abuse, then we ought to stop having such a high tolerance for this sort of thing in our culture. We have discussed this previously on the blog HERE.
I realize that some who read this post will want to read it simply as a priest deflecting attention from the Church. I can and will deny this allegation and have stated clearly that I think the Church has received rebuke, properly. But frankly dear reader, my motivations in raising this are beside the point. The questions I raise remain valid, if we are going to be serious about protecting children. Is our concern really about children and, if so, are we collectively willing to take our concern about the sexual abuse of minors to the next level?
I am interested in your responses and observations.