Sunday, April 4, 2010

Threatened with Resurrection: The Testimony of Female Survivors, Reformation, and the Future of Catholicism

It was the women among Jesus’s disciples who remained with him at the cross, along with John. And so it is fitting that it was the women among his disciples who first recognized that he had risen.

And to follow up with more absolutely necessary testimony: one voice that is absolutely necessary for the church (and the public) to hear in the midst of the current revelations about the extent of the cover-up of clerical sexual abuse is that of females abused by priests.  This testimony is crucial because those doing spin-doctoring for the Vatican right now want to rehabilitate the gays-are-the-problem meme, which completely ignores the significant numbers of females abused by priests.  It is also necessary because there are strong suggestions that the voices of female survivors of abuse have not been sufficiently heard due to social stigmas women face when they report sexual molestation.

Survivors of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic church—who have more extensive knowledge of the real parameters of the crisis than most of us—have persistently countered the attempt of church officials and their defenders to spin the abuse crisis as a gay problem.  As the posting I uploaded yesterday summarizing what the John Jay team told the U.S. bishops at their November 2009 meeting notes, SNAP officers Barbara Blaine and Peter Isely issued a statement in response to the John Jay findings which notes,

1. Pedophile priests molest both boys and girls.

2. About half of SNAP’s members are women, and SNAP has documented a longstanding tendency of the criminal justice system to minimize sexual abuse of females by clergy.

3. The real issue that demands study—the real cause of the abuse crisis—is “complicit church officials,” and the culture of secrecy in which cardinals, bishops, priests, nuns, and other church employee have ignored or concealed crimes of child sexual abuse.

This statement is consistent with others that SNAP officials have issued in the past when church officials and their apologists have tried the gays-are-the-problem tactic to divert attention from their responsibility for the abuse crisis.  For instance, when Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s U.N. observer, told the U.N. on 28 Sept. 2009 that the abuse crisis is really all about gay priests abusing adolescent boys and the problem is no greater in the Catholic church than in non-Catholic communities of faith, Barbara Dorris of SNAP responded with the following statement:

In a long series of deceptive and callous statements from top Catholic officials about the church's on-going clergy sex abuse and cover up crisis, this is one of the most pathetic and disturbing.

Parsing words, splitting hairs, pointing fingers, shifting blame - these are the actions of desperate politicians, not professed spiritual figures. These are self-serving public relations maneuvers that rub even more salt into the already deep and still fresh wounds of suffering adults and do nothing to protect the vulnerable.

When the Vatican decided to deflect attention from the responsibility of church leaders for the abuse crisis by targeting gay seminarians and gay priests, SNAP officials Ann Hagan Webb, Barbara Blaine, and Kathleen M. Dwyer issued press statements on 2 December 2005 noting the following: 

1. It is a “myth” to say that girls have not been victims of clerical sexual abuse. 

2. Statistics claiming that 80%-90% of victims are boys do not adequately account for the fact that half of SNAP’s members are women.

3. The community of survivors and therapists have strong reason to believe that many adult women are afraid to speak out about abuse they endured as children at the hands of Catholic clergy.  

4. The orientation of clergy abusing children is a red herring and a non-issue.

5.  The data claiming that 80% of the victims of abusive clergy are male are based on a very flawed self-survey of bishops themselves.  If this 80% figure is correct, it may reflect greater access to boys rather than girls by priests, and not greater homosexuality among predators.

6. SNAP has reason to believe that a disproportionate percentage of male victims report the crimes and are believed.

7. The Catholic hierarchy “wants desperately to make invisible” female victims of clerical sexual abuse.  (This is Dwyer’s statement; she was repeatedly abused by a priest and two Knights of Columbus when she was aged 5-8).

8.  The hierarchy are using (and promoting) the blame-the-gays tactic to divert attention from their own responsibility for the abuse situation and its cover-up.

The preceding analysis is consistent with the analysis of SNAP’s national director David Clohessy on 4 March 2002, when he told  Boston Globe reporter Michael Paulson this:

The fact that there seem to be a disproportionately higher number of gays in the priesthood - I don't think it has a direct relevance to the pedophilia problem. The relevance of gay priests is somewhat like the relevance of celibacy in that both contribute to a culture of secrecy and that culture enables abuse to go undetected. But celibacy doesn't make one molest kids, and neither does one's sexual orientation.

Clear, unambiguous testimony by survivors of abuse for almost two decades now has called the bluff of Catholic officials and their apologists when they have repeatedly tried the blame-the-gays tactic.  And that makes the current attempt to revive this deceptive explanatory trope not merely curious but downright ugly—since it signals that even now, faced with a massive institutional crisis pointing right to the Vatican itself, many Catholics still don’t get it.

They still don’t get the need to listen first and foremost to the voices of survivors.  That is the only way forward with this crisis.  It is the only way to salvation. 

Bill Donohue cannot save the church.  Neither Donohue nor his deep-pocket funders represent the future of the church, no matter how unmitigated their gall as they try once again to derail a necessary conversation—in which the voices of survivors have to count first and foremost, if there is to be a viable way forward.  The centrist Catholic journalists who find endless ways to parse the false, malicious statements of their brothers and sisters on the right while marginalizing their brothers and sisters on the left will also not save the church.  They have lost what shreds of credibility they formerly had by their continued complicity in the cover-up following the most recent revelations.

For those interested in hearing necessary, salvific voices in the midst of the current crisis —in particular, the voices of women made invisible by the spin doctoring that seeks falsely to blame gay priests for the crisis—I recommend Andrew Sullivan’s recent “What About the Girls?” series (here, here, and here).

The series begins with June Thomas asking at Slate if young women have been left out of the abuse story, and if so, what agenda is driving their absence.  It moves on to the testimony of a reader with inside information about abuse cases in Massachusetts, who notes that plenty of females have been abused, though statistics suggest that the majority of those abused have been males.  This reader also notes that the pattern of priests preying on males seems to have been different than that of those preying on females: those targeting boys tend, the reader thinks, to be serial rapists, whereas those targeting girls tend to focus exclusively on a single girl.

The series concludes (thus far) with a reader who notes that she was molested by a priest when she was a young teen, and who observes,

No one is asking the question... what about the girls??? I am somewhat offended at this disregard by the media and other commentators, but glad to see you mention it on your blog.  I suspect if and when that door is pried open, a veritable abyss will open up as well.  Not every priest was attracted to young boys, many were attracted to young girls.

It is important that we hear this testimony, and important that church officials and their apologists stop trying to spin this deep institutional crisis as a gay problem.  That is, it’s important that we take these voices seriously if we want to move beyond apparently pastoral responses and cheap closure to authentically pastoral responses that face the real problems honestly and transparently.

Because this time around, the media and the scrutiny of millions of people of good will outside the church just might not let church officials and their apologists get away with the evil, adding-pain-to-pain old song and dance again.