Saturday, January 8, 2011

Princeton Grad Student Commits Suicide after Childhood Sexual Abuse: Implications for Catholic Discussions

The tragedy of Bill Zeller's suicide should sound a warning bell for all those apologists for the current Catholic hierarchy who want to attack the credibility of testimony by survivors of childhood clerical sexual abuse.  Survivors of such abuse have spent much of the last decade desperately trying to educate the Catholic community about the long-lasting, destructive effects of such abuse in the lives of those who have endured it.  Bill Zeller's suicide note illustrates the lifelong, soul-destroying pain with which many people sexually abused as children live.  It also underscores the damage that religious fundamentalists (like his own parents) do, when they put the needs of a religious institution above the needs of children abused by pastoral figures in that institution.

The ongoing attempt of apologists for the Catholic hierarchy to insinuate that most of those reporting such abuse within the Catholic context are lying in order to win lucrative lawsuits, and/or have a malicious intent to destroy the church, is obscene.  It's evil.  It needs to stop.

As Bishop Geoffrey Robinson notes, the entire Catholic church owes a tremendous debt to survivors of childhood clerical sexual abuse who have had the courage to speak out and to demand justice.  Robinson says that listening to victims of clerical sexual abuse is the most profound spiritual gift he has received in the last 25 years, and observes, “If a better church one day emerges from this crisis, it is they alone who must take the credit for creating it” (Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus [Dublin: Columba, 2007], p. 225).

It hurts in the extreme to read Zeller's soul-searching last testament.  It does so even more to read it in the context of movements within my own church to undercut the value of the testimony of survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and to assist the hierarchy in creating a screen around the actions of pastoral leaders who have not responded to this situation with any pastoral intent at all. 

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