Come to the Water
Today’s generation may feel superiorly advanced after seeing vintage photos of passengers smoking on airplanes or doctors and nurses lighting up in hospitals. We can even appreciate the irony of the dubious 1940s ad slogan by the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company: “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” Moreover, we’re enlightened by revelations that tobacco companies made concerted efforts for decades to discredit scientific evidence about the risks of nicotine in order to protect their own assets and preserve a culture of smoking.
Likewise, we’re now painfully aware of more smoke and mirrors: the numerous revelations of sexual abuse of minors that occurred in the Church for decades and the deliberate efforts by some leaders to preserve a clerical culture and protect the institution from scandal and liability at all costs.
Why were we unenlightened for so long? What societal factors—in addition to realities within the Church—contributed to this predicament?
“Sex abuse of children is far from new,” notes Steven Mintz, past president of the Society of the History of Children and Youth (“Placing childhood sexual abuse in historical perspective,” 2012). “That the young were sexually abused was well known to nineteenth-century Americans,” but the reality that it is wrong and inflicts lasting trauma was recognized by an enlightened American society “slowly and unevenly.” While Mintz cites such examples as the 1953 landmark Alfred Kinsey study that indicated “fully a quarter of all girls under the age of fourteen reported that they had experienced some form of sexual abuse,” it wasn’t until 1974 that Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act mandating states to establish reporting requirements in suspected cases.
If our heightened awareness of underage victims was gradual, so also was our understanding of the perpetrators. “Offenders were regarded as mentally ill and treatable through psychotherapy. Their problem, purportedly, was that they lacked emotional and sexual maturity,” Mintz said. Consequently, Church leaders and their advisors mistakenly thought pedophile priests could be cured in treatment programs that addressed their emotional and sexual maturity, or lack thereof.
Mintz concludes: “Factors that allow sexual abuse to flourish include isolation and social disconnection, both of the abused and the abuser; emotionally needy and disempowered young people; a self-validating ideology that rationalizes abuse; institutional settings that shield individuals from public scrutiny; and institutions intent on protecting their reputation and safeguarding themselves from liability.”
The Church and society’s enlightenment about abuse is a necessary step in prevention, but awareness isn’t a panacea. After all, if enlightenment alone altered human behavior, smoking wouldn’t remain the single biggest cause of preventable disease and death in the US—despite solid evidence for more than fifty years of its damaging effects.
The Church has been assessing our failures to prevent them from recurring. Along with protections firmly in place in dioceses and religious communities, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is testing a pilot program for additional measures targeted for all dioceses in the country. The Church aims to wash itself clean of the institutional sin of child abuse. Incidentally, our baptismal “bath is called enlightenment,” according to St. Justin (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1216).
Let’s come to the water!