I read a couple news articles last night before bed. The news coming out of Pennsylvania, and the long-term, widespread sexual abuse of children and its cover ups by the hierarchy was sobering.
I experienced anger and disgust. When it comes to the abuse of children, I feel this is only appropriate. I hate that I even have to say that or justify feeling anger. But I know from experience that when it comes to every crime under the sun, people urge justice and encourage the victims to seek justice. Except sexual assault, that is. When it comes to the destruction of homes and property it goes without saying that of course the first thing one ought to do is to call the police and press charges. But when it comes to the holy temples of God that is our bodies, people urge forgiveness instead. “You can’t change the past,” they say. “You just have to get over it and get on with life.” “There’s no use bringing it up and ruining the abuser’s whole life because he made a mistake.” They forget that “bringing it up” doesn’t ruin lives; choosing to abuse and rape other people does. I’m not saying I don’t believe in forgiveness, I do. I believe in it whole-heartedly. But forgiveness doesn’t erase the need for justice and it doesn’t mean enabling a person to abuse again. Also, forgiveness is probably the last stage of the healing process, not the first.
Jesus’ most well-known instance of indignation was with the money-changers in the temple. He overturned tables and even made a whip out of cords to drive them out. He defended the dignity and worth of the temple vehemently, and time and time again Scripture tells us that our bodies are temples of God. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor 6:19) “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.” (1 Cor 3:16-17) So I always hear the Scripture story thinking that Jesus too feels great anger when thieves desecrate the holy ground of a person’s body and if we claim to be Christian, we ought to do the same. Our bodies are sacred. They are worth so much more than stone and they are worth passionately defending.
Of course I also feel sadness. As a survivor myself I know firsthand the devastation that sexual abuse causes. I know without a doubt that, despite the American culture saying that sex is no big deal and that sex can be casual, sex matters. What we do with our bodies and what others do to them matters. Our bodies — those holy temples — are sacred and our sexual parts are the most sacred. I’m positive they are closely linked to the very core of our being, of our personhood, and when a person chooses to sexually abuse another, the damage is catastrophic, life-long, and pervasive. I’m not saying a person can’t heal from sexual abuse; they can, but it takes a long time and they will never return to who they were before the abuse. Even healed, they will never stop living with its effects. I don’t think our culture as a whole understands how insidious and insipid abuse is, how it worms its way into every aspect of one’s life and changes everything. But it does, and until we as a culture and as a Church acknowledge that, we will forever give offenders a slap on the wrist and offer them more compassion than we do their victims.
Part of me also feels some sense of relief, because I see a lot of people getting angry, and I think, “Finally. Maybe we’ve finally acknowledged that sexual abuse is a big deal and its victims are worth getting angry about.” Indeed they are worth getting angry about. We should be very very angry at those who abuse children and those who enabled their abuse, and probably especially so clergy who represent and act in the person of Christ.
I used to be an Advocate for a Sexual Assault Resource Center. I was trained to answer the crisis hotline, to be a support person through medical examinations and evidence collection, during court proceedings, and police questioning or reporting. I’ve talked to tons of survivors of childhood sexual abuse whose families didn’t believe them. I’ve talked to some whose families did, but were so embarrassed by the shame that Uncle Joe’s or Grandpa Sam’s behaviors would bring to the family, they collectively chose to keep the abuse quiet.
I once remarked to a friend that people think honor killings don’t happen in the States, but they happen every time the body of a child is desecrated and the family chooses their own honor and good name over justice and healing for the victim.
I’ve seen mothers choose “not to ruin” the life of their friend’s son over seeking justice for their own daughter. Once I even saw an entire close-knit community choose compassion and support for the rapist over compassion and support for his victim who was also one of their own. In that case, it wasn’t even an issue of believing his word over hers, as he admitted to the deed, and in fact videotaped the assault. So even though everyone knew that, without any shadow of doubt, he abused the girl, the entire community expressed their support and “forgiveness” to him (even though they themselves weren’t the ones he assaulted). During the court hearing, his side of the court room was filled with his supporters. In contrast, the girl sat with her parents, and behind them a couple of advocates. Furthermore, outside the courtroom, she and her family were harassed so much that they ended up leaving town.
The tendency to side with the abuser over the victim is a thing, and it’s pretty prevalent. As a survivor, it’s something I have trouble understanding. Maybe it’s because people just don’t understand the destruction that sexual abuse causes. To us survivors though, it feels like we are being stripped of our humanity and dignity yet again, that our families and communities feel like we don’t really have any value and we aren’t worth defending.
So while I feel anger and sadness, I also form a question in my mind. Once we have demanded justice and the abusers and the enablers within the priesthood and the Catholic hierarchy have been appropriately dealt with, will we sit back in comfort and pretend that the problem has been dealt with? Or will we acknowledge the abuse that is ubiquitous in our society? Will we decide that other victims are worth defending too, and acknowledge that our own institutions and communities need repentance and reform as well?
As a Catholic, I don’t base my belief on fallible humans but on the doctrines of the Church that I believe with my whole mind and heart, but I will continue to be saddened, disappointed, and angered at the wolves in our midst. I will continue to pray for the many holy and faithful priests that have personally blessed me with their sacrificial witness to the love of Jesus Christ. I will be praying for healing for the Body of the Church who has been damaged — not by the report or by victims coming forward — but by the wrongdoing of abusers and enablers. I’ll be praying for the survivors. I’ll also be praying for the abusers because I believe that whenever we become aware of another person’s sin, that that is God’s way of asking for prayers for that person, and whenever a person sins against me I offer the very hurt they caused, all my anger, frustration, and feelings of betrayal and sadness as a prayer for them. It is what Christ did for us on the cross, offering the very suffering that we ourselves caused to win our salvation, and so we must do the same.