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Clerical Abuse: A Case Against Forgiving or Forgetting


Essay by Peter Pollard - Springfield, MA SNAP Leader

In the past year, thousands of adults who grew up in Catholic schools, parishes, and churches throughout the world, have stirred their memories and begun to disgorge a horrific litany of sexual exploitation at the hands of the clergy. But as horrible, as unforgivable, and as worthy of prosecution as each of the individual acts of sexual abuse or violence may be, the focus on these acts alone misses the point.

As a survivor of sexual abuse by a priest, I have watched with dismay as the scandal around the Church’s protection of its priests has devolved into arguments about gay priests, married priests, and celibacy. The crisis in the Roman Catholic Church is not about sexual desire. It is about abuse of power: rampant, arrogant, and systemic.

The perpetrators include the offending priests, the hierarchy that has protected them, and thousands of other priests who have turned a blind eye. Each has excused himself from the moral, ethical, and civil strictures of society in the name of protecting what they see as their greater calling. The result is a pervasive, calculated, and often sadistic betrayal of all who have expected safe haven in the church.

The fondling, masturbation, and rapes were the weapons. We victims have described those painful events in detail in media interviews, depositions, and criminal investigations. The touching of our bodies was despicable. But what has left so many of us still unwilling to forgive decades later is the simultaneous assault on our forming personalities. At a time in life when we were beginning to sort out who we would become as adults, these defining events added vulnerability, self-blame, shame, a deep mistrust in relationships, and a loss to faith in whatever strengths and weaknesses we already possessed.

It is that aspect of the assaults that consciously or unconsciously has informed all our behaviors, all our interactions with others, all our attitudes about the world ever since.

There are no criminal charges to be brought for those spiritual and emotional assaults. But the bishops and priests who knew, who saw us struggling and who ignored our plight, gave it their silent blessing. And the secret settlements and rotating assignments of abusers added the church's imprimatur to the abuse.

Many of us were told from a young age that these men were the ''representatives on earth,'' of an ''all knowing, all powerful'' God. We were awed by their attention. We imagined they could do no wrong. The abusers used their stature to gain the confidence of our parents and the trust of their intended victims. Then, often in the guise of affection, they wreaked havoc with our core selves.

Whatever the age of the victims, however much they did or did not protest, there can be nothing mutual, nothing consensual in a relationship in which the power balance is so skewed.

Just before Christmas in 1987, I went to a rectory in Salem, Massachusetts, to confront the priest who abused me when I was a child. That same day, I sent a letter to Cardinal Bernard Law asking that the priest never be allowed to be alone with a child again, that he get treatment, and that the church institute an outreach program to identify other victims. I also provided a detailed description of the abuse and the ways it affected me.

''I've come to recognize in recent months that this man's abuse has left a profound mark on me,'' I wrote the cardinal. ''I feel doubly scarred because he is a priest, a supposed representative of god; the person I was raised to view as the arbiter of morality.

''Because he chose to explain his abuse as a form of education, a favor, and because of the apparent ease with which he carried out his campaign, I'm convinced I was not his first victim, or his last. I am astounded to have learned that he was subsequently assigned as an administrator of a boys' school in the diocese.

''I'm appalled at the prospect of the damage he may have done in the 20 years I've remained silent.

''I have strong reason to believe others in the diocese have also been aware that this man has problems with sexual boundaries. I find it disgusting that he has been allowed to continue to be in the position of a trusted counselor for people in turmoil - that he has undoubtedly counseled children and adults trying to sort through issues of sexual abuse by others.

''I feel that he and those in the church who have chosen to tolerate this kind of abuse by members of the clergy have failed miserably in their responsibility to me and other victims. As individuals and as an organization, you have betrayed a sacred trust.''

In that 1987 letter to the Cardinal I told him that I'd also written another letter, to the priest who'd abused me, ''which expresses some of the rage, hurt and betrayal I feel, even now, 20 years later. Although the language used in parts of it may be viewed as offensive,'' I wrote the cardinal, ''I'm enclosing a copy in the hope that it will impress upon you the serious impact of what he did in the name of god. I include it also with the hope that it will stir someone in the church to face a severe and insidious problem and to take steps to prevent him and others from abusing their position of authority by victimizing another child.''

As we know now, no one in the church was stirred to action by my plea or those of countless others.

But as I reread the letters now, 16 years later, I wonder; how can this be? I have before me firsthand evidence that that cardinal has had sufficient testimony, just from me, to know the depth of the harm that was being caused. And yet each morning, for at least these 16 years, he woke up and chose to ignore it. By nightfall on many of those days, another child had been callously betrayed by a working priest.

Law, now acknowledging his mistakes and resigning his position in Boston, has portrayed himself as a father who shouldn't have turned his back on his family in a time of crisis.

What the Cardinal apparently doesn't realize is that any real father who had behaved so negligently would have had his children removed by the state long ago. And the staggering extent of the abuse he allowed would have all but guaranteed a speedy trial for termination of parental rights.

We've also seen much about the impact of negative publicity on the non-offending priests. They complain that their reputations and their good works have been tainted by the misdeeds of others, that they are now viewed with suspicion.

But what are we to think of those priests who maintain that they were unaware over the past 40 years of a problem so rampant that it involved so many of their brothers in a very small, insular fraternity? These crimes often occurred in the rectories and churches where they lived and worked with the abusers.

No doubt, these bishops and priests, including even the perpetrators, have done good deeds, performed services to their communities. But each day they too woke up and made a choice. They repeatedly prioritized those good works over their responsibility to protect the children entrusted to their ministry.

Where was the ''good shepherd''? What claim do they have to righteousness when they stood by and allowed the flock to be decimated?

We read again and again of the disbelieving parishioners rallying around each newly accused priest. Their earth has shifted. They are suddenly facing the same challenge to their sense of safety in the world that we had to manage as children. Their options are limited, as were ours - pretend it didn't happen or accept all the shattering implications inherent in recognizing that you've entrusted your soul to someone who has betrayed you.

To those who ask that we forgive and forget, please understand. The survivors, each of us in their own way, have spent our lives trying to move on, always weighing those two options. For some of us, suicide, substance abuse, or violence ended the struggle early.

To varying degrees, those of us who have survived have begun to heal. We reclaimed dreams, earned degrees, formed families, went to work, even sought solace in spiritual practice. But we cannot escape the effects of the betrayals that were committed against us in God's name. They are inexorably woven into the texture of who we have become.

That betrayal may not be a chargeable offense in a court of law. But there is no statute of limitation on its impact. And there should be no forgetting.

Peter Pollard

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