Home > feminism, Life, religion > A Survivor Views the Catholic Abuse Scandal

A Survivor Views the Catholic Abuse Scandal

I want to tell you what I think of the Catholic Church’s child-abuse scandal, about which The New York Times recently published an editorial.

First, I have a confession. It’s not that I did anything wrong, but it’s hard to talk about. If I were writing this blog under my real name instead of a nom de plume, I would keep silent.

I am a child-abuse survivor.

I’m not alone. It’s estimated that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before age 18.

I call myself a survivor instead of a victim because I don’t let it define me. A crime was committed against me when I was five years old and I am over it now. Mostly. Maybe never completely. I don’t know.

It wasn’t a priest: thank goodness for that, at least. It was a family friend. A trusted friend. He came into my bedroom. At the age of five, I didn’t understand what I was seeing, though I now know that what I saw meant he was aroused.

Mercifully, I don’t remember anything of it after that point. The next thing I remember is talking to my parents about it the next morning. Sometimes, psychological trauma stops the formation of long-term memories. My brain blanked out the worst parts so that I wouldn’t have to deal with them.

My parents handled the crisis wisely. They did not panic or wig out. Actually, I’m sure that they did panic and wig out, but they never let me see that. They never showed the pain, fear, and rage that I’m sure they experienced.

They made certain that I knew I was not to blame for what had happened. I had not done anything wrong. I was not bad. The man who hurt me had a sickness that made him do bad things. He would be punished for hurting me. Doctors would try to cure his sickness so that he would not hurt anyone else. That’s all I ever knew about it afterward.

Catholics in Denial

Because of my own experience, I know how important it is to prevent child abuse.

I’m also a Catholic. I don’t believe that the church is always right, and it absolutely has not done enough to protect children from priests who are mentally and spiritually ill. But even though I know it’s a real problem, I have trouble believing in my heart that priests could do such terrible things.

And that heartfelt reluctance to believe in the problem is what I think led the church astray. I think that church officials were trying to do the right thing but ended up doing the wrong thing.

Donald Cozzens, in his book Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church, lists several forms of “denial” with which both church officials and Catholics meet accusations of priestly child abuse:

“There is no problem. It can’t be true.”

This is a comforting but completely unrealistic answer. It’s especially unrealistic in the light of human history and the Catholic doctrine of original sin, under which all people (including priests) have a dark side against which they must struggle.

“Abuse by priests may exist, but it is very rare.”

Even if it’s less common than some people believe, any child abuse is too much. That applies most of all to abuse by priests, who are supposed to be moral and spiritual leaders.

“The media distorts everything.”

Probably. Some people in the news media do seem anti-Christian and anti-Catholic. But that’s not an excuse. People in the news media can be as anti-Catholic as they like, but if their anti-Catholicism causes them to expose terrible crimes committed by priests, then they have done a favor for Catholics and for the church.

“The problem is no worse than in other religious groups or in the general population.”

Possibly. Again, it’s not an excuse.

“They wanted it — they liked it.”

This is the most offensive denial of all. It’s a variation of the excuse used by date rapists.

Even if there are cases in which a teenager has a “consensual” sexual relationship with a priest (leaving aside the facts that the teenager is a minor, the priest is an adult, and the power imbalance makes the teenager’s consent problematic), it’s still not an excuse. Priests have vowed to live by a higher standard.

Church Officials in Denial

The New York Times editorial takes Edward Egan, a bishop who later became a cardinal and archbishop of New York, as a fair example of church officials. It says that in his court depositions, Egan too is in denial. He:

“…betrays a distressing tendency to disbelieve accusers and to shuck off blame. He responds to accounts of abuse not with shame but skepticism, and exhibits the keen instinct for fraternal self-protection that reliably put shepherds ahead of the traumatized flock.

That might be a natural human reaction, but priests and church officials are held to a higher standard — and they should be.

Nobody Likes Due Process

One issue complicates the situation: due process. It’s something that we all know about, but tend to forget when we or our families are crime victims. It’s based on several facts:

  • The victims of a crime are not able to judge the case impartially.
  • Being accused of committing a crime does not automatically mean that the accused person is guilty of the crime.
  • We need a procedure to reliably determine the guilt or innocence of accused people — even when they are priests.

The church has always had very strict standards of evidence for proof of criminal guilt. In the middle ages, accused criminals sometimes committed blasphemy so that their cases could be transferred to church courts, where torture was not allowed and they would get every benefit of the doubt.

What I think has happened is that church officials instinctively want to believe that accused priests are innocent. For that reason, they have distorted the valid idea of due process to give accused priests much more than the benefit of the doubt.

Instead of suspending accused priests from their duties, which would hurt their careers, or defrocking repeat offenders, which would end their careers, some church officials transferred them to new parishes and hoped that counseling would heal their illness.

The Problem and the Price

Church officials failed to realize that the basic problem was not psychological or spiritual illness. Instead, it was the fact that some priests have been unable or unwilling to live up to the high standard that their vocation demands. Counseling will not cure that.

The price of church officials’ failure has been paid by abused children and their families, by Catholics in general, and by a loss of credibility for one of the world’s greatest moral and spiritual institutions.

Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.

  1. David
    December 10, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    You’re right. There is no excuse. The excuses listed above are all true, but for men who are supposed to live celebate, continent lives, and are supposed to be trusted with our children, there is no excuse. Cardinal Regali told his diocesan priests that the only thing they could do would be to live holy lives. That’s very true.

    I could go on about Vatican II and the Sexual Revolution’s part in all this, but it’s not relevant to what you’re saying.

    Priests need to be professionals dedicated to their work. Their work is 24/7. I think they’re getting a handle on it now, but I also know some lukewarm priests, most came from that mid-70’s era. John Paul II’s fruits are finally starting to ripen. Have faith.

    • Rinth de Shadley
      December 10, 2009 at 9:37 pm

      Hi David —

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. As you recommend, I do have faith. Even bad things happen for a reason. I hope that this terrible scandal makes the church better, though the price is very high. We just have to trust in God and hang on tight.

      • David
        December 10, 2009 at 10:03 pm

        Thanks for a good thoughtful article. And I’m sorry about what happened in your childhood, I hope your folks took action.

        It was a cancer in our Church (let’s not forget that our Church began with the betrayal of God), and you know what they do to cancer? At least the operable kind…they cut it out. My wife has 1/2 lung less because of a cancer, but she’s much better for it. Jesus said that the gates of hell would not prevail against His church, and so far, so good. I’ll trust him, thanks. And I’m very glad to see that you do, too.

  2. December 10, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    What I think has happened is that church officials instinctively want to believe that accused priests are innocent. For that reason, they have distorted the valid idea of due process to give accused priests much more than the benefit of the doubt.

    Instead of suspending accused priests from their duties, which would hurt their careers, or defrocking repeat offenders, which would end their careers, some church officials transferred them to new parishes and hoped that counseling would heal their illness.

    This is really the heart of the issue.

    Priests need accountability. In fact, everybody needs accountability, even though not everyone is in immediate danger of becoming a pedophile or rapist. Accountability is just good for everyone. No cover-ups. No denial. Just investigate and have proper consequences. You owe it to your congregation and just to humanity in general.

    • Rinth de Shadley
      December 10, 2009 at 11:27 pm

      Hi, Ubuntucat —

      Thanks for the excellent idea.

      You’re right: accountability is a big part of it. We are all accountable to God and to our consciences, but it helps know that we’re accountable to others in more immediate and material ways.

    • David
      December 11, 2009 at 12:40 am

      What they probably should have done is to put the offending priests in the monastery for a few years (or a life) of penance with some monks. At all costs, they should have removed the ‘temptation’ from the priest. It’s sorta like putting a kid in a candy store and telling him not to eat it. Defrocking them would have just put them into the general population. I guess after 2000 years, they figured they never had a problem with priests before, why should they have a problem now??? Actually, they did have problems before, they just dealt with them differently…

      To give the Church a little break, when the problem first arose, they asked ‘experts’ what to do, and the answer came back ‘counseling’. But this is the same thing they recommend for criminals in prison…Now, looking back, it wasn’t a good idea, but at the time…

  3. December 11, 2009 at 2:48 am

    Rinth, I’ve left the Catholic Church, so have no dog in the Vatican II fight anymore, but you might be interested in this article from America, the National Catholic Weekly. In particular, this:

    Myth: The abuse is a result of the seminary training after the Second Vatican Council (1963-65).
    Fact: Almost 70 percent of the abusive priests were ordained before 1970, after attending pre-Vatican II seminaries or seminaries that had had little time to adapt to the reforms of Vatican II.

    My own view is that one reason the problem has persisted for so long is that the church hierarchy is very jealous of its power and privileges, and the laity has very little power. If parents had been present when information was shared, and decisions made, about child abusers, there would have been very different results.

    • Rinth de Shadley
      December 11, 2009 at 4:15 am

      Hi, Sempringham!

      Thanks for the great article link! Vatican II was 27 years before I was born (I looked it up), so I don’t really have any opinions about it. As for the dog, I have a Golden, but he’s a Presbyterian. 🙂

      Each of us has a different mental picture of “the church hierarchy” based on the ones we know. I tend to think of church officials as being flawed, like all of us, but basically well-meaning. Of course, that doesn’t excuse them for failing to do their duty in the child-abuse scandal.

    • David
      December 16, 2009 at 8:35 pm

      These are the most important points from your article (to me):

      Myth: This problem is unique to the Catholic Church: Fact: The John Jay report notes that in the period 1992-2000, the number of substantiated sexual abuse cases in American society as a whole has been between 89,355 and 149,800 annually. At a minimum, this number for one year is eight times the total number of alleged abuses in the church over a period of 52 years.

      Myth: The abuse is still going on at the same rate. Fact: The number of alleged abuses increased in the 1960’s, peaked in the 70’s, declined in the 80’s and by the 90’s had returned to the levels of the 1950’s.

      The fact is that what we hear now, at least in this country, are the echoes of things past. The Church is much better now, and dealing with their issues more properly. Still, the Catholic Church is the biggest dog on the block and will be the biggest target. Jesus told us that, if we aren’t being persecuted, we’re not doing something right…

      • Rinth de Shadley
        December 16, 2009 at 9:00 pm

        Hi, David 🙂

        You make excellent points.

        It would surprise me if abuse were more common in the church than elsewhere. Any abuse in a Godly institution is too much, but I think we both suspect that anti-Catholic bias causes unique attention and blame to be focused on our church.

      • David
        December 16, 2009 at 11:52 pm

        I think the priests who did this stuff should be hung as an example, or thrown into the general prison population…but I think the same thing about anyone who does anything that ‘takes advantage of an innocent soul’.

        But let’s all get real. We need to understand where everyone is coming from. We all have a different point of view. We should understand, and work together to correct problems. It’s sorta like the ‘recession’ we’re in. It’s a recession if you’re still working, it’s a depression if you are unemployed. If you want to, come by and visit my blog…www.rootofjesse2.wordpress.com. If I don’t get back, Merry Christmas!

  4. acb123
    December 16, 2009 at 12:39 am


    Since you were kind enough to visit and comment on my 30pov post, I thought I’d reciprocate.

    This post caught my attention, as I am also a survivor of child abuse (I actually published a piece about this in an ezine called Empowerment4Women @ http://empowerment4women.com/arts/fiction_&_poetry/learning_to_forgive/). And I have many friends, both male and female, who were abused. I give thanks and praise to God that your parents handled the situation so well, loving and supporting you through the whole ordeal.


  5. Rinth de Shadley
    December 16, 2009 at 1:10 am

    Hi, ACB —

    Thanks for your kind words. You’re right, I was lucky, in the aftermath at least.

    Your article about your own experience made me so sad that you had to go through that. It sounds like you didn’t get the support that I did but you found the ability within yourself to move forward. At least you came through it a stronger and wiser person: I won’t say you came through it “all right,” because we both know that nobody comes through it “all right.”

  6. March 27, 2010 at 10:40 am

    Dear Rinth,
    Thank you for linking an important blog post to your SITS comment. I am a survivor of suicide. I also listed a serious post. Actually, I gave the blogger a choice of 3. ONe silly, One soulful, ONE serious. I also asked that if thy know someone who is suffering with mental distress to read the serious one.

    I’m going to ramble for a bit…hope that is okay.

    I was very turned off by the SITS thing at first. It’s a bit…flowery…for my taste. But I like the idea of women supporting other women and I’ve discovered great blogs via SITS so….I’m on board with the concept.

    My daughter was sexually molested by her GRANDFATHER when she was 7. She didn’t share this with her father or I until she was about 14 ~ it was not handled well. I applaud your parents for dealing with the situation correctly.

    I was also molested as a child, again at the age of 7. I had no memory of the crime until I was 30. I was watching an episode of Oprah, and I was rocking my new born baby girl in my arms (the same daughter that would later be molested). The show was about sexual preditors – the vision of what happened to me came back with such shocking force that I almost fell to the ground.

    I called my mother to tell her what I remembered – my step brother coming into my room at night with a red rubber ball….
    I’ll stop there.

    One of the risk factors for suicide is sexual abuse…. your post is important because it creates an open dialogue THANK YOU!!!

    I hope whereever you are that the sun is shining and that you are smiling 🙂

    Best, Shannon aka Green Monkey – Kerry’s MOM


    “So they will know that you lived. Lived and burned”

    • Rinth de Shadley
      March 27, 2010 at 12:37 pm

      Hi Shannon —

      Thanks for your kind words. I’m sorry that you and your daughter both had the same bad experience as I did. Having a family member commit suicide must have been even worse for you. But you are not alone. We are all here for each other. We go through life together, we share our joys and burdens, and we support each other.

      I found the SITS site a few days ago and really like it. I go to an all-women’s college, so the idea of women supporting each other is something I see every day. A lot of the SITS bloggers seem to be moms, and I’m not one yet, but I’m learning a lot from them.

      Have to go right now, but I will check in with your blog later this weekend!

  1. April 3, 2010 at 10:29 am

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