September 14, 2012:
I have written about a lot of different things in my career, everything from the art world to ROTC to ethics to sports to adventure, among many others subjects, and for many different magazines. But few of my friends know that for a while I was a contributing editor at Parenting Magazine and wrote about issues affecting children--their education, their upbringing, their moral training, whatever I was asked to do. Usually I was asked to write about the more serious subjects the magazine covered, and in 1990 they asked me to do a two-part series on child abuse: physical, emotional, and sexual. As part of my research I flew out to a center in California that treated the adult victims of child sexual abuse and interviewed a number of those victims at the offices of the center. They brought them in to me one by one, maybe five of them, and I sat with them for at least half an hour in each case, more in some.
It's hard to describe the impact these interviews had on me. These were adults, people in their thirties and forties, yet they were still suffering the effects of what had happened to them. One man in particular, whose own father had introduced him to sex, abusing him from the age of twelve to the age of sixteen, just broke my heart. They all broke my heart. After each interview I had to leave, walk outside for ten or fifteen minutes with a staff member, try to come down from the rage and sorrow these people's experiences left me with. This man, whom I called Phil, said that his father abused all his children, but only him sexually. When I talked to him he was in his thirties. He complied with it, he said, because he didn't know that all fathers didn't do that with their sons. He didn't begin to understand the impact it had on him until he went into therapy and discovered why he had been doing drugs for sixteen years, why he was so desperately unhappy, why his life was an absolute mess. "I've spent over $100,000 on drugs," he told me. "I don't trust people. It's cost me a few jobs because anybody in authority, I fear.... There's part of me that says I can't be attached to one person. I have a hard time understanding what love is, too." And here's the most ironic twist of all. His father, a military man, subsequently left the military and went back to school and became a therapist. Among his patients were people who had themselves been sexually abused as children. You can imagine how effective he was.
You don't forget stories like these, and I never have, and when the scandals about the Catholic Church and its attitude toward child sexual abusers among its priests broke, I took a particular interest in them. I had never been abused as a child, although my mother would spank my brother and me with a yardstick if we had done something unusually bad; but the yardstick almost invariably broke on our backsides, it stung more than it hurt, and neither of us ever thought we were being abused. We thought we were being punished, and we were. Pretty much always justifiably. But sexual abuse is something else entirely. All child abuse is bad and seriously damaging to the child, but sexual abuse is the worst. Children are not ready for sex. They don't understand it, it frightens them, it breaks boundaries they know instinctively exist but can't explain, and the shame associated with them is unbearable. It leads, as Phil explained, to fear, distrust, an inability to love, to a profoundly disturbed life. Priests are supposed to be, and are presented as, exemplars of trust, and trust is absolutely basic to the health of children. If they cannot trust they cannot thrive. The damage a priest could do to a child, I now knew, could be enormous and lifelong. And the response of the Church to these crimes was more than appalling. It was itself profoundly criminal.
And then the business at Penn State, in which a beloved coach, and the University authorities, did nothing to stop a sexual abuser in their midst.
None of this is news, of course, and that's not why I'm writing, to tell you something you don't know. Anyone with any depth of experience in the world knows that institutions will defend and protect their own at all costs, no matter what the price others must pay for their crimes. I saw it in the mental health system when I wrote my first book, saw how a profession rallied around one of its own even though the person in question was incompetent, to the point of monstrosity. But he was one of them. So with the priests. Priests, even a bishop, are beginning to be convicted for these crimes, which the Church treated as if they were minor sins. A few are in jail. But while they may be sins in the eyes of the Church, in the eyes of the world they are crimes, horrible crimes, as life-destroying as murder. And unforgiveable.
Why, then, am I writing? For Phil, and others like him. I got a firsthand glimpse of what child sexual abuse entails from him and those other people I talked to, and that's what's so often forgotten in the news surrounding scandals like these: the effects on the victims. Instead of protecting its priests, what the Catholic Church should be doing is trying to repair the damage, not just paying the victims off with money but repairing the damage, making the major reforms that are necessary to keep abusers out of the reach of children and taking the kind of look at themselves and what they stand for that they are still reluctant to take. There are many ways to destroy a life besides killing it. This is one of the worst, and this, these killing effects, is what should be the first consideration when we deal with an institution like the Church, or a university, or any organization that cares more for itself than the people it professes to serve. No institution should be allowed to be the judge of its own behavior.