Sexual Abuse by Clergy
This might sound like the start of a bad joke: What do a theologian (John Howard Yoder) and a comedian (Bill Cosby) have in common? More than you might imagine—and I’m not laughing. Both were major figures in their fields. Both were widely regarded and respected, even adored by many. Both were powerful men with a sense of entitlement. With impunity, both sexually abused scores of young women who trusted them for years. Both were shielded by their peers and colleagues from any meaningful accountability.
There are two important stories this week within the Orthodox Jewish community in the U.S. The first is the conviction of Nechemya Weberman, a Hasidic Jew in Brooklyn, for sexual abuse of a child who had the courage to come forward and report him.
I was encouraged in early December by your announcement that you are convening a Vatican Commission on Child Sexual Abuse to help you address the needs of victims and the structural changes that must take place in order to avoid repeating the past. This seemed like an appropriate Advent effort coinciding with the new church year and the nativity of Jesus. While this planned Vatican Commission falls somewhat short of the call by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, retired Bishop from Sydney, Australia, for a Vatican Council to address the child abuse tragedy (For Christ’s Sake: End Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church...for Good), it is a step in the right direction.
“One sexual predator in our midst is one too many,” said Morris Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention executive committee. “Sexual predators must be stopped. They must be on notice that Southern Baptists are not a harvest field for their devious deeds.” Good so far.
Dear Pope Francis: Did you really say this in a recent interview? In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Francis acknowledged the “profound” wounds abuse leaves, but then added: “The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution that has moved with transparency and responsibility. No one has done more. And yet the church is the only one that has been attacked.”
I do wish you had called me. Now you are in deep trouble. I see that human rights lawyers have filed a complaint against you with the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Dear Archbishop Gomez: Kudos for doing something. In response to the release of the personnel files on clergy sexual abusers in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, you actually did something about Cardinal Roger Mahoney and Bishop Thomas Curry who oversaw the years of silence, cover-up and non-response to the reports of sexual abuse of children by priests, though of course I wish you had done it earlier.
I realize that you are soon to retire as Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. I can only assume that you are exhausted from dealing with sexual abuse by priests in your diocese for so many years and from all of the subsequent scandals. I hope that you will have time to reflect on your role in addressing this longstanding problem of betrayal by your priests.
I realize it has been a bad week for you and the Vatican. First, the Belgian police raid the offices of the Belgian Council of Bishops and remove records of sexual abuse investigations. You condemn this action by the police, expressing concern for the confidentiality of victims’ records. With all due respect, is it really the victims’ records you are worried about or the accused priests’ records?
The Jesuits have settled a lawsuit brought by Alaska Native survivors for $50 million, the largest single settlement against a religious order. At least 110 children and youth were sexually abused from 1961 until 1987 in remote villages in Alaska by Roman Catholic priests.
I’m still waiting for your call, but in the meantime, I’m quite happy to provide you with a free consultation because it’s so important that you get this right. So let me suggest some fine tuning to your efforts this past week. Please pass this memo on to your PR people.
My friend Amy doesn’t do windows. Unless she happens to be working on a computer system using Microsoft. In that case, she’s an expert, on single PC’s or corporate systems. In the course of this work, with all the fast clicking often required to solve complicated, technological issues, she’s sometimes found herself accidentally running across a whole can of worms no ethical person would dare to ignore. Amy does do doors, if need be. Even if those doors open into places where others might fear to tread.
When national Protestant denominations meet, there is a lot of necessary but mundane business that goes on. But sometimes something very important occurs and it should be noted. This summer, I've received updates from two denominations that are explicitly addressing abuse by clergy at their national gatherings: The Presbyterian Church USA and the Unitarian Universalists.
This was the front page headline that greeted me Saturday morning in my local paper, The Seattle Times. The quote is from Clarita Vargas, 51, of Tacoma, WA, who was abused as a child at an Indian Boarding School run by the Jesuits on the Colville Reservation. She is referring to a settlement in which 500 adult survivors will receive $166.1 million from the Northwest Jesuit Order.
The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, was recently interviewed on 60 Minutes, discussing his efforts since becoming Archbishop to address the sexual abuse of children by priests.
This is the letter sent to the Seattle University community following the announcement in the press of a settlement of $166 million with over 500 survivors of sexual abuse by northwest Jesuits.
The story of Mohammad Abdullah Saleem of Elgin, IL, is not unlike that of a Catholic priest, a Protestant pastor, a Jewish rabbi, or a Buddhist teacher who has sexually molested a faithful follower. Over the past 30 years, we have heard from many survivors of abuse by a faith leader in all of these groups, but few Muslim survivors. It has simply been harder to break the silence in the Muslim community where any discussion of anything sexual remains largely taboo.
Dear Pope: It’s been a while since I wrote to you. Like many people around the world, I’ve been watching your tenure closely, particularly regarding the sexual abuse of children. I want to commend you for your move to establish a tribunal for holding bishops accountable for their actions to protect abusers and stonewall investigations or their inaction to protect children in response to sexual abuse by priests. I also commend you for actually listening to the Papal Commission you established in late 2013 to advise you on these matters.
Good news is hard to come by in the work to address sexual and domestic violence. But last week was a pretty good week.
In Queensland, Australia, the government has formally made restitution to individuals and families who suffered abuse as children in government- and church-sponsored institutions. It only took ten years.