In 1998 I started to run sexual abuse survivor groups at Klinic Community Health Centre in Winnipeg for men who had been abused as children. I ran these groups until 2001, when I returned to the academic world on a full-time basis. When I started these groups many people told me that they would not fill, not because there were not male survivors, but because men did not want to come forward. But they did come forward. From 1998 to 2001 I interviewed 250 men on an individual level, many of whom later came into group sessions, some of whom I saw for one-to-one counseling. Of these 250 men, I believe that three were abused by Catholic priests. This is the same number that were abused by hockey coaches, and many fewer than were abused by public school teachers and friends of family. Most were abused by family members. One of my clients told me about a school teacher who had abused him many years prior, twenty years or more earlier. My client said at the end of his unveiling to the group, so quietly you had to strain to hear: “he broke my heart.” It was all I could do to make it through the group session and then walk to my office after the session to cry and cry for him. Imagine my surprise the next day to read about this teacher in The National Post, a Canadian newspaper, and find out that this same teacher had been arrested for the sexual abuse of children two decades later. The only difference? He was still in the same Canadian province, but he was now a principal. He had not been fired, he had been promoted! What could anyone say about this horror? What my clients most wanted to hear was that someone was sorry. I said it to every client, “I am so sorry this happened to you.” Other members of the group said it, too, “I’m sorry.” They needed someone just to say it and to be with them. No could "solve" it, but we could stand with them.
All the information I have presented is only anecdotal, but it is based on encounters with 250 men over a three year period of time. What do my memories mean in light of the revelations of sexual abuse by priests in Ireland, Germany, and other countries, including again the USA? From my reading and research and from my encounters with sexually abused men this is what I know to be true:
1) Most priests are not abusers;
2) Most abusers are not priests;
3) Many abusers from the 1960s through the 80s were moved by their organizations from place to place;
4) Most abused children were never heard on the issue of abuse they suffered;
5) Most adult survivors need to hear from someone (preferably their abusers though it rarely happens) that they are sorry they were abused;
6) Sexual abuse survivors, male and female, are tired of denial and secrecy and of the shame it engenders.
In some ways the Church has been unfairly targeted – I wish the public schools faced half the scrutiny that the Church does because it would mean children are being protected from predators – but in other ways it is exactly what must happen because the sexual abuse of children by a few priests was worse than what happens anywhere else. Not because other forms of sexual abuse are less significant, or those children less wounded, but because the Church should always be a safe haven for children. Predators we will always have among us, but children and their parents deserved to know that the sin, when found, would be aggressively rooted out. Yes, it is the cover-up that matters, not just for the individuals who were abused, but for all of us. And do not tell me that a cover-up was the best information we had to act on. Listen to Jesus: "For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light" (Luke 8:17).
Jesus spoke so often of children in general and our need to protect them because he knew they are always vulnerable to the whims and sins of adults. I think it is possible that Jesus, when speaking of the protection of children in Mark 9:42 ("If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea”) was speaking precisely of sexual abuse. How many abused children feel safe in the Church which abused them? I think Paul when he warns against sexual sins involving males in 1 Corinthians 6:9 is specifically targeting men who abuse boys, though today it is translated as “male prostitutes” and “sodomites”. I would encourage anyone who is interested in reading more about this and my reasons for arguing as I do to contact me and I will send them my essay entitled “Do Not Sexually Abuse Children: The Language of Early Christian Sexual Ethics” published in a Mohr-Siebeck volume in 2009 titled Children in Late Ancient Christianity. (It is a very expensive book, so while I do not want to dissuade anyone from buying it, I would be happy to supply my article for free. Much of this material is also found in my book Let the Little Children Come to Me which is much more reasonably priced.) Even if some would argue that Jesus and Paul did not warn specifically against sexual abuse of children, Christians by the late 1st century-early 2nd century definitely were doing so and doing so vociferously, so vociferously I argue that they actually coined a new term in Greek to describe the sexual abuse of children: paidophthoreo, or “to destroy children sexually.”
The abuse of children is a betrayal of Jesus and his teachings and ancient Christians knew it. The desire to cover-up the abuse at an institutional level is a betrayal of Jesus and his teachings by the successors to the Apostles. As we approach Easter and Holy Thursday in particular, we can reflect on the fact that one of Jesus’ closest apostles, Judas, turned against him, betrayed him and, in his shame, unable to see that he could be forgiven, destroyed himself. Why does the Church not simply say to those who have been abused, the children of the Church, that they are sorry it has happened and begin to put into place structures that will not countenance secrecy, shame and denial? Why does the Church not plead for forgiveness? Why does the Church not cry for these children? Stop trying to excuse the behavior or blame others! That is what it sounds like. Bad reporting is bad reporting, and the Church has every right to expect the truth to be told, but think about a child betrayed by the Church, abused and hurt, and think what this child hears, even now when they have reached adulthood, when the Church can muster all its energy to defend itself against newspaper reporters, but once again leaves the abused hurt and alone. Just say you are sorry and start defending children. If you do not, the betrayal of Jesus is perpetuated again and again.
John W. Martens