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 April 26 , 2010   •   VOL. 48, NO. 8   •   Oakland, CA

Now is the time to break the taboo of silence about sex abuse

These days, reports of sexual abuse in the past are big news. We talk about abuse of children as though it were a rare occurrence in our society. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Although there are no concrete statistics, counselors and others who work with families believe that by the time America’s children reach 18 years of age, one out of every four or five women and one out of every eight or nine men has been sexually molested in some way. Most of these experiences take place within the family or in social settings where children spend much of their lives.

To put the percentages into perspective, it is likely that on a professional sports team with a roster of 25 players, statistically three will have been sexually abused as children. And in a college classroom with 40 women students, 10 will have a history of sexual abuse.

Set this into the population figures for the United States and we are talking about well over 30 million women and 15 million men who were sexually abused as children.

Continued silence

If sex abuse is so common, why have we heard so little about it, except in the context of news reports? The number one reason is that people don’t want to talk about being abused. It is a closed door that few want to open because of the pain residing within. There is a silence concerning sexual abuse that amounts to a taboo. Today it is becoming safer to talk about a jailed or dead priest, but don’t mention Grandpa Joe.

First, there seems to have been a reluctance to call the police. So the parents who dared to do something about their child’s abuse made their reports within the abusing system itself, seeing it as some kind of family matter, the kind you take care of out of court. So they went to the pastor or to the school principal.

Unfortunately, in both church and school situations, the authorities also saw themselves as part of a family-like system, and often misread their responsibility to notify the law.

Reluctance to act

And I think it is unclear if, 50 years ago, they had reported it to the law that the district attorney would have accepted the report. It is likely it would have been sent back to the school or church. In any event, the lack of clarity or the reluctance to act seem to have been shared by both parents and authorities.

There is the real possibility that parents wanted an easier alternative than going to the law. It could be that they wanted to avoid the spotlight that a legal case would shine on their child.

And for parents who blew the whistle on the caretaker of their institutionalized or handicapped child, the consequences could have meant the child was back in their home even when they were unable to provide appropriate care.

For us Americans, the separation of church and state is an important value, one that Catholic practice supports completely. State and church are each valid societies with very different work to do.

Church purposes are spiritual and religious — to live and preach the faith we have received from Christ. The state’s role is to promote civil order and justice and to arrest and prosecute those who violate that order. The state does not have or preach religion and the church does not prosecute crimes.

At most, the Catholic Church disciplines offending clergy, stripping them of the right to serve as priests. Vatican courts are appellate courts, serving as appeals from religious decisions made on the diocesan level. But in neither level is there a system to prosecute crime. Crimes are referred to the state.

The Vatican made that very clear in its recent directive that bishops report allegations of clergy sex abuse to the police, something called for by the U.S. bishops in their 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

The protection of children against abuse is still a thorny issue. As a people, we are just coming to understand the importance of acknowledging the sexual abuse of kids, especially when it is close up — in our families, our schools, our Church. Of course, what makes the violation of a child by a Church official so heinous is that it is not only a crime of assault, but religious hypocrisy as well.

The taboo is still solid. It is time to open wide the door — to talk about the abuse that happened years ago that continues to wound its victims and to do everything we can to insure that today’s children are cared for, well and safely.

(Dominican Father David O’Rourke is parochial administrator of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Point Richmond and Defender of the Bond in the Marriage Tribunal of the Oakland Diocese. He is former pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Parish in Berkeley and former assistant director of the diocesan Family Life Office. He is the researcher and writer of “A Family Perspective in Church and Society” re-issued by the U.S. Catholic bishops in 1998.)


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