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Why We Fail to Confront Sexual Abuse


Why is it so difficult to speak up, and why do so many prefer to keep quiet?

streep2 In the riveting 2008 film Doubt, Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius, who is convinced — but without proof — that a local priest is molesting a young boy. She seeks the aid of her fellow sisters in her attempt to build a case against the priest. One of the younger sisters confesses that she doesn't like to harbour suspicions about people as it makes her feel distant from God.

"When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God, but in His service," Sister Aloysius replies. 

That's not right. To confront evil, to address wrongdoing, is not to step away from God at all. It requires the virtues of wisdom and courage, strengthened by grace. To confront evil is a holy thing. Yet Sister Aloysius was on to something, for even though confronting evil is a holy thing, it frequently does not feel the same as doing other holy things, such as worshipping God, visiting the imprisoned or delivering hampers to the hungry. 

All of which is relevant to the sexual abuse scandal that broke at Pennsylvania State University last November. A grand jury report alleged that in 2002 Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State assistant football coach (he retired in 1998 but still had access to the football facilities), was seen sexually abusing a young boy in the football team's showers. The graduate assistant who saw the incident reported it to Joe Paterno, the head coach, who in turn reported it to his superiors in the athletic department. They did not report it to the police and simply told Sandusky not to come around the football facility anymore. The scandal shook one of college football's most storied programs, and Coach Paterno, the greatest coach in the history of American college football, was fired. Though he was compliant with the law, Paterno admitted that he wished he had done more to stop Sandusky. Paterno died on January 22, 2012, after a battle with lung cancer.

College football occupies a unique and powerful place in American culture. So the eruption of a sexual abuse scandal in the midst of its most noble program — "success with honor" is the football motto at Penn State — under its most widely respected and winningest coach, brought the matter of child sexual abuse to the fore, posing the dramatic question again: Why didn't those who knew do more to stop it? 

There was much commentary about how powerful men don't hold each other to account. Jonathan Kay in the National Post wrote that whether it is Dominique Strauss-Kahn's reputation for taking sexual liberties or Catholic bishops shifting abusive priests or Penn State, the failures stem from "an inhuman mentality that privileges an institution's prestige over the sanctity of young lives."

We have seen that institutional behaviour often enough. Other great pillars of American culture will soon be awash in their own scandals. In the same month as the Penn State affair, news reports drew attention to the "rape epidemic" in the American military and widespread pedophilia in Hollywood. Yet it is not only an institutional problem, even if institutions are often at fault. Sexual abuse usually takes place much closer to home. 

"According to a 1998 study on child sexual abuse by Boston University Medical School, one in six boys in America will be abused by age 16. For girls, it's one in four by the age of 14," writes ESPN's Rick Reilly, one of America's leading sportswriters. "Those 'If you see something, say something' billboards shouldn't just be about terrorism. They may apply to sex abuse, too. Doesn't matter if it's your uncle, your longtime assistant coach or your buddy. You HAVE to say something. And yet, precious few people have the guts to say anything at all."

"...Doesn't matter if it's your uncle, your longtime assistant coach or your buddy. You HAVE to say something.  And yet, precious few people have the guts to say anything at all."

Here we arrive at the heart of the crisis of failed response to sexual abuse, whether in the family, schools, sports, the church, the military, prisons or any other sphere of society. Why is it so difficult to speak up, and why do so many prefer to keep quiet?  There is a false idea that reporting sexual abuse to the authorities — usually the police or child welfare agencies — is something of a magic bullet. A call is made, and the monster is slayed. That is not the case. In the Sandusky case at Penn State, a mother had complained about him in 1998 when he was still an assistant coach. There was a police investigation but no charges were brought. Law enforcement was alerted to Sandusky in 1998, and charges were laid in 2011. Given the complexity and lack of evidence in many sexual abuse cases, law enforcement fails to stop predators. Yet even if law enforcement were always successful, the decision to say something, to report the matter, to call in the authorities, is never the end of the issue. For many it is the beginning, as the circle of those involved expands beyond the abuser and the victims to include relatives, colleagues and friends.

The emphasis on reporting, on training, on creating safe environments is laudable. Yet it can make sexual abuse seem like another health and safety issue, or a matter of employment screening. That's the wrong category, and because it is the wrong category it does not explain why there has been such widespread failure to deal with sexual abuse. It is not principally a failure of policies and procedures. It is a matter of evil in our midst. Our cultural capacity to speak of good and evil has been attenuated, so the reality of the latter, and its paralyzing effect upon people who face it, has been largely missing from the various iterations of this crisis.

Evil is destructive. Philosophically speaking, it is the absence of a good that ought to exist. We experience it somewhat differently though, not so much as an absence of good but as a seemingly substantive reality that destroys the good that does exist. Natural evils, like disease, destroy the balance and harmony of a healthy body. Moral evils destroy that which they oppose, as lies destroy truthfulness and integrity. Lust destroys the love, reducing the other from a subject of care to an object of use. Sexual abuse is a grave evil that has great destructive power — it destroys innocence, the ability to trust, the capacity to love, and the simple peace and tranquillity that we otherwise take for granted.

Confronting a great destructive power is dangerous, like fighting a fire or attempting to contain a flood. There is a real danger that the evil, once acknowledged and engaged, may wreak more destruction. And so many choose not to confront it, but somehow to seek an uneasy accommodation with it, even to ignore it altogether.

I don't know what Joe Paterno thought in 2002, but it surely would have occurred to him that if Jerry Sandusky was fully confronted, many things would be destroyed — friendships, reputations, confidence in the football program. The ongoing destruction of the abuse itself remains hidden, and thus overlooked. The pattern is repeated in families. Confronting the evil of abuse will usually mean an estrangement of family relationships, even a permanent sundering of the family itself.

None of which excuses leaving evil alone; it does not justify turning away from the plight of the vulnerable ones who need help. It simply helps to understand why the problem is so widespread, and why a profound change in culture is required to enable people — both victims and observers — to summon forth the courage to confront evil.

None of which excuses leaving evil alone; it does not justify turning away from the plight of the vulnerable ones who need help. It simply helps to understand why the problem is so widespread, and why a profound change in culture is required to enable people — both victims and observers — to summon forth the courage to confront evil.

The most unforgettable scene in Doubt — with two superlative actresses delivering performances of rare power — portrays a meeting between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Miller, played by Viola Davis. Mrs. Miller's son is the one Sister Aloysius suspects the priest of molesting, and she is seeking Mrs. Miller's support in moving against the priest. She is astonished when Mrs. Miller, even granting that something untoward may be happening, wants nothing to do with it. Mrs. Miller knows her son's future is fragile, and if he can just graduate and get into a good high school, something better might be in store for him. All of that might be destroyed by a messy scandal. Her judgment is that suffering for a little while now is better than destroying the possibility of a better future forever. Sister Aloysius is horrified, but Mrs. Miller is quietly determined. She knows the great destructive power of the evil that Sister Aloysius suspects might be going on, and wants nothing to do with it.

"What kind of mother are you?" demands Sister Aloysius. The audience knows that Mrs. Miller is a mother caught between many forces, including an abusive husband, and is simply trying to find a way forward that leaves her son's future intact. Confronting sexual abuse in the family, on a team, in a parish, leaves nothing intact. That is the point after all, for what was prevailing needs to be challenged, stopped and punished. Yet the innocent suffer along with the guilty, as what was once whole now lies shattered. Is it not plausible for someone, amidst the shattered pieces of lives exposed, to conclude that he has stepped away from what is good, what is noble, what is right? Even from God Himself ?

In the Catholic sexual abuse scandals, no one has been a louder voice than David Clohessy, national director of the Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). He has blasted clergy for more than 20 years for not reporting what they knew. His is a tragic case, as he and his brothers were victims of a priest predator while growing up in St. Louis, Mo. One of Clohessy's brothers became a priest himself and, in time, an abuser, too. Clohessy knew about it and did nothing, even after he was an activist on other similar cases. It was his brother after all, and if he turned his own brother in, what would be destroyed? Many blast Clohessy as a hypocrite. Fair enough, but his own case demonstrates that confronting evil — even for those professionally engaged in doing so — exacts a price, and a price sometimes too steep for most to pay.

Closer to home, there is the case of Theoren Fleury. In the days and weeks after Penn State, much was heard from the former NHL star. In junior hockey, Fleury had been sexually abused by Graham James, his coach. Fleury detailed in his autobiography the destructive power of that evil, leading him to a life of tormented rage, alcoholism and promiscuity. Yet the charge of hypocrite was levelled at Fleury by Montreal Gazette columnist Pat Hickey. When the first allegations were made about James in 1996 by another NHL player, Sheldon Kennedy, Fleury said nothing.

To contend means at times to confront, to fight. It is not easy. What could be more difficult to do than that in the cause of justice and right?

"Nobody should question Fleury's decision to remain silent," wrote Hickey. "What should be questioned is Fleury's continuing role in James' life. At the time of Kennedy's revelations, James was the coach of the Calgary Hitmen. He was one of the coowners of the junior team in the Western Hockey League. One of the other owners was Theoren Fleury. Here was someone who had suffered abuse at the hands of Graham James. Here was someone who knew that James had abused other players. Here was someone who was exposing other children to the same sexual predator. Fleury has been through enough counselling to know there's a word for someone who acts in this fashion — enabler."

Considerable outrage followed, not least from Fleury, that Hickey would accuse him, a victim, of being an enabler. It was an indelicate point, but Hickey's question is an obvious one: How could a player who suffered sexual abuse co-own a team with the same man who abused him?

It's the same question asked in thousands upon thousands of families. How could a mother allow her daughter to be abused by her new husband and not say anything about it? How could a father turn a blind eye to his own children being abused by their uncle, his brother? It is not a defence of inaction in one case to point out that others also fail to act. Yet the enormity of the failures to act — which appears to be the more common response — should lead to a deeper appreciation of the perversity of the evil in our midst. We should be humbled by how easily we adjust to that evil, so that confronting it seems to be an act of disruption and discord.

It is possible that the horror at Penn State will lead to a culture change that makes it easier to confront evil, as ten years of sorrow and pain have done in the Catholic Church. A culture change is not so much a matter of policies being updated and reforms being implemented. It is a matter of a new vision and of greater courage. It is a matter of the spirit, and of grace. We know that our culture is in need of a renewal in regard of sexual morality, and perhaps the widespread scourge of sexual abuse may prompt movement in that direction. It is not to be taken for granted though, for evil remains destructive, and powerfully destructive at that. It may simply be that more of what is good and innocent and pure will simply be destroyed. In this we were warned from ancient times: "For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12).

To contend means at times to confront, to fight. It is not easy. What could be more difficult to do than that in the cause of justice and right? We can feel that we are stepping away from God. But we are not.

This is Meaghen Gonzalez, Editor of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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conviviumFather Raymond J. de Souza, "Stepping Up, Stepping Away." Convivium v 1, n 1 (March, 2012): 42-46.

Cardus (root: cardo) is a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture. Drawing on more than 2000 years of Christian social thought, we work to enrich and challenge public debate through research, events, and publications, for the common good.

The Cardus: Convivium project will be an authoritative voice for the role of religion in Canadian society through a magazine, public lectures, intellectual formation for young people, symposia and seminars connecting those who are strengthening faith in our common life. Visit Cardus: Convivium online here. Subscribe to Convivium here.

The Author

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the founding editor of Convivium magazine.

Copyright © 2012 Cardis

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