Richard Sipe is one of the wisest and most courageous men I know. A former Benedictine monk and priest, he is now a writer who for nearly 30 years has been recognized as perhaps the world’s leading expert on the clergy sex abuse problem in the Catholic Church. For decades he was also a mental health professional who worked with hundreds of abuse survivors. You can read more about Richard’s work at www.richardsipe.com . I thought readers would be interested in his reflections from a Christian perspective, on the idea of “powerlessness” in the context of child abuse.
Here are his thoughts:
In 1988 I met three people who were concerned about those being sexually abused by Catholic priests: Jeanne Miller had gained some national notice when she wrote a book about her son’s abuse by their pastor. She used a pen name and disguised her real identity when she appeared on national television. Despite that she was driven from her parish that treated her as a traitor for speaking about the abuse.
She organized a group that in 1992 sponsored the first national meeting dedicated to the concerns of victims and survivors of clergy abuse. Three hundred people attended. Among the speakers were Fr. Thomas Doyle a canon lawyer who remains an outspoken advocate for abuse victims and Jeff Anderson a civil lawyer who continues to lead the assault on clergy abuse throughout the world..
With their inspiration and the support of many survivors and advocates another national meeting to discuss clergy sexual abuse assembled in 1994. One bishop attended the meeting and wept openly when he listened to victims reporting their abuse in public.
The lasting contribution of these people was to give voice to the afflicted and to encourage them to declare themselves publicly in an organized way.
Barbara Blaine and Dave Clohessy are two other people I met during the same time frame. Their challenge to advocacy was purchased at an even higher price. They were the immediate victims of sexual betrayal by priests. They had to fight the battle of survival and have always been primarily dedicated to the healing process, one victim at a time. They have become a clear voice for thousands.
Their power has come from that personal and individual fight for truth telling. They have supported and inspired thousands of other victims to pool their experience, and declare the truth of clergy abuse and join the ranks of survivors. The fight for truth helps to prevent future abuse, but that battle is not easy. There is always a price to pay. The forces against truth are formidable.
What are the religious forces that oppose truth? Why have religious leaders put up such daunting resistance to the reality that some clergy who should protect children and the vulnerable do in fact, violate them?
In my 78 years of life I have never heard one sermon preached on a particular passage from scripture. Recently I have come to think that the neglect is purposeful. The words are not directed to the apostles or to the followers of Jesus. These are some of the few words addressed specifically to men holding religious and institutional power. All of us have heard them. Don’t they still have meaning here and now?
Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees,
Hypocrites. You are just like white washed sepulchers.
On the outside you look beautiful,
But on the inside you are full of decay
Dead men’s bones and corruption. (Matt 23:27)
None of the gospels say anything about the sexuality of Jesus; they do tell us that he was poor—not a place to lay his head; and that he had no worldly power—he willingly rendered to Cesar material power. He was powerless.
I do not hear these words of Jesus to religious leaders as oppositional, a play for power, or as words of anger. St. Augustine assures us that “Anger is the beginning of courage” and survivors of abuse have to use their inevitable anger. But at the time Jesus was delivering this diatribe he was beyond anger. Neither anger nor defiance was his point. He was instructing his disciples in a lesson that they would need to know well—not to fear the powerful people; to trust the power of truth, even harsh, demoralizing truth spoken by the powerless. “Fear not to speak the truth.” (“Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known…be not afraid.” Matt 10: 26-27)
Christ knew what he would have to suffer for telling the truth. It is true now, and always has been, that those who speak truth to power will suffer for it. You can be sure of that.
With Jesus’ words in mind reflect on what victims of clergy sexual abuse have suffered at the hands of priests, bishops, their lawyers, and accomplices in the process of cover-up, denial, delay, and deception in fighting the truth survivors have to tell.
Systemic religious power has amassed a formidable army in opposition against the simple truth of the story victims have to tell: some clergy are not chaste, some fail to practice the virtues they preach. The courage of survivors has forced some bishops to concede, albeit with great reluctance, the truths the vulnerable tell: there is corruption in high places. But religious powers still have not learned to embrace the truth. They still persist in minimizing the problem of sexual violence among their ranks.
Grand jury reports conducted in the United States give victims some consolation. They all lay the blame for the sexual crisis in the Catholic Church at the doorstep of power. Bishops discouraged victims from reporting abuse, conspired to conceal abuse, failed to report possible criminal offenses to appropriate authorities, and neglected to track allegations against priests,
But the full tragedy of clergy abuse is still unrefined. In 1983 11.4 percent of the priests active in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles were subsequently identified as sexual abusers. Seventy-five percent (75%) of all the LA parishes had at least one abusing priest on staff and 5 to 8 perpetrators served on the staff several parishes.
There is little evidence that bishops are even now listening to what documents are telling about abuse. Bishops have not listened, and are not listening to those concerned with the roots of the problem of clerical sex abuse.
Survivors of abuse have tried for decades to get religious power to listen to stories of violation and take remedial action. One concern was validation about the horrible truth of assault. Another drive is to insure that abusers would not abuse others.
Church authorities still have not really heard victims. They have learned to “deal” with complaints. They have increased their public relation efforts and skills. One reporter said that bishops have become, “more slick.” Why is the church spending all this time, money, and energy fighting the truth and resisting what abuse survivors have to teach them?
Some people have listened to survivors. Other victims have found the courage to come forward because of their example. Together survivors have mobilized—rather inspired—the media to speak up despite their own reasons to fear adverse pressure from the church. Victims have enlisted the help of courageous lawyers in the cause of prevention.
I have reviewed thousands of stories of clergy abuse. I have waded through several thousand depositions in abuse cases. I have some idea of the price victims have to pay to tell their stories to bishops’ lawyers who insult, accuse, discredit, and demean victims, re-abusing them through the process. In all my years, I have never met a more compromised group of men and women than the lawyers working for bishops who like Pilot wash their hands and take no responsibility for the ordeal they put victims through. They write off pastoral concerns as, “That’s what lawyers do.”
The recorded testimony of some of the bishops and cardinals patently avoids truth, and utilizes forgetfulness that verges on perjury. No intelligent person can miss the truth behind clergy denials and protestations of innocence and ignorance. Some footage of a Cardinal’s deposition is recorded in Amy Berg’s 2006 prizewinning documentary “Deliver Us From Evil.”
Many victims of clergy abuse are subjected to harrowing examinations. Church authorities and lawyers often demand proof that borders on voyeurism. “Where, how, when did he touch you? Details. Was it on the skin? How did you feel? Did you enjoy it?” Church powers demand details and specifics far beyond what any reasonable person needs to assess the validity of an allegation.
Victims of clergy violations are presumed villains. Even in apologies bishops fail to take responsibility for the causes of abuse and their part in cover-up and preferring image to honesty. “Psychiatrists” misled them. “Lawyers” gave them bad advice. They are sorry for “suffering” and apologize generically. But church authorities fail to take direct responsibility for their part in neglect, denials, deception, and delays in coming to terms with the problem of clergy sex.
Church authority still vigorously opposes the truth victims are telling. United States bishops are spending billions of dollars to fight the truth.
Why? Because they are the white washed sepulchers of this generation. That does not mean that churches do no good. But it does mean that when power fears and resists truth it becomes destructive.
Many related questions emerge from exploring the history and continued failure of bishops to deal honestly and proactively about the problem of sexual abuse.
The crisis of clergy abuse poses questions for every Christian.
Power—fame, status, force, money—is so universally admired and sought after in society today it is easy for a person to forget the power of powerlessness—Christ’s message. Religious power confronts everyone with valid questions:
Have I trusted in the power of others rather than the truth in myself?
What leads a person to trust and even defend a priest who abuses?
Why is it forbidden to think that a priest would be sexual and abusive?
Is it because power protects even thoughts about a priest?
He deserves the highest respect because he represents God.
Do we believe he is sexually safe; he gives up all sex to serve God?
We all want the safety we think exists in the strong, rich and powerful.
What part do we play in allowing the sexual crisis to come about?
How does it persist when bishops knew all along that some priests do sexually abuse vulnerable congregants?
Why do bishops continue to spend your resources to deny that truth?
Why do we support them?
Are we afraid of Truth?
Can we embrace our powerlessness, as Jesus did neither fearing nor cowering before riches, fame, and power?
What can we learn from how bishops handled the abuse crisis?
Have we played a part in secrecy, resistance, continuing denial and tolerance for abuse?
Are we too eager to think the crisis is over?
Do we want to return to business as usual rather than work for sexual reform?
The systemic roots of clergy abuse have not been eradicated.
Reform will come not from power, but from truth.
That is the power of Christian powerlessness.