After three years of a Grand Jury investigation, a 423-paged report issued Sept. 21 revealed the negligence of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in handling sexual abuse allegations against members of its clergy for decades.
The details have made national and local news reports, the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer and entries on every web log. There is no doubt the perpetrated abuses are revolting; but the limited media surveillance has branded the issue as a religious ill when it clearly embodies a larger societal crime that demands immediate attention.
Disproportionate media coverage has misled the public into thinking Catholic priests are the primary perpetrators of pedophilia and other sexual assault crimes. What is distinctly absent in the media is a discussion of clergy abuses in other denominations or other high-risk professions, informative statistics regarding reported cases and remedial proposals for an improved relationship between law enforcement and the community.
“We would be naive and dishonest if we were to say this is a Roman Catholic problem and has nothing to do with us because we have married and female priests in our church,” said the Rev. William Persell, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, in a 2002 Good Friday sermon. “Sin and abusive behavior know no ecclesial or other boundaries.”
One study released by the Rev. Ronald Barton and the Rev. Karen Lebaczg from The Center for Ethics and Social Policy in Berkley, Calif., found that a quarter of all clergy have engaged in sexual misconduct. Unlike Catholic scandals, however, very few reports of Baptist or Lutheran or Methodist ministerial offenses make the front page. Sometimes it is unclear whether what is under attack is the crime itself or the Catholic Church.
The important thing to publicize is that child molesters gravitate toward authority positions which are dually capable of disguising their behavior and giving them easy accessibility to children. Offenders volunteer to supervise children’s sports or club activities. They have respectable standing within their community and are in positions of authority over children. They could be clergy members, but they could just as easily be teachers, doctors, police officers and coaches. Minimizing their territory is dangerous for all prospective victims.
Child molestation is a grave epidemic affecting all Americans. The U.S. department of Justice reported 4 million or more child molesters reside in this country. Even more frightening, according to Childhelp USA-Treatment and Prevention of Child Abuse, one in every three girls and one in seven boys will be molested before the age of 18, with almost half of all sexual offenders under 18 themselves. These stand as facts, independent of the gratuitous exploitation that is purposefully made for our consumption.
If the media were truly trying to service the public, they would report all statistics and all offenses with equal aggressiveness. They would expose the gross injustice of unpunished offenders who slide underneath statutes of limitations and other gaps in state law. They would site incidences of federal bureaucracy and poor communication between parochial and public officials. All of these things are lacking, and the Grand Jury report fails to address Archdiocesan initiatives like the Office for Child and Youth Protection or offer any constructive criticism to address a problem that is pervasive throughout all of society, not just the Catholic Church.
Sexual abuse is not just another extension of America’s ongoing culture war. It’s about time for it to stop being treated as such.
Erin Cusack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org