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Why Even Non-Catholics Must Care About the Sex Abuse Revelations

Why Even Non-Catholics Must Care About the Sex Abuse Revelations

It’s easy to watch a sex abuse scandal develop, again, within the Catholic Church and think to yourself that this is something that happens over there.  To them.  And with that thought it becomes far too easy to turn away.  You can glance across the internet at Rod Dreher, or Michael Brendan Dougherty, or Matthew Schmitz, or Elizabeth Bruenig, or a myriad of others and think, like the imagined listener of Leonard Cohen’s “Please Don’t Pass Me By (A Disgrace),” “Oh, he’s up there saying something that he thinks about, but I’ll never have to sing that song.”

If that’s you, then let me be the one to insist: You must not turn away, even if (like me) you are not and have never been a Catholic. And then, with eyes to see and ears to hear, you must let this change your life.  Because, and here I’ll turn back to the words of the Jeremiah of Tin Pan Alley,

I promise you friends that you’re going to be singing this song.  It may not be tonight, it may not be tomorrow, but one day you’ll be on your knees.  And I want you to know the words when the time comes.

Because the only thing unique about the systemic cover-up of the abuse of children, seminarians, and others by the Catholic Church is the sheer scale.

*          *          *

My religious community—American Judaism—tells itself that we aren’t deluded, that we know abuse happens. But only, or almost only, among the Hasidim, in the most insular and least modern segments of our co-religionists.  Even in Modern Orthodox synagogues like the one I attend, we tell ourselves that it happens to them.  It’s a thing they do.

(And, to be clear, the communal insularity and the distinct nature of the hierarchies in Hasidic and Haredi communities does make the problem worse there.  If you watch the recent documentary One of Us, the first voice you will hear belongs to a friend of mine as she pleads with a 911 operator.  I’m not trying to downplay this.)

But it happens here, too, as I learned a handful of years ago while I helped to pack the books in the apartment of a member of my synagogue who had died suddenly.  I don’t know what, exactly, the neighbor who first entered his apartment after his death found that prompted her to call the police, but this much I know is true: the man was a predator and had been for decades.  He quite literally destroyed, I have reason to believe (but no documentation to prove), at least four lives.

Yet someone did have documentation, or at least knowledge.  Someone must have.  Because the dead man told me plenty about himself before I knew what he was: His bitterness toward the city where he had once held a part-time rabbinic position but which had forced him out because, he spat, of “rumors.”  How the company he worked for—a minor but nationally-recognizable Jewish organization—had moved his full-time workplace after this, and tried to force him to move to cities he didn’t want to live but where, he told me, “they could keep an eye on” him.  (He negotiated his way to my town.)  And well before this, when he was fresh out of rabbinic school in the late 1980s, long before he had the career of an abject failure, when he was still the educator he claimed he was supposed to be, and but for the employers and the rumors would have been, he was shuffled for half a decade among elementary schools in the Greater New York area, before being punted to the frontiers of American Jewry: small-towns in the Midwest.*

This is a truth as undeniable as the fact of his abuses: Someone in a position of power in the mainstream American Jewish community attempted to cover up for him.

My claim isn’t that there is anything as systemic in American Judaism as in the Catholic Church: the structure of religious and communal organizations is far too local, far too decentralized compared to the Catholic Church for that.  And my purpose isn’t to rail against American Judaism alone, or even in particular.

What I’m trying to say is this: more than abuse happens “here” as well as “there.”  So does the more mundane evil of attempting to protect the institution, or one’s own career.  Or even something truly good: trying to do what’s “good for the Jews,” or good for the spread of the Gospel you believe is the only path away from eternal damnation.  Even that which is good in itself can be twisted to the purpose of evil—and without the actor even realizing it.

Nor am I talking only about the religious. Look at State College, at East Lansing, at Columbus.  Look at the crowds who gathered and argued that men who are good at winning ball games should not be punished for covering up pedophilia, spousal abuse, and rape after rape after rape.

*          *          *

You must watch, and you must let this change your life.  Because there may come a time when you, too, will face a test.  More likely than not, you won’t even realize it.  The choices won’t seem dramatic enough for it to be a test.  That’s when you’re likely to fail.

What I mean is this: there may come a day when you are forced to choose between acting for one good or what seems like–what has until this moment truly been–another.  As Cardinal Cupich put it recently, to his lasting shame, perhaps investigating the systematic cover-up of sexual abuse risks compromising a political agenda of compassion and environmental stewardship.  Maybe you face that choice not as a Bishop of the Roman Catholic Church, but as a reporter or headline writer at Reuters.  Hopefully, your answer will always and only be as uncompromising as Ordinary Times-alum Matthew Schmitz:

There may come a day, as I once feared there would for me, when you have to choose between letting a pedophile be honored in death or alienating yourself from friends and potentially destroying your congregation. (A push was underway to name a library we share with another institution after him — and though the effort was quietly dropped, it wasn’t immediately clear this would happen.)  Or maybe the choice will be subtler and (as it was for me) harder to grapple with: Do you believe what you’ve seen or heard, or do you convince yourself that you imagined the entire thing?  (Do you let yourself admit the obvious to yourself, that others in power must have known? It took me over three years to do this.) There may come a day when you must choose whether you’ll risk breaking your faith in a cause or a God, whether you’ll knowingly cause pain to people, institutions, and communities you love dearly, by pursuing what’s good. I’m as liable to fail as anyone, as liable to not even realize the test is in front of me.

How do you train yourself for it?  I don’t know with any certainty.  But I suspect this has something to do with it: watching with open eyes and ears that hear. It’s imperative, always ongoing, always in the present tense: You must change your life.

And maybe this too, to borrow again from Leonard Cohen: from time to time, to fall down on your knees in a vacant room and beg aloud, so you know the words and the melody when the time comes:

Please don’t pass me by,
oh please don’t pass me by,
for I am blind, but you can see,
but I’ve been blinded totally,
oh, please don’t pass me by.

*You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t used the names of any individuals or organizations in this post.  That’s because, while I’m certain of some facts, I don’t have the hard evidence and documentation that I can offer in confirmation.  It’s also unclear to me, when I mention organizations, which of several possible organizations this may have been — or if they were even aware of what they were doing (as opposed to an individual with influence casting about for a landing spot where no one in a “major” Jewish community need hear, see, speak, or think of this man again).  And why don’t I name him?  I’m more than willing to do so in private. (I have no illusions that this will be the case — but if this scenario sounds like something you know of, or about, you can contact me at: jlwall -dot- OT -at- gmail -dot- com.) But publicly — well, the issue of documentation is still there.  As is the Jewish tradition of letting (or wishing) for the names of evildoers to wither away — “May his name be blotted out,” and all that.  And, of course, there’s the fact that not everyone in this community knows all these facts.  Maybe all this means that I’m failing the same tests I talked about above, despite myself.

 

Photo by KOREA.NET – Official page of the Republic of Korea Why Even Non-Catholics Must Care About the Sex Abuse Revelations


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J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he studies literature and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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16 thoughts on “Why Even Non-Catholics Must Care About the Sex Abuse Revelations

  1. What do you stand for? Do you stand for the truth or convenience? Are you willing to go along for the organizational’s endurance or reveal secrets that may bring it down.

    That tells others what kind of person you are. Does anything else need be said?

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  2. Do you believe what you’ve seen or heard, or do you convince yourself that you imagined the entire thing? (Do you let yourself admit the obvious to yourself, that others in power must have known? It took me over three years to do this.)

    I’ve read you enough over the years to trust you when you say you’ve come to the conclusion, in the case you mention, that someone was guilty and that certain others helped him cover up. And while I haven’t followed the issue with the Catholic Church all that closely, I’ll stipulate to what so many others, who I also trust, have said after careful study of the known facts.

    But sometimes things aren’t so obvious. I’m referring to specific things I’ve been told about one specific person and one specific thing I think I witnessed at a very young age with another person. In both cases, it’s hard for me to come to a conclusion. What I’ve been told was by someone who didn’t claim to be a victim of the person and whom I don’t always trust to tell the truth even though I can’t imagine they’d lie about that. If I heard from the alleged victim, however, I would be much, much more inclined to believe that what is alleged to have happened happened actually happened. It’s an awkward situation because I don’t believe that person has any obligation to tell *me* anything, but I’m not prepared to act without hearing it from that person.

    What I think I may have witnessed at a very young age regarding another person was so improbable and I was so young and by itself was too ambiguous for me to make an informed decision.

    (The example of the person I witnessed is about someone no longer living. The example of what someone told me refers to someone who is still very much alive.)

    Perhaps what I’m saying here is too different from the points under discussion. You’ve arrived at a point of certainty, or at least a point where you believe it more likely than not that something happened. People who have studied the Church abuses, I’ll assume, have similarly examined the evidence and reached similar conclusions. And of course, I, too, believe none of us should be complacent or smug about how well we’d handle things if put to the test.

    But again, sometimes the evidence is inconclusive. Sometimes it *is* indeed possible that “the entire thing” or a good part of it, was imagined or over-interpreted. Perhaps that’s part of the test, but the test isn’t only about adopting the appropriate response, but weighing the known and unknown evidence and coming to the appropriate conclusion in the first place.

    ETA: I realize this comment rambles a bit. It just is, as you might imagine, a very upsetting thing to think about, even though it is much more upsetting for actual victims.

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    • I’ve been thinking a lot about a story I only recently heard the whole picture of, about my grandfather, who spent many decades as the principal of a small-town elementary school. I knew that, at one point, he’d fired a young male teacher accused of *something* inappropriate with a girl. I knew that this weighed on him decades later, even into his 80s. What I only learned recently, from my grandmother, is that, after the girl’s parents came to him and he conducted some kind of investigation into the claims — this was the 60s, so it was probably all up to him — he didn’t believe that the claims against the teacher were true. And proceeded to fire him for them anyway.

      There are two sides to this: on the one hand, a person in a position of authority acting as if the charges are true because the possibility that they are, even if he’s unconvinced, is unacceptable. And there’s something laudable there. On the other hand, firing someone for something you don’t think they actually did is problematic enough, legally and morally, that I probably wouldn’t even mention this in this forum if my grandfather were still alive.

      Or, what was I to do when — before I knew anything I’d outlined in the original post — I once was at a meal with the man in question, at the home of mutual friends, and, returning from the bathroom, caught sight of him at the dining room table speaking to the hosts’ (20 year-old) son and had the immediate, visceral thought — the closest thing I can think of is Aristotle’s phroneisis — that I would never trust him alone in a room with a child of my own.

      I couldn’t do anything with that (and had no immediate need to), so I stored it away in the back of my mind. But I think, if I’d been a parent and had that thought, I simply would have never left a child unsupervised anywhere near him — but done everything I could to avoid saying why. But, of course, wouldn’t that be protecting my own, potentially, at the expense of others? But to say something like that, based on “gut” — the destruction you could wield would be awful, and would likely only play out like crying wolf (if you turned out to be wrong).

      So, my own rambling reply, Gabriel, is — yes. Yes, it’s all greyer than it looks like in retrospect, or than I make it sound when I’m writing angry. Or writing at all, probably.

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  3. I think the primary failure mode is that many people believe “Well he’s been caught, surely he won’t do it again“. You know, because he’s been caught, moved, we’re watching, he wouldn’t dare….

    I mean after all, what sane person would? Except child predators aren’t sane, and yes they will do it again. Which just makes the cover-up worse — because you’re not just hiding a crime, you’re aiding and abetting future crimes.

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    • I think one of the primary failures here is that people generally improperly conflate reports of abuse with confirmed abuse, as if to act on the one as if it were the other is either proper or advisable.
      This is simply setting up The System for even greater failures later.

      Also, to point out the obvious, there are a lot of assumptions that the reports and confirmations were contemporaneous with the abuse itself.
      This, too, blah blah blah.

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    • While I agree that is a failure mode, I think the primary failure mode is the subconscious “surely HE couldn’t REALLY have”.

      That subconscious denial seems to aid and abet predators over and over, and I think it’s part of coverups as well. Even people who agree, when confronted, yes, person X did what they did and that’s horribly wrong, will route around it when not confronted. And cheerfully focus on the wonderful or endearing things person X does, what person X needs, etc.

      I’ve seen it happen over and over.

      Honestly, were I pre-modern, it would be something I’d attribute to person X having cast a spell. As it is, I’m left to wonder what the heck the brain is doing there.

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  4. I agree with the main proposition of this post: That this is a golden opportunity for significant change to occur on the personal level, and that this change should certainly happen.
    However, I disagree strenuously with what the direction of that proposed change should be; or rather, what it is implied should be from the post.

    We are definitely in a stage where over-reaction is venerated.
    I understand fully that rationality is quite unpopular among a not-insignificant portion of the population.
    Nonetheless, I think this is a good time to bring things back to Earth; to Get Real, in the most obvious meaning of the term.
    Which is to say, this is a good time to bring facts into focus, to dispel contorted and inaccurate common wisdom and junk science, and cultivate a mindfulness of the whole.

    As an example of “contorted and inaccurate common wisdom and junk science,” consider the following:
    Roughly 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused. This comes out to some 25.2% of the population, though more accurate numbers state it to be some 28% of the population in the U.S. Clinical practitioners tell me this number shows significant under-reporting.
    Now, if sexual abuse predisposes persons to abuse others, we can then expect twice as many females as males to molest children. Yet, only 1 in 5 abusers are female, though this number does not include those who consign children to prostitution, which is much higher among females.
    I forget the percentage of people who actually molest children, but it’s less than 10%. Thus, either the predisposition to abuse is overstated, or the influence of intervening factors in understated; both of which lie outside the realm of common wisdom and the currently popular junk science on the matter.

    Here’s news:
    As far as abuse of children goes, sexual abuse is fairly rare, while other forms of abuse are much more common. Nothing beats sex for the garish effect, so sex gets a lot of attention. This produces both a positive and a negative effect, though, granted, the positive effect is most felt by the abusers, while the negative effect disproportionately by their victims.

    This makes me question where people’s hearts are really at.
    That’s genuine.

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    • . . . and toward that end, I reflected on the matter, believing this whole story* to be a story of sex rather than one of children or abuse, as there is too much of this occurring almost daily without much in the way of concern.
      On greater reflection, I believed it to be mainly a story of institutions, for the scale and the horrors seem dwarfed by human trafficking which could easily be reported.
      Now, I am more inclined to believe the story is primarily one of an overwhelming majority fully comfortable with substitution of ex parte grand jury proceedings in place of determination of guilt by means of the jury trial.

      * As distinct from the call to focus, the topic of the OP.

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  5. And, even though this came out before I wrote a word of this piece, I didn’t see it until today: https://forward.com/news/national/409376/legendary-orthodox-rabbi-aware-of-sexual-abuse-of-children-report-says/

    I’ll offer a few notes: Ramaz is not really the equivalent in Jewish education to Exeter or Andover (there isn’t an equivalent), but that’s the best analogy I can think of here. Rabbi Lookstein is far more important than “just” the Kushner-Trump rabbi; he’s also been a leading figure in Modern Orthodox Judaism for decades, especially on issues relating to conversions (where there’s a great deal of tension between American rabbis and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate).

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  6. “You must watch, and you must let this change your life. Because there may come a time when you, too, will face a test. More likely than not, you won’t even realize it. The choices won’t seem dramatic enough for it to be a test. That’s when you’re likely to fail.”

    Beautiful, insightful writing.

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