Tipping Point

In every struggle there is a moment that is afterward recognized as the point when the tide began to turn, when success became sure. Those who have struggled, over the past two decades especially, to bring the reality of children’s widespread sexual exploitation to light, can only hope that the present attention to the assault on children by Catholic priests may serve as such a tipping point.

Until now, the spotlight (quite literally, the Boston Globe Spotlight Team) has been on the archdiocese of Boston and its protection of serial child rapists. Perhaps this is as it should be; after all, the only thing worse than a wolf in sheep’s clothing is a wolf in shepherd’s robes. However, in the discussions that have followed, the focus has been on the Church, on the nature of the priesthood, on the psychology of the perpetrators of this recurrent atrocity, and on who knew what and when. But the most important thing for the public to understand is the real scope of this tragedy, and the number of children who were harmed.

For years we have been hearing that incidents of child sexual abuse are few, that wild-eyed fanatics have created social hysteria, that most children pass into adulthood without encountering such psychopaths. But let’s do some simple arithmetic.

As of this writing, the archdiocese has turned over the names of 90 priests to District Attorneys. Does this mean that 90 children were sexually assaulted? Not at all. Therapists who treat sex offenders, law enforcement people, and forensic psychologists all know that most men who violate children are serial offenders. The coach who raped me when I was ten turned out to have had more than four hundred victims over a forty year period. Like most predators, Christopher Reardon, youth minister at St. Agnes parish in Middleton, Massachusetts, kept records of his many victims. When arrested, he had a list describing the private parts of 250 boys. Christopher Reardon had not reached the age of 30 when he was arrested. Many of the priests among the 90, on the other hand, are quite old.

Let’s err on the safe side, though, and say, oh, ten victims per year for ten years or five victims per year for twenty years; in other words, 100 victims each. That’s 9000 children. Oh, and then there’s John Geoghan’s 118. And James Porter’s 70. Let’s not forget Reardon’s 250. That’s nearly 10,000 victims of those predators whom we know of.

So far we have only been talking about abuse within the Catholic church. It would be a grievous mistake, however, to view the sexual exploitation of children as an issue existing only within the Catholic church. We must not be diverted into discussions of celibacy, of the culture of the church, of the ordination of women. A quick survey of news articles during the past year makes it clear that we should also be talking about sexual assault by teachers, by camp counselors, by youth workers, by scout leaders, and by coaches.

The point is that sexual violence, actual and threatened, is a constant feature of children’s’ lives. Are we ready to grasp this reality, or shall we remain a community whose children are forced to bear on their bodies, in their souls, the knowledge that adults, with our state-of-the-art denial systems, refuse? When confronted with an incident of child sexual abuse, most people profess, each time, a shock that only serves to underscore their ignorance. So far we have been acting like good white Jim Crow Southerners minding our own business undisturbed by the occasional “strange fruit” hanging from the nearby trees.

Maybe this is the tipping point in the struggle to end the sexual exploitation and abuse of children. Maybe this is the moment when hesitation and hand-wringing give way to outrage and action, when, having grasped the magnitude and scope of this hidden crime, adults stand together, across whatever political divides, and say, “No more!” on behalf of our children. I surely hope so.

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