Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth
Four decades ago, I lived in Paris. The neighborhoods in which I lived, like many others in the City of Light, were populated mainly by working-class native-born French people, some of whom moved to the city from other parts of France. Today, those areas have gentrified, or have become home to bobos or immigrants. Among the latter, one can still see a reflection of the neighborhoods’ old character: the people worked hard, but they put their jobs aside at the end of the workday to relax with family, and sometimes friends, over a meal and conversation.
This way of living was also found, and still survives, in the countryside and smaller cities and towns outside the Paris region. Much later, I realized that why I so enjoyed spending time among those everyday French people is that they reminded me about the best parts of my childhood and the neighborhood in which I grew up: a blue-collar Brooklyn enclave of Italian, Irish and Polish families. Whatever dysfunctions and other dramas played out in the squat brick houses and apartment buildings, families—including mine—gathered around a table for supper when the family’s breadwinner (nearly always the father) came home from work. And the Sunday dinners—which, it seemed, began as soon as Mass ended—included grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and sometimes their friends.
(I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of the reasons I liked my childhood home and life—in spite of something that happened there, which I’ll mention—and the time I spent with French people is the food! What French people make for themselves and their families is, like my mother’s and grandmother’s cooking, hearty and tasty.)
There was another interesting parallel between the districts near the rue Daguerre and Canal St. Martin and a part of Brooklyn bounded, roughly, by the D and F lines of the New York subway system: They were overwhelmingly Catholic. In my old neighborhood, the streets were deserted on Sunday mornings because nearly everyone went to the church in the middle of our neighborhood. Some men sat in their cars, looking at the Sunday News, outside the church building: they drove their wives, kids, and other relatives and could therefore claim to be fulfilling the Roman Church’s mandate to “attend or assist” at Mass. While I didn’t see such gatherings of automobiles outside Parisian church buildings, it seemed that most people in my environs attended Mass.
While the French kids I met—including a couple whom I tutored—didn’t attend Catholic schools unless they were “problem” kids or their parents were very religious (French people trusted, and still trust, their public schools to a much greater degree than most Americans do), the church held an elevated status. Note that I used the small “c”: Their reverence, like that of folks I grew up with, went mainly to the local parish and in particular its leaders. Few, if any people, are more trusted and respected in such an environment than the local parish priests and, to a lesser extent, others who serve the parish in one way or another. They, like my peers and their parents, had little truck with the capital-C Church, except perhaps to donate to some charity or some order of monks or nuns named for a saint who was particularly meaningful to them.
The relationship I’ve described between a community’s people and its church has, it turns out, a more sinister side. It is expressed in this sentence: “The Catholic Church is, after the circle of family and friends, the environment that has the highest prevalence of sexual violence.”
Even in such restrained prose, even in translation, that declaration is stark and unambiguous. Some of us never would have needed to see or hear of the report that contains it because we know it, in every fiber of our beings, in every pore of our bodies. Every one of us—me and, possibly, some kids with whom I attended school and church, served at Masses and played, as well as some whom I knew in Paris—has had to live with it. Some, like me, have spoken of the sexual abuse only after decades after we suffered it. Others cannot speak of it because they are too broken by addiction or mental illness caused or exacerbated by the abuse; still others have taken their stories to their graves.
Perhaps even the man who headed the commission that issued the report containing that declaration has had to pay for that knowledge with more than a grant for its academic and institutional research. Jean-Marc Sauvé, in announcing the findings contained in the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, admonished a Church that “failed to see or hear, failed to pick up on the weak signals, failed to take the rigorous measures that were necessary.” Worse, he said the Church, for years, showed a “deep, total and even cruel indifference toward victims.”
And how many victims are there? According to the report, more than 200,000 children were abused by clergy members in France since 1950. That number is half again as high if those who were victimized by perpetrators who worked for the Church, or who were affiliated with it as laypeople, such as Boy Scout organizers or Catholic school staff.
Mind you, those numbers include only those whom the researchers found. So do the numbers of perpetrators—between 2900 and 3200. Still, the Commission counted enough victims and abusers to conclude that abuse of minors within the Church comprises about 4 percent of all sexual violence within France.
As necessary as the work of the Commission was, and as forthright as Sauvé’s declarations are, it was left to Francois Devaux to say, in layperson’s terms, what led to the abuse, whether it happened in Bensonhurst or Belleville: “(t)here was a betrayal, a betrayal of trust, betrayal of morality, betrayal of children, betrayal of innocence of your own people…” In other words, the paedophile priests did what sexual abusers and other sociopaths have always done: They used people’s trust to victimize them. Devaux, the head of the abuse victims’ group La Parole Libérée, went on to tell Church representatives they were “a disgrace to humanity.”
“You must all pay for these crimes, “he intoned, slowly enunciating each word. “You must all pay for these crimes,” he repeated.
Those crimes all stemmed from the exploitation of trust—the kind of trust inculcated in the young and vulnerable for the putative custodians of, not only their physical well-being, but also their emotional and spiritual growth. Jean-Marc Sauvé and Francois Devaux, whatever their experiences might have been, understand as much and have expressed it clearly. Perhaps they, like me, had their best and worst childhood memories in the same places, with the same people.
Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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