Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth
The Roman Catholic Church sex-abuse scandals have been centuries in the making. They were first reported in the US media in 1985 but didn’t garner widespread attention until 2002, with the Boston Globe exposé. Since then, media coverage and public awareness of the church’s “dirty little secret” has snowballed, turning into an avalanche with the “Me-too” movement.
It doesn’t surprise me that it took so long for the problem to come to light. After all, decades would pass between the abuse I suffered and the day I finally talked about it. Many other people have similar stories. Also, as we have seen from the church’s own reports, individual parishes, not to mention dioceses and the Vatican itself, did everything they could to keep knowledge of wrongdoing “in the family,” if you will.
In this matter, church officials were like the proverbial Dutch boys with their fingers in a crumbling dike: They could hold back the tide of truth, but only for so long. Now the dam is breaking and the revelations are flooding in, not only from the Roman Catholic Church, but from other religious organizations.
The only thing that surprises me about recent reports of abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention and other sects such as the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement is that it took so long for them to come out, even though they’ve come just months after the Pennsylvania grand jury report. As a matter of fact, I am surprised that there haven’t yet been revelations of sexual abuse in other churches or religions.
Then again, it probably won’t be long before we learn about such things, because nearly all religions are built on hierarchical power structures. The most orthodox or fundamentalist, or the most institutionalized, have the most rigid hierarchies. All such power structures present ample opportunities for the powerful—who are usually, but not always, male and of at least some degree of privilege—to use sex as a means of controlling the less senior or more vulnerable members.
Naturally, such things can be said about a corporation or university, or the military or a gang, as well as a church. There are, however, two things that make religious institutions particularly fertile ground for sexual exploitation. One is that clergy members’ and other officials’ authority is amplified by their putative relationship with God, or whatever they call their supernatural authority. The other is that everyday worshipers, volunteers and other members of the church, synagogue or other house of worship tend to bring their vulnerabilities to the forefront to a greater degree than they would in a workplace, classroom or platoon. In other words, they are looking for acceptance they might not find in their communities or stability that might not exist in their families. Members of the clergy, whether by inclination or training, are very good at finding those vulnerabilities.
I am, of course, talking about my own experience. One of the reasons I became an altar boy (how odd it is for me to say that as a transgender woman!) is that I was looking for (and found) a circle of friends, or at least peers, that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Also, I was frankly looking for something that would keep me out of the house, away from an emotionally and mentally unsupportive family. I spent more time with the Fathers in black collars than with my biological male parent. That gave one of the Fathers his opportunities.
And those opportunities for a predatory cleric or authority figure to prey on a vulnerable child or lay person come, not only in the context of in-church activities such as being an altar boy or acolyte, but also in camps, retreats and other off-site gatherings. Even more exposed are those who are sequestered in a convent, seminary or other place where they are preparing for what they believe to be a life of service to God and humanity but which, too often, turns out to be a life of servitude to an institution. While such people may genuinely want to give of themselves to their fellow humans and give themselves over to God, they also see being or becoming a priest, nun, minister or even a deacon as their purpose, even their raison d’etre, to an even greater degree than people who are, or are training to be, accountants or lawyers or other professionals or tradespeople.
That is why, in the weeks and months ahead, I fully expect to hear more revelations of sexual abuse from other churches, and from religious entities outside of Christianity. I can’t say that such revelations will make me happy, but I can at least be satisfied that some victims will find some measure of justice, if not peace. Still, I can only wish that others could have had the opportunity I’ve had to name my abuse and abuser. It is for them, as much as for anyone else, that the truth about sexual exploitation in religious entities—wherever, whenever and however it was perpetrated, and by whom—must, and will, continue to come out. The only question is: Which church or religion will be exposed next?