It’s almost starting to get routine, these splashy headlines about sex abuse scandals—gymnasts at Michigan State, wrestlers at Ohio State, and now the thousand or more victims of abuse by priests in Pennsylvania. The frequency of these headlines seems to dampen our outrage. It’s hard to maintain that intensity of feeling when these atrocities occur with such regularity. We have become inured to it. And the sheer number of victims is so high that it’s hard to comprehend, much less imagine the horror of their experiences. Especially when the church is involved, we have to wonder, where is God in this? How did God let this happen? Where were the structures and the people who were supposed to stop it, supposed to protect God’s children?
What I know is that God did not allow sexual predators to commit their horrible misdeeds; the offenders chose of their own free will to act out their perversions on the innocents. But at times like this, I try to remember something Jesus said to his disciples once, “It would be better to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around the neck than to face the punishment in store for harming one of these little ones.” (Luke 17:2, NLT) While this is never going to be the sentence in a criminal trial for a sex offender, the image satisfies me. God’s justice is not human justice, and we can never know the agonies that await those who would torture children for their own pleasure. And in the meantime, perhaps the more important question is, what can we do?
The answer for me is to be a voice for those who have had their voices taken from them, those who have been silenced. Part of the horror of sexual abuse is the silence that is demanded by the abusers. Victims are sworn to secrecy, sometimes through shaming, sometimes through threats of great harm to the victim or their loved ones. There is a saying that that which is unspoken becomes unspeakable. When a victim feels unable to talk about what is happening to them, the trauma is amplified because there is nowhere to go with it, no outlet for the fear, pain, and shame of their abuse.
So if the investigation in Philadelphia uncovered a thousand reports of abuse, then we can be assured that there are thousands more who have remained silent, whose voices have never been heard. The thing we can do is be their voice. Speak out for greater transparency, the implementation of stricter procedures for protecting children, more severe sentencing guidelines for the offenders, more help and support for those who are desperately in need of healing. Demand that all churches, not just the Catholic Church, take all the precautions necessary to make sure that such horrific headlines become a thing of the past. And listen. If there is someone you know who has been sexually abused, reawaken their voice by listening to their story. It might be a difficult story to hear, but not nearly as difficult as it was to live it.
Few of us are newspaper reporters or church reformers or mental health professionals, but everyone can be a voice crying in the wilderness, calling for justice and safety for “these little ones.” Maybe someday, the millstones will not be necessary.