Lessons from Sexual Abuse Convictions

Two prominent cases involving sexual abuse that went to trial were resolved in court this past Friday.  The first case does not involve the church.  Former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of 48 counts of crimes which were committed over a fifteen year period.  The crimes include: involuntary deviate sexual intercourse; indecent assault; unlawful contact with minors; corruption of minors; endangering the welfare of children; and aggravated indecent assault.  The 23 June 2012 NEW YORK TIMES reported the story at Sandusky Guilty of Sexual Abuse of 10 Young Boys.

My interest in the story is that it does have implications for the Church as a whole, because predators are attracted to wherever children are present, even in churches.    Whereas we cannot stop every predator, we can take some measures in our parishes to encourage safety for all.  But we must always remain vigilant to what is happening in the lives of our children and fellow parish members.   As the NY TIMES reported regarding Sandusky:

“People expressed shock that a man they knew as a committed and selfless coach, a prominent fund-raiser for charity and a gregarious father figure to scores of aspiring football players and ordinary children alike could be capable of such crimes. Many, at least initially, refused to believe it.”

It is often just that disbelief that enables a predator to get away with his/her crimes.

The other story reported in the NY TIMES, Cardinal’s Aid is Found Guilty in Abuse Case, involves sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.  This case is important because Msgr. William J. Lynn was not charged directly with sexual abuse but was on trial for his role in supervising other priests, some of whom were accused of sexual misconduct.   The former cardinal’s aide was found guilty of endangering children basically for covering up sexual abuses by priests under his supervision.  The implication for our diocesan chanceries as well as the OCA’s chancery is notable.

“The trial sent a sobering message to church officials and others overseeing children around the country. ‘I think that bishops and chancery officials understand that they will no longer get a pass on these types of crimes,’ said Nicholas P. Cafardi, a professor of law at Duquesne University, a canon lawyer and frequent church adviser. ‘Priests who sexually abuse youngsters and the chancery officials who enabled it can expect criminal prosecution.’”

For example, the Roman Catholic bishop from Kansas City, Robert W. Finn,  awaits “trial on misdemeanor charges of violating the state’s mandatory reporting requirement by allegedly waiting six months to tell the police that a priest had taken lewd photographs of girls.”  It is another case in which the accused is not himself guilty of sexual abuse, but as a bishop is charged with failing to report such criminal behavior by one of his priests to the police in a timely fashion (he eventually did report the incidents but only 6 months after learning of them).

As is obvious in the Philadelphia Roman Catholic Church case, it is not just the abusers who are guilty of crimes, but the supervisors who failed to do due diligence and failed to report the criminal sexual misconduct to the civil authorities.  We all have a responsibility to protect all of the youth of our parishes as well as all the members of church.  It is an aspect of our practice as Church which falls under the rubric, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”   In America, “Caesar” has taken a special interest in removing sexual predators from wherever they may be trying to hide, including among the clergy.

The goal is not to make us paranoid of everyone but rather to teach us Christian vigilance.   “Dirty old men” have existed throughout history.  This is not something new.  What maybe is new is that our individualistic culture which values personal freedom and privacy happens also to be an environment in which predators can move about freely.

Prophet Daniel

We have only to think about the Septuagint’s story of Susanna found in the Greek translation of the Book of Daniel, the story of the men of Sodom (Genesis 19), or the story of the righteous Joseph in Egypt being sexually harassed by his master Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39) to realize sexual abuse was not unknown in the biblical world.

Sin is not new, but is quite ancient.

Taking a Page from the Old Coach’s Book

The allegations of child sex abuse occurring at Penn State involving a football coach has caused literally a riot among fans, friends and the public.  Though a lot of the energy which has been reported has focused on what some see as the head coach being treated unfairly, what everyone in the Church should note is the direction in which U.S. law and the courts are headed when it comes to child sex abuse.  Zero tolerance means just that.

I’m not particularly interested in Penn State, I take note of the events because I serve on the OCA’s Sexual Misconduct Policy Advisory Committee.  I point to what happened at Penn State as yet another wake up call to bishops, priests and parish members.  Sexual predators are real, they aren’t limited to a minority of Catholic priests.  They exist in every walk of life, and our Church is no less susceptible to their predations than any other organization in which children are present.

I advise you to read two articles from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED about the events.  I’m referring to these articles from a sports magazine as I’ll assume the magazine is not involved in current politics but is viewing the events from the point of view of sports writers.  Both articles are written by Andy Staples (I know nothing about him, I admit I don’t normally read SI and am a luke warm sports fan at best).  The first article is titled, “With no explanation for inaction, Joe Paterno must go.”  The second article is “Paterno’s Penn St. legacy forever marred by Sandusky scandal.”

I want to repeat and emphasize I have no real interest in this being related to sports, football, Penn St., or Joe Paterno.   I have nothing against any of these institutions.  My interest is purely what implications any of this has for the Orthodox Church.   Already the press, including my home town newspaper are making the connection:  Institutions in Sex Scandals try to Protect their Own.

Coach Paterno is not accused of sexual abuse.  The story is that someone reported to him witnessing a sex act between a coach and a 10 year old boy in the college football complex.  He reported it to Paterno, Paterno apparently following policy reported the event to a campus atheletic director.  But then nothing happened, no follow up, no outcry, no report to the police.  Life went on as if nothing happened.   As it turns out there were other victims of sex abuse from the same accused coach.  I think I heard he is indicted on 40 counts.  (You can read the indictment on line.)  Some of those might have been prevented had Paterno and others taken the allegations seriously and followed through in an investigation.  No one did.

All Orthodox in America need to pay attention to these events.  Child abuse is not merely unfortunate, nor is it merely a deadly sin [the type of which Jesus Himself suggested the perpetrator of such a horrible sin should have a millstone put around his neck and be drowned in the sea (Matthew 18:6; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2)],  it is also a crime.  That is the part of child abuse that is now coming to roost in every church.  It will not be enough for us to feel sorry that sin happens.  The state in the case of child sexual abuse is saying we must actively and proactively work to prevent it from happening.  If we fail to do so, we will make the headlines of every news agency in the country.  But that isn’t the worst part.  The worst part is we will have failed to protect a child.  However terrible the behavior of the predators and sex abuse, it is those who suffer abuse whose suffering we should be concerned about.

Bishops, priest and parishioners of the Orthodox Church must not stay silent or on the sidelines on this issue.   We must all actively work to prevent child abuse in our parishes.  Wherever there are children, predators are interested in being there too.  Fortunately, predators are a very small portion of the total population.  But we must work proactively against them.   We each and all should be demanding our parishes, parish councils, priests, bishops and dioceses to take every step possible to help prevent even one child from being abused in our churches.  (See also my blog Lessons Learned on Sexual Misconduct from Penn State).

We also should take note that we cannot hide behind having good policy.  Joe Paterno appears to have followed policy.  He reported the event to an atheletic supervisor, just not to the police.   Bishops and priests especially should take note of this.  If we try to “protect” ourselves by merely following policy, rather than by following up with real investigation of reported sexual abuse, we will find ourselves both in the scandalous position of Coach Paterno, and with the searing knowledge that we failed to protect our children.

Maybe the publicity of the Penn St. case will awaken more of us to the problem.  Too many have thought this a problem of the Catholic Church, or that it could only occur somewhere else.   We see now the problem is in society and the world of the fall.  This is the world in which we too abide.

See also my blog series which began with State Wants to Hold Bishop Accountable for Priest’s Misdeeds