The Pennsylvania grand jury released a report last Tuesday detailing decades worth of sexual misconduct in six of its eight Roman Catholic dioceses. Despite the 900-pages worth of report, so much was not included with the absence of unrecorded cases, redactions, and information too lengthy or complex to explain. Having reviewed “secret files” typically seen only by Church leaders, investigators suspect that there have really been thousands of such cases connected to Pennsylvania alone comparing to the only 300 cited by the grand jury. Even a former Pittsburgh bishop who claimed to have a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual abuse by his clergymen has been accused of shuffling offenders between parishes to protect their reputations.
Sadly, this issue is not limited to Pennsylvania; rather, it is part of a global epidemic. And it has been going on for decades. The Pope has apologized, but, for all of the victims who could have been spared if someone had acted quickly and decisively, his apology is much too little, much too late. The report sums up my feelings: “For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere.”
I have some personal experience with the ‘head in the sand’ behavior of the church. Back in the 1970’s, a Michigan priest molested four young boys in Wyandotte, Michigan. The church covered up the crime and transferred the priest to Farmington, Michigan. A lawsuit was filed, quietly settled, and the lawsuit’s existence and transcripts were sealed from public view. A few years later, this same priest was criminally charged and convicted of sexually molesting two young boys at the Farmington parish. My partner and I handled the case and we refused to settle it with any confidentiality agreement or seal of records. When the church transferred the offending priest to Cleveland, we wrote a letter of community warning to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The church transferred him to Baltimore and we wrote a second letter of warning; finally, the priest was defrocked. Recently, I wrote a novel describing the experience.
Shockingly, this has been the pattern. The Pennsylvania report has surprised many, but not the people who have been abused and not the attorneys who have handled cases resulting from this national scandal.
The ‘Me Too’ movement has demonstrated that sexual abuse can happen in many different settings. It always involves someone who exerts power over someone less powerful. The church is probably the most horrific example of this. Our society must set a firm and unwavering policy of zero tolerance, not only for the principal perpetrators but for those who enable and cover up their behavior. Law enforcement, political, social, and religious leaders must step up and assure that these crimes will be punished to the fullest extent of the law. We must continue to rally, write letters of complaint, and turn in the perpetrators. When we see something, we must speak out; we must say something.
When my clients settled their case, without seal or a confidentiality agreement, we thought we were striking a telling blow against both abuse and cover-up of that abhorrent behavior. We thought it was the beginning of the end – an early step in the solution to sexual abuse by authority figures. Sadly, that has been far from the truth; ‘looking the other way’ has been the norm for almost a century, if not more. We must end the scourge of child abuse in any form and we must end it now. We all have a role in raising awareness; we must all use our voice to support the movement and end sexual assault until no one has to say, “Me Too.”
For a greater perspective on the issue of clergy abuse, and sexual abuse as a whole, consider reading my novel Betrayal of Faith. It is a fictional account of my 1984 case in the context of a gripping, legal thriller.
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.