Change is not normally signaled by the stroke of a gong – but in this case it was. There was in fact a single set of events that gradually made it possible for suppressed and oppressed victims of sexual abuse to come out and speak out – the scandal that beset the Catholic Church.
The tipping point was January 2002, when the Boston Globe led with a headline, “Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years.” The article described how more than 130 persons had recently come forward with “horrific childhood tales” involving a former priest who had allegedly “fondled or raped” them over a thirty-year period. This single story set into motion a chain of events that tarnished the head of the Boston Archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law, and ensnared even the Pope, John Paul II. (Law was eventually forced by fed-up followers, primarily Catholic laity, to resign.)
It’s not too much to say that this particular scandal, which has since led to a slew of similar scandals in countries all over the world, changed the Catholic Church forever. The abuse itself, and then the persistent and pervasive attempts to cover it up to protect the church before the children, led over the last decade to 1) the diminution of institutional power (the church itself); 2) the devaluation of positional authority (the church hierarchy), and 3) the decline of personal influence (primarily papal).
Since then there has not been a torrent of related revelations – but there has been a trickle, and a steady trickle at that. Together they make clear that sexual predators are more ubiquitous and insidious a phenomenon than we had previously conceived, and that at least a partial solution to this widespread problem is transparency – victims who are empowered to come forward and tell the truth.
In the last week alone there were three related stories, each of which testifies to long years of silence, followed finally by a willingness to say what happened. First, Aaron Fisher, so-called “Victim Number One” in the trial of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, now describes in detail how he was abused by Sandusky beginning at age 12 and continuing for three years. Second, one of England’s best known television personalities, Jimmy Savile, now dead, was finally exposed as a long-term predator. The number of people who claim Savile assaulted them has grown from 200 to 300 in just the last week – and the scandal has reached deep into the bowels of the BBC, which had tried briefly to save Savile from posthumous humiliation by scotching a program suggesting a problem. Finally, the campus of Amherst College, one of the nation’s elite schools, was roiled when a woman came forth saying that she had been raped by a fellow student – a charge to which college officials apparently turned a blind eye and deaf ear.
What’s most interesting about the Amherst story – and the most telling of the temper of the times – is what’s happened since. The woman who claimed she was raped was willing not only to come forward but, more importantly, to sign her name to her complaint. Further, Amherst’s still relatively new president, Carolyn Martin, has changed college policies on sexual violence, and hired some experts trained to examine and adjudicate cases of this kind. Finally, students themselves are willing no longer to stay silent. Several women have banded together to create a web site that explores issues relating to sexual violence and misogyny more generally. They are hoping to stop the silence – to end once and for all campus crimes that go unpunished because they are unreported.