The Scandal of Silence
Ordinary Catholics Looked the Other Way When Priests Abused Children

By Diane R. Pawlowski
National Catholic Reporter
August 25, 2006

When Chicago's Cardinal Francis George met in January with 200 parishioners from St. Agatha Parish about his assignment there of a known priest sexual predator, the overseer of an afterschool program at the parish said she saw children knocking on the rectory's back door last fall and then going in.

"I am hurting," she is quoted as saying in press reports. "I pray God will forgive me for not speaking out earlier."

Many others could repeat her words. Rectories are public venues frequented by volunteers, vendors and business people. Parishioners arrive for counseling, to arrange weddings or baptisms, or request copies of records. Volunteers, the lifeblood of both school and parish, drop off papers or attend meetings. Staff are not often alone. If one employee saw children visit, others saw the same thing.

Yet we don't hear other admission. Where are other witnesses?

Sexual abuse by priests could not continue for decades without the active complicity of not only priests, bishops and cardinals but lay witnesses in schools and rectories where priests work and live.

Repeated abuse continues because good people ignore things they would otherwise report to police. Also, a recurring phenomenon follows priests' dismissal for sex abuse: Anguished cries of disbelief and loyalty to Fr. Perpetrator and against victims ring out. DignityUSA ruled that no priest convicted of sex abuse may celebrate a chapter's Mass. Members griped because a friend, a celebrant, was lost.

Reading the parish employee's pained remark, I recalled two incidents I witnessed. In 1993, I attended a national conference for AIDS/ HIV ministers held at a Catholic university. Inspiring talks filled a week illuminated by liturgies sparkling with bright banners, music and a bishop's homilies. Attendees broke bread together in the cafeteria.

An unusual mealtime ritual slowly emerged. Lay attendees ate quietly, with heads down as if avoiding someone, because some priests used mealtime to flirt and cruise.

Messages for meetings of non-celibate priests blossomed. The final plenary featured an open mike session for attendees to share impressions and reactions. Conferees recalled inspirational moments, lessons learned. Then one earnest, unsmiling man in his early 20s stood up and apologetically announced that he needed to say something upsetting.

"John" identified himself as a person with AIDS, saying that in gay groups and in bars, he never experienced as many sexual overtures as during this conference.

"I've never been hit on so much in my life," John said. "This is one place I thought I would not have to experience this sort of behavior."

He sat down to stunned silence, averted eyes. Open mike closed. Attendees caught cabs, planes or trains home. I left, recalling meals with laywomen looking down, avoiding what they did not want to see: priests behaving badly toward young, vulnerable persons with AIDS.

The article about the cardinal's meeting echoed an incident three years before Canadian revelations of sex abuse surfaced. I sat in a campus chaplaincy commons, waiting for a friend. Three young boys bounded joyfully in, storming into the pastor's open office, announcing that they were spending the weekend with Father. From inside his office, before the door closed, I heard excited voices loudly asking, "Please. Please. Can we watch the Playboy channel again?"

Laughter stopped. The door closed. Silence. My friend arrived. We left. At dinner, I recounted the occurrence, still hearing the boys' words. A trusted priest said he could do nothing, telling me to report it to the bishop. I had, anonymously. Fr. Friend said that anonymous reports are automatically destroyed.

How did sex abuse proliferate? It's convenient to blame hierarchy, absolving the rest of us who are church. Blaming hierarchy absolves Catholics active in parish life. Priests and nuns played and still play silent roles, as do staff or visitors in rectories or schools.

An excuse for silence is that good laity want to see good in others, especially shepherds from whom we receive absolution and eucharistic grace. Why do priests and religious who live and work with abusing colleagues remain silent?

Priests abused innocent little kids. Hold superiors responsible. But who else saw? Whose voices -- still able to halt abuse -- are silent? What does silence earn? False peace and security? Insured social status in parishes resembling the whitened tombs Christ condemned? Where are righteous parishioners, Catholic secular press reporters and editors who claim to do just work and fail to hear witnesses' voices?

This silence costs a church claiming justice and truth. Popes and theologians preach Gospels that sex abusers and their friends violate. Look at the sad eyes of those leaving the church to seek truthful answers for the injustice of abuse-empowering silence.

Diane R. Pawlowski, a research anthropologist at Wayne State University in Detroit, has done research on the anthropology of religion and on the Dignity organization while in a graduate program at the University of Windsor in Canada.


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