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It's Time To Stop Clergy Sex Abuse — Let's Start With A Commitment To Survivors

Victims of clergy sexual abuse, or their family members react as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. A Pennsylvania grand jury says its investigation of clergy sexual abuse identified more than 1,000 child victims. The grand jury report released Tuesday says that number comes from records in six Roman Catholic dioceses. (Matt Rourke/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Victims of clergy sexual abuse, or their family members react as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. A Pennsylvania grand jury says its investigation of clergy sexual abuse identified more than 1,000 child victims. The grand jury report released Tuesday says that number comes from records in six Roman Catholic dioceses. (Matt Rourke/AP)

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I watch teachers and parents work hard every day to instill in children the values that will carry them to a healthy and successful adulthood. We teach children to believe in truth, justice, goodness, and to love and trust. We promise to protect them.

We need to be teaching additional lessons, as the latest reports of widespread sexual abuse of more than 1,000 minors by hundreds of priests in six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania makes clear.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s accusation that Pope Francis was engaged in a cover-up of abuses provides this situation an additional level of drama. Viganò, a controversial conservative character in the church, is aligned with a group that has been against Pope Francis from early on. In his letter, Viganò claims a “homosexual current” is to blame for the issue, which equates homosexuals with child abusers and disregards the many girls and women who also experienced abuse at the hands of priests.

I am not at all surprised by these developments. After the abuses that have been uncovered throughout the U.S and many other countries, there is not enough of a commitment to building a culture that protects children and youth from those we entrust to care for them. Politicizing child abuse, as happened in the letter and the intervening days is detrimental to the victims. Interestingly, most opinions in U.S. media by outraged Catholics don’t focus on the victims.

FILE - In this Aug. 22, 2018 file photo, Pope Francis is caught in pensive mood during his weekly general audience in the Pope Paul VI hall, at the Vatican. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, with his 11-page testimony, have thrown Francis' 5-year papacy into crisis. (Andrew Medichini/AP)
FILE - In this Aug. 22, 2018 file photo, Pope Francis is caught in pensive mood during his weekly general audience in the Pope Paul VI hall, at the Vatican. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, with his 11-page testimony, have thrown Francis' 5-year papacy into crisis. (Andrew Medichini/AP)

A good place to start is to understand what the psychological consequences of sexual abuse are. In my experience, as a clinician and developmental researcher, abuse typically leads to three shattering psychological consequences for the abused.

First, it destroys the delineation of what is real and unreal“This cannot have happened, did it happen? Is it normal? Why don’t people pick up on what is happening to me? It must not be that bad. Are my memories true?”

Second, sexual abuse is so shameful that it silences victims. Victims feel alone and alienated from themselves and those they love.

Third, sexual abuse shatters safety and trust. The world is not a safe place.

Does it matter who the perpetrator is? Sexual abuse is hideous no matter who performs the act. But I believe that there is one more layer of violence when religion is involved, any religion (remember, clergy sexual abuse is not contained to the Catholic church). For children and their families the trust and respect placed on a spiritual leader is of a very special nature. Children feel held by a sense of god and their worlds are ordered by a belief in a moral and spiritual universe. Sexual abuse destroys a child’s spiritual universe. And now this disillusionment is spreading to many who were not abused.

What kinds of actions must follow if we focus on the abused?

First, punish all of those involved in the abuse. Predators and perpetrators, as well as those who shield them and cover up their crimes, must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. They also need to be terminated by the institution, once proven guilty. The best hope both for protecting children and helping victims heal rests on radical and unwavering honesty, a clean house from the top down and the bottom up, and restitution. Significant financial compensation for victims is important because it recognizes the reality of the crimes committed and compensates victims for at least some of their losses and pain.

Second, we all need to become educated about sexual abuse so we are able to spot the signs and take action if necessary to stop it. Ignorance helps perpetuate the cycle of abuse. Denial does too and makes all of us potential bystanders.

Finally, provide a safe forum for victims to tell their stories. I have been part of numerous family confrontations of sexual abuse victims and their family members. It is in those moments, when no one can escape the truth, that healing can begin.

Let’s hope for a unified approach freeing the church and all of us by healing the victims in real terms.

It is time for us all to face the truth and take real steps to stop sexual abuse. It happens when everyone from the Pope down stops speaking in contradictory terms. In one breath, expressing humility and shame — and in the other, avoiding the very actions that would make the words meaningful. In the process, the victims are once more abandoned and the church cannot free itself from its horrors.

There is no conservative or progressive solution here, there is only one — and painful as it will be, it has to happen to everyone equally, friend and foe. Those who have participated directly or indirectly in sexual abuse must go, and go without privileges or golden parachutes as it happened in Boston and Rome with Cardinal Bernard Law. The funds are for the victims who need to feel their reality and suffering mirrored by actions.

No one needs morally corrupt priests, bishops and archbishops abusing not only children but the trust and money of their parishioners. Let’s hope for a unified approach freeing the church and all of us by healing the victims in real terms. Politicizing abuse leads to the opposite of healing — to fragmentation of people and institutions as we can witness in the daily worsening of this long crisis.

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Gil Noam Cognoscenti contributor
Dr. Gil Noam is the founder and director of The PEAR Institute: Partnerships in Education and Resilience at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital, and an associate professor at Harvard University.

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