In the riveting 2008 film Doubt, Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius, who is convinced—but without proof—that a local priest is molesting a young boy. She seeks the aid of her fellow sisters in her attempt to build a case against the priest. One of the younger sisters confesses that she doesn't like to harbour suspicions about people as it makes her feel distant from God.
"When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God, but in His service," Sister Aloysius replies.
That's not right. To confront evil, to address wrongdoing, is not to step away from God at all. It requires the virtues of wisdom and courage, strengthened by grace. To confront evil is a holy thing. Yet Sister Aloysius was on to something, for even though confronting evil is a holy thing, it frequently does not feel the same as doing other holy things, such as worshipping God, visiting the imprisoned or delivering hampers to the hungry.
All of which is relevant to the sexual abuse scandal that broke at Pennsylvania State University last November. A grand jury report alleged that in 2002 Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State assistant football coach (he retired in 1998 but still had access to the football facilities), was seen sexually abusing a young boy in the football team's showers. The graduate assistant who saw the incident reported it to Joe Paterno, the head coach, who in turn reported it to his superiors in the athletic department. They did not report it to the police and simply told Sandusky not to come around the football facility anymore. The scandal shook one of college football's most storied programs, and Coach Paterno, the greatest coach in the history of American college football, was fired. Though he was compliant with the law, Paterno admitted that he wished he had done more to stop Sandusky. Paterno died on January 22, 2012, after a battle with lung cancer,
College football occupies a unique and powerful place in American culture. So the eruption of a sexual abuse scandal in the midst of its most noble program—"success with honor" is the football motto at Penn State—under its most widely respected and winningest coach, brought the matter of child sexual abuse to the fore, posing the dramatic question again: Why didn't those who knew do more to stop it?
There was much commentary about how powerful men don't hold each other to account. Jonathan Kay in the National Post wrote that whether it is Dominique Strauss-Kahn's reputation for taking sexual liberties or Catholic bishops shifting abusive priests or Penn State, the failures stem from "an inhuman mentality that privileges an institution's prestige over the sanctity of young lives."
We have seen that institutional behaviour often enough. Other great pillars of American culture will soon be awash in their own scandals. In the same month as the Penn State affair, news reports drew attention to the "rape epidemic" in the American military and widespread pedophilia in Hollywood. Yet it is not only an institutional problem, even if institutions are often at fault. Sexual abuse usually takes place much closer to home.
"According to a 1998 study on child sexual abuse by Boston University Medical School, one in six boys in America will be abused by age 16. For girls, it's one in four by the age of 14," writes ESPN's Rick Reilly, one of America's leading sportswriters. "Those â€˜If you see something, say something' billboards shouldn't just be about terrorism. They may apply to sex abuse, too. Doesn't matter if it's your uncle, your longtime assistant coach or your buddy. You HAVE to say something. And yet, precious few people have the guts to say anything at all."
Here we arrive at the heart of the crisis of failed response to sexual abuse, whether in the family, schools, sports, the church, the military, prisons or any other sphere of society. Why is it so difficult to speak up, and why do so many prefer to keep quiet?
There is a false idea that reporting sexual abuse to the authorities—usually the police or child welfare agencies—is something of a magic bullet. A call is made, and the monster is slayed. That is not the case. In the Sandusky case at Penn State, a mother had complained about him in 1998 when he was still an assistant coach. There was a police investigation but no charges were brought. Law enforcement was alerted to Sandusky in 1998, and charges were laid in 2011. Given the complexity and lack of evidence in many sexual abuse cases, law enforcement fails to stop predators. Yet even if law enforcement were always successful, the decision to say something, to report the matter, to call in the authorities, is never the end of the issue. For many it is the beginning, as the circle of those involved expands beyond the abuser and the victims to include relatives, colleagues and friends.
The emphasis on reporting, on training, on creating safe environments is laudable. Yet it can make sexual abuse seem like another health and safety issue, or a matter of employment screening. That's the wrong category, and because it is the wrong category it does not explain why there has been such widespread failure to deal with sexual abuse. It is not principally a failure of policies and procedures. It is a matter of evil in our midst. Our cultural capacity to speak of good and evil has been attenuated, so the reality of the latter, and its paralyzing effect upon people who face it, has been largely missing from the various iterations of this crisis.
Evil is destructive. Philosophically speaking, it is the absence of a good that ought to exist. We experience it somewhat differently though, not so much as an absence of good but as a seemingly substantive reality that destroys the good that does exist. Natural evils, like disease, destroy the balance and harmony of a healthy body. Moral evils destroy that which they oppose, as lies destroy truthfulness and integrity. Lust destroys the love, reducing the other from a subject of care to an object of use. Sexual abuse is a grave evil that has great destructive power—it destroys innocence, the ability to trust, the capacity to love, and the simple peace and tranquillity that we otherwise take for granted.
Confronting a great destructive power is dangerous, like fighting a fire or attempting to contain a flood. There is a real danger that the evil, once acknowledged and engaged, may wreak more destruction. And so many choose not to confront it, but somehow to seek an uneasy accommodation with it, even to ignore it altogether.
I don't know what Joe Paterno thought in 2002, but it surely would have occurred to him that if Jerry Sandusky was fully confronted, many things would be destroyed—friendships, reputations, confidence in the football program. The ongoing destruction of the abuse itself remains hidden, and thus overlooked. The pattern is repeated in families. Confronting the evil of abuse will usually mean an estrangement of family relationships, even a permanent sundering of the family itself.
None of which excuses leaving evil alone; it does not justify turning away from the plight of the vulnerable ones who need help. It simply helps to understand why the problem is so widespread, and why a profound change in culture is required to enable people—both victims and observers—to summon forth the courage to confront evil.
The most unforgettable scene in Doubt—with two superlative actresses delivering performances of rare power—portrays a meeting between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Miller, played by Viola Davis. Mrs. Miller's son is the one Sister Aloysius suspects the priest of molesting, and she is seeking Mrs. Miller's support in moving against the priest. She is astonished when Mrs. Miller, even granting that something untoward may be happening, wants nothing to do with it. Mrs. Miller knows her son's future is fragile, and if he can just graduate and get into a good high school, something better might be in store for him. All of that might be destroyed by a messy scandal. Her judgment is that suffering for a little while now is better than destroying the possibility of a better future forever. Sister Aloysius is horrified, but Mrs. Miller is quietly determined. She knows the great destructive power of the evil that Sister Aloysius suspects might be going on, and wants nothing to do with it.
"What kind of mother are you?" demands Sister Aloysius. The audience knows that Mrs. Miller is a mother caught between many forces, including an abusive husband, and is simply trying to find a way forward that leaves her son's future intact. Confronting sexual abuse in the family, on a team, in a parish, leaves nothing intact. That is the point after all, for what was prevailing needs to be challenged, stopped and punished. Yet the innocent suffer along with the guilty, as what was once whole now lies shattered. Is it not plausible for someone, amidst the shattered pieces of lives exposed, to conclude that he has stepped away from what is good, what is noble, what is right? Even from God Himself ?
In the Catholic sexual abuse scandals, no one has been a louder voice than David Clohessy, national director of the Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). He has blasted clergy for more than 20 years for not reporting what they knew. His is a tragic case, as he and his brothers were victims of a priest predator while growing up in St. Louis, Mo. One of Clohessy's brothers became a priest himself and, in time, an abuser, too. Clohessy knew about it and did nothing, even after he was an activist on other similar cases. It was his brother after all, and if he turned his own brother in, what would be destroyed? Many blast Clohessy as a hypocrite. Fair enough, but his own case demonstrates that confronting evil—even for those professionally engaged in doing so—exacts a price, and a price sometimes too steep for most to pay.
Closer to home, there is the case of Theoren Fleury. In the days and weeks after Penn State, much was heard from the former NHL star. In junior hockey, Fleury had been sexually abused by Graham James, his coach. Fleury detailed in his autobiography the destructive power of that evil, leading him to a life of tormented rage, alcoholism and promiscuity. Yet the charge of hypocrite was levelled at Fleury by Montreal Gazette columnist Pat Hickey. When the first allegations were made about James in 1996 by another NHL player, Sheldon Kennedy, Fleury said nothing.
"Nobody should question Fleury's decision to remain silent," wrote Hickey. "What should be questioned is Fleury's continuing role in James' life. At the time of Kennedy's revelations, James was the coach of the Calgary Hitmen. He was one of the coowners of the junior team in the Western Hockey League. One of the other owners was Theoren confronting it seems to be an act of disruption and discord. It is possible that the horror at Penn State will lead to a culture change that makes it easier to confront evil, as ten years of sorrow and pain have done in the Catholic Church. A culture change is not so much a matter of policies being updated and reforms being implemented. It is a matter of a new vision and of greater courage. It is a matter of the spirit, and of grace. We know that our culture is in need of a renewal in regard of sexual morality, and perhaps the widespread scourge of sexual abuse may prompt movement in that direction. It is not to be taken for granted though, for evil remains Fleury. Here was someone who had suffered abuse at the hands of Graham James. Here was someone who knew that James had abused other players. Here was someone who was exposing other children to the same sexual predator. Fleury has been through enough counselling to know there's a word for someone who acts in this fashion—enabler."
Considerable outrage followed, not least from Fleury, that Hickey would accuse him, a victim, of being an enabler. It was an indelicate point, but Hickey's question is an obvious one: How could a player who suffered sexual abuse co-own a team with the same man who abused him?
It's the same question asked in thousands upon thousands of families. How could a mother allow her daughter to be abused by her new husband and not say anything about it? How could a father turn a blind eye to his own children being abused by their uncle, his brother? It is not a defence of inaction in one case to point out that others also fail to act. Yet the enormity of the failures to act—which appears to be the more common response—should lead to a deeper appreciation of the perversity of the evil in our midst. We should be humbled by how easily we adjust to that evil, so that destructive, and powerfully destructive at that. It may simply be that more of what is good and innocent and pure will simply be destroyed. In this we were warned from ancient times:
"For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12).
To contend means at times to confront, to fight. It is not easy. What could be more difficult to do than that in the cause of justice and right? We can feel that we are stepping away from God. But we are not.
While on the grim topic of sexual abuse, there is some outstanding business to take care of. When Christopher Hitchens died late last year, I demurred from the celebratory obsequies. I thought the noisy atheist a gifted writer who too often put his talents in the service of an embarrassingly flawed materialist philosophy. He had a mean streak, too. It was most unlovely to see that unleashed upon the objects of his hatred. About religion he was fierce in his denunciations of all of its pomps and works. Despite a reputation for being a man of vast reading, he knew very little about the subject. The reviewer for God Is Not Great put it well in The Washington Post:
"Christopher Hitchens is a brilliant man, and there is no living journalist I more enjoy reading. But I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject."
Ignorance is a serious weakness in a journalist. Mendacity is a fatal one. And on one issue of maximal importance, Hitchens lied repeatedly. More than any other celebrity writer, Hitchens advanced the argument that the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church were not only great sins and crimes but evidence that the whole enterprise was an international criminal conspiracy from top to bottom. This particular claim, like a bad odour, will linger long after Hitchens' death.
In the April 23, 2010, issue of Newsweek, Hitchens made his claim:
"[In 2002, I asked] why is the man who is prima facie responsible, Cardinal Bernard Law [archbishop of Boston], not being questioned by the forces of law and order? Why is the church allowed to be judge in its own case and enabled in effect to run private courts where gross and evil offenders end up being â€˜forgiven'? This point must have hung in the air a bit, and perhaps lodged in Cardinal Law's own mind, because in December of that year he left Boston just hours before state troopers arrived with a subpoena seeking his grand jury testimony. Where did he go? To Rome, where he later voted in the election of Pope Benedict XVI and now presides over the beautiful church of Santa Maria Maggiore, as well as several Vatican subcommittees. In my submission, the current scandal passed the point of no return when the Vatican officially became a hideout for a man who was little better than a fugitive from justice. By sheltering such a salient offender at its very heart, the Vatican had invited the metastasis of the horror into its bosom and thence to its very head. It is obvious that Cardinal Law could not have made his escape or been given asylum without the approval of the then pontiff and of his most trusted deputy in the matter of child-rape damage control, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger."
There you have it—the critical moment in the intense campaign waged by Hitchens against all things Catholic was the "sheltering" of Cardinal Law by the Vatican, which facilitated him "escape" and granted him "asylum." But what if it was all a lie? What would that do to Hitchens' case? And, if he knew it was a lie, how should we think about Hitchens' professional work?
Here are the relevant dates: in 2002, the Attorney General of Massachusetts, convinced, not unlike Hitchens, that the Archdiocese of Boston was the centre of a vast criminal enterprise, personally supervised an investigation into Cardinal Law's tenure as archbishop of Boston. On December 12, 2002, he served a subpoena at Law's residence in Boston, but Law was already on his way to Rome, where he gave his resignation to Pope John Paul II the next day. Aha! The cardinal escaped to Rome, never to return, where he was given a retirement sinecure, immune from the attorney general's reach!
Except that Law returned voluntarily to the United States soon thereafter, and in fact testified before the criminal grand jury on February 25, 2003, for eight hours. After resigning in Boston, he took up residence at a retreat centre in Clinton, Md. Maryland does not offer asylum from Massachusetts.
On July 23, 2003, the attorney general issued a damning report, but his investigation "did not produce evidence of recent or ongoing sexual abuse of children" and "did not produce evidence sufficient to charge the Archdiocese or its senior managers with crimes." The investigation issued 53 subpoenas, took 100 hours in testimony from more than 31 witnesses, including Law, and examined tens of thousands of pages of documents. Fifteen months after his testimony at the grand jury, Law received his appointment in Rome on May 27, 2004. A fugitive? He was resident in the United States nine months after the criminal investigation closed, indicating that there would be no proceedings against him. It's not a pleasant tale, and I offer no defence for Cardinal Law's appointment in Rome, which caused further pain in Boston. Yet he never fled, let alone sought immunity or asylum. He was never sheltered from any proceeding. The Attorney General of Massachusetts confirmed as much the year prior to Law's move to Rome, when he was still in the United States. All these facts were known in 2003. Yet in 2010, Hitchens was basing the foundation of his argument on facts that were false. Hitchens knew better, and for the sake of advancing his polemic against Catholicism, he lied. Repeatedly. Hitchens was a gifted writer. But facility with words alone does not make a good journalist. A journalist who repeats what is false to advance his own agenda disgraces, not ennobles, the profession. Many will miss Hitchens' writing. They should not miss his lies.
In the life of dynasties, it was not that long ago when, in 1897, Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. Yet Britain then was a rather different place. Her Imperial Majesty presided over a vast empire, not entirely benign but remarkably so as empires go, and peace and prosperity prevailed as the norm, not the exception. On February 6 this year Queen Elizabeth II marked 60 years since her own accession, with the official celebrations scheduled for June. Lord Salisbury, chairman of the Diamond Jubilee committee, announced a grand pageant for June 3, complete with one thousand boats upon the Thames. It will cost some Â£10 million, to be raised through private donations and corporate sponsorship. Apparently fundraising was looking rather bleak last year given the European debt crisis, but things are looking up now, with supermarket chain Sainsbury's leading the way. Something is not quite right about that. One would think the exchequer would not have to resort to passing the hat (crown?) to arrange a suitable celebration of 60 years of service by Her Majesty Elizabeth II by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom, Canada and Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.
It matters little who pays for the party, but it is a sign of changing times and an indication that Elizabeth II's most remarkable achievement may well be that she is still here, an enduring figure in tumultuous times. On her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Victoria ruled over Britain to a large degree in continuity with the realm she inherited in 1837. Elizabeth II become queen in 1952 while at the Treetops Hotel in the Aberdare National Park in Kenya, her father George VI having died while she and Prince Philip were on a colonial tour. The newly famous Treetops was burned down a few years later during the Mau Mau Rebellion, and within ten years of the accession in her African colony, Kenya would be on the threshold of independence. The winds of change were blowing hard. Elizabeth's coronation in June 1953 was one of the first great television spectacles; in the United Kingdom the number of television licences doubled in anticipation of the event, to some three million.