The revelations about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, DC, have horrified everyone and raised concerns, again, about how ineffective and incomprehensible was the response of Church officials to the sexual abuse of children, especially in past decades. If you want to read about that aspect of the matter, there are any number of articles to which you can turn. Be aware, however, that the current parameters of what is considered appropriate and advisable for publication in print journalism are such that the articles hold little back in detail. They are not for the faint of heart, the weak of stomach, or those off-put by graphic descriptions of sexual activity.
A recent article in the New York Times tells the story of James (the article doesn’t use his last name), who is now sixty years old, and has accused Cardinal McCarrick of abusing him sexually from the time he was eleven until his late twenties. I make no judgments about whether James’ accusations are true or not. I am a firm believer, even in cases of child abuse, that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Of course, Cardinal McCarrick has been proven guilty in other cases of abuse.
Instead, I want to take the occasion to address the role and responsibility of parents in the lives of their children. A couple of things struck me when reading the article about James. First, James says the abuse began when he was eleven years old, but he first reported the abuse to his father when he was fifteen or sixteen. So, if James’ allegations are true, then for four or five years James endured on-going abuse by a man who was a close friend of the family, so close that James and all of his siblings called him “Uncle Ted” and treated him as a member of the family, before James felt he could tell his father about what was happening. And when he did tell his father, his father refused to believe him. The article says, “James said he had tried to tell his father that he was being abused when he was 15 or 16. But Father McCarrick was so beloved by his family, he said, and considered so holy, that the idea was unfathomable.”
I don’t pretend to understand the sentiments of James’ father. I grew up in the sixties and seventies. My family was what I call “Sunday and sacrament Catholics,” meaning we showed up for Church on Sundays and to receive whatever sacrament was administered at each successive life mile-marker. But, we had very little meaningful faith life at home. We were never especially close to any particular priest, and I was never taught the notion that priests were god-like and so holy as to be above reproach. They were men who were to be respected, of course. But, they were men. In reading the article, it seems that James’ family was caught up in and enjoying their association with a priest who was “on the rise” and becoming powerful in the Church. James’ older sister, who believes his accusations, says that “We were part of a superstar’s life.” Sadly, the father’s admiration for McKarrick was so total that it blocked his objectivity, even when his own son revealed serious and on-going abuse.
So, here is my point: As our children are growing up, we need to do all we can to cultivate with them the kind of relationship where they feel they can come to us about anything, and I mean anything, with the confidence that they will be taken seriously and their concerns actively addressed. It shouldn’t have mattered who was abusing James – a priest, a teacher, a coach, a neighbor, a relative – he ought to have been able to come to his father or mother the first time it happened and report it to them, and he should have been taken seriously. Yes, I know that children sometimes lie. I know they can be confused about some of the things adults do and misinterpret adult’s actions. I’m not saying that every child should be believed without question about every report of whatever. What I am saying is that they should grow up knowing that they can come to us, and that they will be taken seriously when they do. It’s up to us, then, to act on those reports, do what we can to verify them, and take appropriate action personally and civilly if such reports are credible.
In so many stories of abuse I’ve read over the years an element that is often a significant but little considered aspect of the story is either that the child felt he or she could not approach his or her parents about he abuse, or when the child did reveal the abuse to parents, the child was not believed or taken seriously. This is a gross failure on the part of parents, whose first duty is to protect their children.
There are no words that can adequately describe the horror experienced by children abused by adults for whom they ought to be able to have unquestioning trust. Parents don’t need to add to the horror by refusing to be available and open to their children’s concerns or by failing to take them seriously when they finally muster up the courage to say something.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.