I began working with survivors of childhood sexual abuse in 2002, the same year that the Boston Globe released its super expose of the Catholic Church’s decades-long cover-up of sexual assault by priests all over the U.S. and the world. The stories I heard over the next few years would confirm that these dark secrets were not only held by the Catholic Church. In fact, Christians of all kinds have been violating and silencing children, protecting opportunistic perpetrators in all spaces and positions of power for generations.
In 2004 I moved to El Alto, Bolivia’s red light district, meeting women in the dark spaces of their night and accompanying them through the harsh light of day. One by one, I came to know women who had been handed over by parents and relatives, neighbours and community leaders to a system of prostitution that we came to best understand and describe as paid rape.
In 2010 I moved back to the United States and that fall began working at a small midwestern liberal arts college. The top stories in those years were of campus sexual assault. Nearby at Notre Dame before classes even started, Lizzie Seeberg was raped by a Notre Dame football star who would enjoy the protection of his athletic department and university administration through a celebrated career. [Lizzie committed suicide ten days after the assault.] Echoes of this story would bounce off campuses all over the country, including our own.
In November 2016, my fellow Americans elected a known sexual offender to the office of President. My eldest daughter was three and my second baby girl would be born nine days later. Outraged, disgusted grief followed for me. I felt betrayed by a nation that would choose to protect and further empower a perpetrator at the expense of the vulnerable.
In 2017, female celebrities began to tell their own stories of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of film and television tycoons. Many of us joined the #metoo movement begun by Tarana Burke in 2007. The accounts that have been shared have begun to dismantle the culture of hubris and entitlement that has propped up perverse men in all kinds of industries.
And just today, Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40-175 years for his ongoing abuse of over 100 victims as the trusted and esteemed U.S. Gymnastics National & Olympic team doctor. The voices of the athletes who survived him have been bold and brave this week. And they have pointed with decisive strength, not only to Nassar, but to the coaches and trainers and parents and committee officials who chose to look away.
My own recounting here is ridiculously limited in its scope. This is the wide brush of my memory of the public incidents that keep bringing me down. Sometimes to my knees, sometimes to fetal position. I have gag-cried many hours over these losses. Just as I have been overwhelmed by the resilience and courage of those who have suffered them. I am still learning. I am still listening. I am still grieving.
But it is no longer the impulse and audacity of these offenders that most grieves and confounds me. Some part of me, despite my ongoing on earth as it is in heaven prayers, has come to expect that this type of twisted evil exists. I even accept – with great reluctance – that a few weak, perverse and cowardly people will give it home within them.
What I cannot accept is those of us who have given them room. We, the non-offending parents and uninterested coaches, the image-conscious leadership and the shrugging teammates. We, who have made our workplaces and worship-places, our neighbourhoods and campuses and athletic arenas and theatres into harbours for sexual violence and the violators themselves. We, who have chosen career or comfort or political promise over the innocence of children and the dignity of our sisters and brothers.
We know that the impact of abuse can be exponentially exacerbated or contained depending on the conditions and care following an incident of abuse or assault. We know that survivors who are heard, who are believed and who are well-cared for in the aftermath of rape or abuse are less prone to the destructive power of their trauma. Therefore, we must be those who see and hear and believe, who care deeply and act bravely.
We also know the incredible potential for behaviour modification through care for and intense accountability of those who struggle with sexual addiction and aggression. Much more work remains to be done in this area, but we know that tendencies toward sexual violence can be thwarted before they become actual violence. That abusive thoughts do not inevitably become abusive patterns. We believe that men deserve to live free too.
And lastly, we know the kinds of environments and relationships where power goes unchecked, where secrets are protected, where complicity is default. We know that “harmless” misogynistic dinner conversations lay the groundwork for workplace (and worship-place) inequality. We know that children who are easily isolated are often targeted. We must become people who keep watch and take pulse and dismantle the subtle underminings before they become full-scale systems of abuse. We have too often chosen self-preservation and extended our protections toward those who are least deserving.