It hits a deep nerve, this news. As I listened to pieces of the report, it hit a deep nerve. For years, reports of child abuse by clergy in the Roman Catholic church in a diocese in Pennsylvania were covered up. According to the grand jury report, over 300 priests abused children over seven decades and the church hierarchy covered it up.
Thousands of children’s lives were traumatized, unnecessarily. The system allowed it to continue: a system that enshrined and justified power over others in religious language and practice. But let’s not kid ourselves, this kind of power abuse and trauma happens in systems like ours, in which the church is more democratically and congregationally organized.
We have an obligation to be vigilant and full of care for the sake of vulnerable people, and children are vulnerable. It is our responsibility to be a place of genuine sanctuary for children. People we are supposed to be able to trust sometimes betray that trust, but that doesn’t mean all people are untrustworthy. It is imperative that we as a community of faith, create a place where boundaries are repeatedly clear, safeguards are in place and clearly stated over and over.
It is the practice of our congregation to provide child care with a staff member who is certified through a Department of Justice background check. It is our practice to never allow children to be alone, one-on-one with an adult who is not their parent. It is most important that children learn the situations that are trustworthy and not be forced to trust people merely because they are in a position of authority. We all need to work together to create the space, the situations in which children can recognize they are safe. Just because we know someone is no guarantee they are safe. We need to create safe situations as clearly and redundantly as possible. And we need to listen to children and youth when they sound any alarm bells, however subtle they sometimes may be.
Some of us may feel a nostalgic longing for bygone days when one didn’t have to worry about such matters. Let me remind you that the grand jury report indicated the behavior had been going on for over 70 years! (The oldest victim who spoke to the grand jury is 83.) Let me be clear that that this behavior has been a hidden part of human brokenness for generations upon generations. It was barely a hundred years ago that child labor in our own country was acceptable.
When we have the moral strength to shine a light on this reprehensible abuse of power, we begin to make safe space for victims too often blamed for a crime perpetrated on them. The legacy of abuse is an injury people have to maneuver throughout their entire life. This saying of Jesus is often thought to be referring to children: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42) It is imperative that as people who follow Jesus, we make the way safe for vulnerable people, especially children.