Speaking openly about abuse

This Friday the Washington Post ran an in depth article about Father Brian Christensen of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help here in Rapid City. It is part of a series of articles that attempt to put a human face on the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church. In October, one of Christensen’s associate priests, Rev. John Praveen, was charged with sex crimes against a 13-year-old that occurred in September. Praveen is being held in the Pennington County Jail on a $100,000 cash bond. If convicted, he faces 30 years in prison.

Unlike other incidents of abuse by priests, this case resulted in a quick investigation and arrest. The cathedral and its officials made no attempt to hide or cover up the charges. Father Brian has addressed the situation directly with the congregation. Before the incident occurred, the Cathedral had undertaken careful steps to educate members of all ages about sexual abuse, how to report crimes and how to make sure that proper investigations by outside authors were undertaken.

It had seemed like the issue of clergy sexual abuse was something that occurred in other places and that the well-well-documented cases of multiple victims and official church cover-up were stories we read about, but from which we hd a certain distance. This case, however, is right in our town. I had not met Rev. Praveen, but Rev. Christensen is someone I know, a trusted colleague, a leader in our community.

Depending on which statistics you read, clergy sexual abuse occurs at about the same rate in the Roman Catholic Church as it does in Protestant churches. The abuse in the Roman Catholic church has, however, garnered more publicity recently in part because it was so covered up and silenced in the past. The string of sex abuse scandals stretching decades with thousands of victims is in part due to the size of the Roman Catholic Church and in part due to the veil of secrecy that was so carefully maintained in the past.

The church has been rocked by the scandal. It should be. A grand jury report in Pennsylvania accused more than 30 priests of abusing about 1,000 children. Two U.S.cardinals have been disgraced. People are leaving the church and naming the fear and distrust of priests as one of the reasons.

There is a decline in participation in church in our country and the Roman Catholic church is leading that decline. No other religious group has lost more members than the Catholic church in recent decades. Not all of that decline is due to clergy sex abuse scandals, but it certainly is a major factor. According to the Pew Research Center millions of people who were raised Roman Catholic no longer identify themselves as part of the church.

The challenge for Father Brian, and for all of us who are religious leaders, is to not fall into the trip of thinking that we are somehow the victims. Clergy who have committed abuse have given the church a bad name. They have sullied the respect that once was given to ministers and priests. They have caused people to turn away from religion and affected the membership and resources of congregations. But we are not the victims. We haven’t suffered the pain and the shame experienced by those who have been abused. As uncomfortable as we are made by the prevalence of clergy sexual abuse, our situation is not that of those who have been abused. Our attention and compassion needs to be focused on those victims, on seeking justice for those who have been abused, and on preventing future crimes.

What this situation has taught me, however, is that our efforts at prevention are sometimes inadequate. The cathedral, like my congregation, had boundary training and abuse prevention training in place. We all receive recurrent training. The cathedral, like my congregation, had reporting and investigation policies in place. We have worked hard to make sure that people know how to report crimes and how those crimes are to be investigated by those outside of the church.

Despite all of those efforts, however, a crime against a child has occurred in our town. And it isn’t just the Roman Catholic Church that is rocked by it. Even though I know those who work with children in our church well, even though we are careful about not having situations where activities are not witnessed, even though we work hard to create a safe space for all people, what has occurred at the Cathedral has had an effect on my thinking. I have been wondering, and talking with other church leaders, about what more we can do to prevent such an event from occurring in our congregation. One victim is too many for our community.

Since the arrest of Rev. Praveen, there have been a lot of prayers in our community. Prayers for the victim and for her family and prayers for the accused have been said. And prayer can be the catalyst for genuine action. It is clear that more prayers and more action are needed.

I am grateful for the response of law enforcement officers in our community. As far as I know they took the allegations seriously, responded quickly, and have investigated thoroughly. I know and trust the corrections officers who work at the jail and I have confidence in the attorneys and judges who staff our court system. Things have not proceeded as they have in other communities where abuse was covered up and hidden from the public eye. The newspaper has reported appropriately on the case and the public has been informed.

We need to lay aside our fear of talking about sexual abuse in the church. It is a reality that needs to be confronted openly and honestly. And we need to redouble our efforts at prevention.

Our community is fortunate to have Father Brian leading the cathedral as it faces this crisis. He is a man of fish an integrity. His honesty and openness are what is needed. I am grateful that he granted an interview with the Washington Post reporter. As painful as it is to read about the scandal in our town in a national newspaper, it is important to bring this out into the open and talk about it.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!