More allegations of clergy sex abuse arose this week and I know I’m not the only person suffering from a queasy sense of hopelessness about it.
Will. It. Ever. End?
The Ramsey County attorney’s office and St. Paul police are reviewing documents suggesting that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis failed to notify authorities of a child sex-abuse accusation against a St. Paul priest within 24 hours, as required by law.
Another potential coverup. More grief forced upon victims.
It’s tempting to run away as fast as we can, to hope that someone else will stop it, fix it, assure that no child is ever again harmed. But talking with sex-abuse experts who step into this world daily reminded me that we need to stay invested.
They believe that we return to this place of unease, again and again, because sex abuse is an incredibly complex issue, with no singular solution. And research on sex abuse remains relatively new.
To make real change requires digging deeper with our questions and keeping our minds open to answers that might surprise or upset us. It also means consistent, unambiguous accountability by those in power.
To begin, we all want to see a profile of “the” sex offender and what exactly drives “his” behavior. We aren’t going to get that.
“There are many differences in who sex offenders are and what motivates offending behavior,” said Donna Dunn, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA).
Some perpetrators are motivated by power and control. Others face mental health issues or sexual confusion. Some are pedophiles, although not all.
“When we think that the whole anti-sexual-assault world opened up just over 30 years ago,” Dunn said, “it is easy to understand how the research is just now starting to touch on issues we didn’t know much about before.”
For instance, while we commonly believe that most sexual offenders were once victims of sexual abuse, that is more myth than fact. Most victims are female; the lion’s share of perpetrators are male.
“A tiny minority of victims go on to become victimizers,” said David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
Most victims more commonly turn their pain inward and blame themselves, he said. Some exhibit self-destructive and numbing behavior, including drug and alcohol abuse, risky sexual activity, cutting and suicide.
“Many become misanthropes, living alone,” he said.
A sex offender, on the other hand, did not become one in isolation. This is a tough but important concept to get our arms around.
While the needs of victims must come first, Dunn and Clohessy agree that attention also has to be given to perpetrators and proven prevention strategies. Those strategies need to begin early and receive adequate funding.
“When someone has been harmed in this way, the community has an obligation to ensure a safe and healing environment,” Dunn said. “But our main prevention focus is really about preventing perpetration — changing the environmental factors that may play a role in supporting, teaching or ignoring offending behavior.
“So who sex offenders are, how they come to be sex offenders, instead of boys who grow into safe men, is very important to us.”
Yvonne Cournoyer, MNCASA’s sexual violence prevention coordinator, adds that we can learn a lot from those who have offended, as well as from those who work with them. “They know more about what leads to this behavior and how they gain access to victims,” Cournoyer said. “That’s information we can use in terms of prevention.”
This means we need to resist the easy “us-vs.-them” dichotomy. Clohessy began this work because he was victimized by a priest for four years as a boy. His younger brother was molested by the same priest. That brother grew up to become a sex-offending priest who was suspended in 2002.
“Everybody looks at the child sex offender as the other, as a real deviant who is in no shape or form like the rest of us,” said Clohessy, 58. “It’s not helpful to demonize them.” Neither is it helpful to excuse them, he said.
“We can forgive a school bus driver who gets drunk and causes kids to be hurt,” he said, “but we cannot give that person keys to another school bus. If we have a choice to err on the side of complacency or err on the side of prudence, let’s err on the side of prudence.”
It tears him up that not everyone is following this path.
“It’s very simple. Whether it’s a bishop or a CEO, we throw the book at those who ignore and conceal child sex crimes. Those who protect predator priests do no one a favor — not the victim, the family, the parishioners or the offenders themselves.
“They only kick the can down the road, leaving their successors to deal with the dozens of victims who come forward.”
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum