Today we are going to get the much-anticipated release of Pennsylvania grand jury documents detailing 70 years of child sex abuse in six Pennsylvania Catholic dioceses. Those who have seen it already say it will be hideous. There’s a rumor that Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who will figure prominently in the report, as he was previously bishop of Pittsburgh, will take a big hit in its pages. One rumor has it that he will resign by week’s end.
Last night, I was texting with a new Catholic friend, and realized that he doesn’t know why I have so much passion for this issue. There are several reasons. First, it was the one story I’ve covered in my career that radically changed my life, so it’s hard to let go simply from a professional point of view. Second, it is a massively important religion news story, one that is rocking the US Catholic Church to its foundations (the McCarrick phase of this story is going to be extremely perilous for the Church — if the media trouble themselves to start uncovering his secrets). Third, and relatedly, the crumbling of Catholic authority under the weight of the hierarchy’s inability to purge sexual corruption from clerical ranks is one of the most, and perhaps the most, important American religious story of our time.
All of those are reasons I keep at this story. By far the most important reason has nothing to do with the Church at all. It has to do with the summer of 1982, and a school trip to the beach. I was 15. One evening, I was standing at the margins of a crowded hotel room filled with kids from our group, when suddenly, a scrum of older boys grabbed me, threw me to the floor, and held me down while they tried to take off my pants. Their girlfriends stood on the bed watching and laughing.
I begged them to stop. There were two adult chaperones in that room — moms of some of the teenagers on the trip. Help me, I pleaded. They stepped over me — literally, stepped over me — to get out of the room. They weren’t going to stop the fun of the cool kids. I will never, ever forget that helpless, abandoned feeling, watching those adults leave the room.
In the end, the boys did not take my pants down, and let me go. That was the start of a year of bullying, though. Back home, when school started that fall, that same crew made my life miserable at every turn, only because they could. Thank God I had the opportunity to get out at the end of that school year, and go to another school for my junior and senior years.
When I was writing about the scandal in 2002 and right after, some people, noting my passion for the story, asked if I had ever been sexually abused. I told them no, I hadn’t been. Finally I told someone the story of what happened in that hotel room. She said to me, “That was sexualized abuse.” Maybe it was, I don’t know. All I know is that I know what it is like to be terrorized, and to have the adults in authority refuse to help. Watching those two moms step over me as I begged them to help me, and to leave the room — that radicalized me. Just about the only thing I hate more than the strong who prey on the weak are those who could stop them, but don’t.
That’s the reason I’m passionate about this story. If there’s a particular aspect to it that involves the Church, it’s only because I’m especially angry when the people who stand for God — our loving Father and our refuge — turn what should be sanctuary and a place of healing for the weak into an instrument of their persecution, and in many cases destroy the ability of the suffering to know God.