GENEVA — A Vatican delegate to the United Nations caused a minor furor when he defended the Church’s record on handling cases of sexual abuse among its clergy.
The delegate, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, also pointed out that other religions and organizations have done much more poorly in preventing sexual abuse.
Archbishop Tomasi, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations in Geneva, said available research showed that 1.5% to 5% of Catholic clergy were involved in child sexual abuse.
He spoke Sept. 22 in response to criticism of the Church’s handling of sexual-abuse allegations made earlier to the Human Rights Council by the International Humanist and Ethical Union. The archbishop quoted from The Christian Science Monitor, which reported that most U.S. churches hit by sexual abuse allegations were Protestant and that sex abuse in Jewish communities is common.
According to a major 2004 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 10% of U.S. public-school students have been targeted with unwanted sexual attention by school employees, the archbishop added.
Yet, as much as Church leaders try to point out the corrections they’ve made — and the prevalence of sexual abuse in other circles — the Catholic Church continues to be a target of criticism.
“The Catholic Church has paid an enormous price,” said Sherryll Kraizer, executive director of the Denver-based Safe Child Program and an expert witness in child sexual-abuse cases. Others don’t pay such a high price, and Kraizer worries the culture may be trivializing child sexual-abuse cases — unless they involve priests.
Some see a double standard in society and the media tolerating abuse of children by some and not others, especially in the wake of recent cases involving celebrities.
“We have a lot of high-profile child sexual-abuse cases showing up right now, yet it’s not something that’s appearing as a concern on most people’s radar,” Kraizer said, referring to cases involving Hollywood stars. “Instead of reacting with concern and outrage, and demands for justice, it’s as if the culture is on a sightseeing trip. We’re admiring the problem instead of worrying about it.”
About 100 of Hollywood’s biggest directors and actors who say they’re dismayed by the arrest of Roman Polanski signed a petition recently demanding his release. The film director was arrested in Switzerland last month in connection with the 1977 rape of a 13-year-old girl. Polanski pleaded guilty to statutory rape in order to avoid possible conviction on a forcible rape charge. He fled the country before he could be sentenced and has lived and worked in France ever since.
Some news reports and celebrity reactions have cast Polanski as a victim. On ABC’s “The View,” actress Whoopi Goldberg downplayed the nature of his crime, saying, “I know it wasn’t a rape-rape. I think it was something else, but I don’t believe it was rape-rape.”
Wrong Message for Kids
Meanwhile, actress Mackenzie Phillips told Oprah Winfrey that her rock-legend father, the late John Phillips, raped her as a teenager. She said routine sexual encounters between the two eventually became consensual and culminated in an abortion.
“Here we had Mackenzie Phillips on ‘Oprah,’ saying, ‘My father raped me, and basically it wasn’t that bad,’” Kraizer said. “We had this same kind of downplaying of sexual abuse with all the claims about Michael Jackson. Parents continued dropping children off at his house to spend the night.”
Shelly, an incest victim whose last name has been withheld, watched the Phillips interview and says she was appalled. The wife and mother of four was molested as a young teenager by a relative.
“It almost seemed like she was glamorizing it,” Shelly said. “It was surreal. It was like there was some question as to whether this was really such a bad thing.”
L. Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, says the trivializing of sexual abuse is nothing other than standard hypocrisy on the part of media and celebrities who like their own friends but don’t like the Church.
“Because of a relative handful of very bad people in the Church, mostly decades ago, Hollywood can’t get enough denunciations of the Church,” said Bozell, a Catholic who serves on the board of directors of the Catholic League. “Yet when they know of someone they admire who did about the most awful thing one could do to a little girl, they rally around him. It is vomitous. Finding hypocrisy in this is like finding ice on the polar ice cap.”
The surfacing in 2002 of decades-old cases of sexual abuse involving priests was met with outrage. That spring, newspapers published 160 new stories a day on the Church scandal. Lawsuits ensued, and some dioceses filed bankruptcy and sold property as a result of settlements. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops established a new agency in Washington devoted to preventing abuse of children and young people, overseen by the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection.
Kraizer says that Hollywood stars lining up to defend Polanski — and Phillips telling audiences she came to enjoy sex with her father — sends the wrong message to children.
“I worry that children don’t have the skills to get out of some of these situations,” Kraizer said. “It would be helpful if someone like Phillips would just rail against her perpetrator and explain that incest is never okay, and that nobody should have sex with a parent, and that children aren’t capable of consent. But I wasn’t hearing that.”
Wayne Laugesen writes
from Monument, Colorado.