On my parents anniversary a few weeks ago they reminisced about trying to secure a particular Catholic officiate at their wedding. But the priest they selected was not permitted by his superiors to oversee a half-Catholic wedding, and besides, Ron Voss was already in trouble in the diocese for violating traditional practices like hosting mass in someone’s house.
The irony of the story, my parents continued, was that this priest’s most offensive act did not face sufficient punishment from the church. He molested children, and the church’s solution to the problem was to send him far away, to Haiti, where conflicting reports suggest Voss continued his abusive habits.
This anecdote from my parents revived an issue I’ve been mulling over since the Jerry Sandusky trial this summer. Protecting children from predators should be the understood responsibility of all adults. Standing by with knowledge of child abuse condones the crime and is criminal in and of itself. Within the unequal power dynamic of an abusive relationship, children cannot be expected to protect themselves from older, larger, and more influential figures in their lives who may try to hurt them.
The UN’s Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child (this is a human rights document) states that “The child shall be protected against all forms of neglect, cruelty and exploitation.” While the US helped draft this declaration we have not ratified it and are not held to the terms. But many states on their own, have passed legislation naming mandatory reporters who monitor for suspicious treatment of children. Florida just passed an act that “criminalizes failure to report child abuse” in the state.
Reporting charges of child abuse can be painful to pursue. I don’t doubt this. No institution — be it the Roman Catholic Church, the legendary football program at Penn State, or any other establishment — wants to set aside their mission and reputation to deal with a scandal. And no individual witness likely wants to challenge people they’ve previously respected with an accusation of molestation. Taking responsibility for knowledge like that requires courage, and for those who don’t have the will-power to speak up, the judicial system has started to hold them responsible.
While former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky already received a conviction for sexually abusing 10 boys, other cases are pending around the people who may have known of Sandusky’s abuses; related allegations include failure to report and perjury. A report from Louis J. Freeh, director of the F.B.I., outlined that many support staff suspected the abuses and choose to silence concerns, rather than address them. This alleged evasion of confrontation allowed Sandusky to continue to abuse minors over the course of several years.
[In an interesting side note, a primary witness in the case against Sandusky, filed his own suit against the university. Mike McQueary, a former graduate assistant, claims that Penn State used him as a scapegoat, damaging his reputation. His testimony played an important role in the trial, though his subsequent strife illustrates why some may be reluctant to expose the crimes of superiors.]
The Sandusky trial wasn’t the only sexual abuse case to come out of Pennsylvania this summer. In July, a Catholic official, Monsignor William J. Lynn, was sentenced to 3-6 years for concealing sex abuses by priests. This trial marked the first conviction of a Roman Catholic official in the U.S. — although charges of sexual abuse of minors in the catholic church arose frequently over the last few decades.
A petition through Change.org started circulating recently to address a parallel issue in a Kansas City, Missouri diocese. Bishop Robert Finn “shielded a pedophile priest,” reported the New York Times. And the author of the petition, Jeff Weis, wants the bishop to resign his post.
I don’t think this is a tall order, requesting the removal of someone convicted of protecting adult offenders over vulnerable children. The criminal justice system must be careful of newly criminalizing offences, but when it comes to child abuse someone must advocate for children. That means expecting adults to take information they probably didn’t seek or desire and share it with authorities to prevent further abuse. If adult witnesses don’t take action, more and more children will be subject to the predation of abusers.
FYI: Jerry Sandusky faces sentencing this Tuesday, October 9.