Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sexual Misconduct: Redux

Once again the issue of Ralph Johnson comes up. He was arrested in Northern PA yesterday for molesting a boy while serving in the early nineties. In my early days in the diocese, he served a parish that was considered one of the diocesan ‘plums’. It was a parish that had a significant endowment and was a going concern in the Southern Tier. The man was removed from St. Paul’s, Owego in the mid-eighties but he was he never brought up on charges in the church. Why?

Why was and is child abuse so hard to address? Of course it is hard to get children to point out their abusers. The laws make it very difficult for children, and parents do not want their children to have to go through such trauma. But there had always been evidence in Ralph Johnson’s case. There were always parents who knew, children who knew and diocesan clergy who knew. So why was he allowed to continue in the ministry? Why was he allowed to besmirch the reputation of the good clergy of the diocese?

This was under +David Joselyn’s watch. He who was so aggressive in the bringing down of Wally Frey of St. David’s, Dewitt, why did he allow Johnson to continue as a priest? Was it inattention? Or after the defrocking of Frey, was the diocese too afraid to publicize yet another pedophile in its midst? OR was it the advice of lawyers who were afraid of litigation who advised against making Johnson’s profligacy public?

Pedophilia is a horrible crime. It not only damages a child and his whole family, but it damages the whole fabric of the parish and diocese too. For years the parish that has had an abusive priest on its staff has to deal with not only the damage done to the child, but the way that people interact. Sexual misconduct creates a mistrust that cannot be erased by just removing the priest. The whole climate of the congregation is affected. Usually if there is sexual misconduct, the crossing of personal boundaries, there are usually other boundaries that the pedophile has crossed. In most cases there are financial boundaries that have been violated. The congregation develops a code of secrecy that complicates the sorting out of the the history and proper attention to the real problems in the congregation.

There is the secrecy that is promoted by the parents of the children so that they do not have to deal with the fact that their child was one “of those children.” There is the denial of parents who cannot accept the fact that they were not able to protect their children. There is the fear that if their son was violated, could their son be gay? There is the secrecy that comes from a people who felt duped by someone who could violate their children. They often just drift away from the church angry and often faithless, OR they stay with the congregation NEVER talking about the betrayal of Christian values, never getting the pastoral care they need to forgive themselves, the priest, or even the children who were victimized. They blame themselves, they blame gay folk, they blame “society”, they blame everyone but the man who violated the trust that he had been given at his ordination.

The subsequent rectors are often the victims of such betrayers because they have to deal with all the fallout. And usually the fallout is so bizarre and so from left field that the priest never knows what hit him. If she does not know the history of the abuse when she takes the parish, something will come up and bite her. He doesn’t know why he can’t recruit acolytes or there is a strong custom of adult acolytes in the parish. She doesn’t understand the hidebound financial structures that she encounters in the parish and the secrecy that attends to those structures. It usually takes the subsequent rector years of ministry to uncover that there was a priest who violated the trust of the parish who preceded him/her. The parish system is broken and cannot be fixed by simple statements of “we need to move on.”

When a priest is allowed to abuse children without having to be accountable to the church, the whole of the clergy get it in the eye too. When I served in the Diocese of Washington, there had been a couple of instances of sexual misconduct that outraged the clergy of the diocese. A chapter the National Episcopal Clergy Association was active there and took on the issue as a desire to “police” our own profession. It meant that we did not turn away when we knew a fellow cleric was in trouble. There was a pastoral element in it AND an accountability element to it that meant that the monkey was not JUST on the back of the bishop. It was an understanding that justice for the victim, the priest also meant justice for them too.

Here in Central NY we have no such affinity for justice in this diocese. In the case of Ralph Johnson not only was there avoidance, there was a concerted effort by members of the diocese to ‘silence’ those of us who were trying to expose his crimes. There was such a fear that whatever we might say could not be “controlled”. It led to accusations about us that were not true and have even been proven false in church courts. But the distrust continues. Why?

What is being exposed NOW is the system of denial that reigns in the diocese. What comes to light is the complicity of many of the clergy of this diocese who have supported the efforts of the diocese to suppress these crimes of Johnson. “That happened a long time ago” they say. Those who voice “we need to move on” just do not understand the dynamics of sexual misconduct. Without a commitment to justice for the victims, justice for the parishes,and justice for those of us who tried to address the problem, WE CAN’T MOVE ON! Not until the garbage is cleaned out, can we ever have a diocese that doesn’t stink with indifference. No 'listening process' can alleviate this distrust. The stain on the leadership is too deep; the damage too great, the pain too sharp and the distrust too yawning to fix.


Mary Beth said...

Fantastic. So well said.

Ann said...

Thanks Muthah+ -- the damage continues everywhere even tho we have background checks and tighter rules.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

The courage it took to write this brilliant piece of honesty is breathtaking. I have no doubt there will be 'payback' - and, everything that is said about that is true.

It has ever been thus. And, if even if only one child who has been abused is helped and one abuser is taken out of commission, it's worth it.

Thank you.

Ann said...

Episcopal Cafe´has it here - might want to leave comment there.

Kathy Jensen said...

It certainly is tragic that Johnson was not prosecuted and discplined long ago. However, there was no lack of will on the part of the Diocese of Central New York to deal with this matter under the current administration, which did its best to bring light to all it could within the legal constraints it faced. No one has ever suggested that past crimes did not matter or should be forgotten because they happened "long ago." Thank God, however, we are a nation under law and the thirst for rough and ready justice cannot always be assuaged by merely a desire to root out evil.

Continuing to politicize this issue (i.e. Johnson) will not bring any justice or comfort to past victims of sexual abuse or prevent future abuse. On the contrary, all it does is distract, confuse, and divide those who should be putting aside their past differences and focusing on the victims. Whether clergy get along with each other or they with the bishop is beside the point. This is one issue that everyone can and actually do agree on, if only everyone would quiet down and listen to each other.

SCG said...

I'll be sharing this one! Thank you for a no-nonsense take on this topic.

Muthah+ said...

I cannot disagree with you more! I worked in the parish among the people following Fr. Bollinger's removal. Not only has his life as a priest been ruined by this incident, the truth about the financial machinations of Ralph Johnson have never been revealed. David was blamed and his reputation ruined because a throuough investigation was not performed.

There is a climate of distrust among the clergy. It is impossible to cure it until full disclosure is made. It includes the report on the misuse of diocesan officers to enter clergy retirement accounts without permission and the control of those of us who tried to have this case prosecuted.

I would suggest that the cause of such poor handling of the issue was due to incompetence rather than malice, but we cannot continue to support such incompetence.

Phoebe said...

Muthah, my thoughts and prayers are with you as you go through the process. I spent several years in a diocese where several clergy were abused as youngsters, and then some were abusers. The fall out is still happening. But in the end, truth will make you free and bring God's healing. Phoebe+

Noreen said...

Yes, yes, Muthah!

Insurance companies like to talk about "long tail" risks, but that's chopped liver compared with the enduring toxicity spewed by church hierarchies, with their fear of unpleasantness, pants-wetting dread of legal procedures, and obsession with covering their tails.

I think of a young mother who wanted to have her baby baptized, but could it be at her home? She had a more-than-reasonable story behind the request--as a teenager, she had been sexually molested by a previous incumbant.

The miracle, here, is that she still believed that Baptism would bring her child into contact with something worth being connected with!

In her case, the good ol' boys' network had smoothly moved the perpetrator into a different diocese, where he continued to carry on as usual, and was, finally, arrested.

(And that was not the only "private" Baptism celebrated in that place.)

As it happened, I attended a diocesan workshop on the subject of child abuse, and almost the first presentaton item was: Do not expect to be thanked for raising the alarm about clergy sexual misconduct. One of the people who went with me happened to be the mother of that young mum, and she provided a vivid collaboration of that point--her whole family was vilified and ostracized for casting aspersions upon the character of wonderful Father X.

Eventually, time told what it tells.



Ann said...

Bishop responds

Muthah+ said...

Thanks, Ann. There is an error in this article, however. The bishop did know who the victim was in 2006 because I gave it to him. He was also provided with the victim's deposition that I attended.

What I don't understand is why the federal authorities were not notified? This was clearly a violation of the Mann Act. The children (and there were a number)were transported across state lines.

Anonymous said...

What if?

What if Ralph Jonson is innocent?

A deposition is hearsay. It is not proof.

The repetition of an allegation three times does not make it more truthful.

I accept the possibility that it might be true. But where is the proof (beyond say-so)?

I know Johnson and I know Bollinger. The Ralph Johnson I know is a kind, intellectual, thoughtful man with a generous heart. (I so hope none of these charges are true.) But I couldn't be in the same room with Bollinger without feeling like I need to take a shower afterwards.

It is so sad that a man's reputation can be destroyed by mere allegations.

I repeat: What if these charges are false?

Muthah+ said...

Anon, you have made precisely the point I am trying to make. The expectation of innocence is there legally. But when an accusation is made it is to the benefit of EVERRYONE concerned to get it out in the open and follow it to the last conclusion.

Whether we like the persons involved is NOT the issue. It is the truth that is important. Johnson has been accused. Had he been taken to court in 2006 when the accusation first was made, the truth would have been investigated properly instead of the layers of fear and recrimination that have gone on over many years. That Johnson was willing to renounce his orders says much to me. But you are correct in saying that there has been no judgement on his actions. It is highly important for such issues to be taken to court, to be exposed and investigated properly so that people can have confidence in both the legal and the church legal system.

I know both men. I know Fr. Bollinger well and know him to be a good man, honest and caring for his parish and family. He was accused of things that were rooted in Johnson's tenure. Fr. Bollinger was brought to church court and the case was thrown out. He was not just found innocent, but the court found that the diocese had NO case. Yet when the bishop reported this to the clergy, he blamed his law firm for failure to meet deadlines. I asked how much that trial cost the diocese and it was more than a yearly full-time salary for a priest, so I guess that the diocese PAID for such incompetence! T

The accusations have impacted so negatively on Fr. Bollinger, the parish and the diocese that we still do not have the whole truth.

What this whole fiasco shows is that the leadership that we have in the diocese is incapable of keeping the Church safe. I do not know if it due to lack of ability of the bishop or the lack of clarity coming from legal counsel, but what we have is not serving the Church. Clergy who report difficult cases that the bishop does not want to deal with, or might reflect upon the church negatively are denied the community of the Church. This is wrong. It makes the clergy pawns of their bishops rather that people who can advocate for their parish and parishioners. This is not in keeping with the purpose of the canons that allowed rectors to be independant of the bishop so that there was a balance of power.

Part of my raising the issue here is so that perhaps a spirit of truth and honesty might raise its head so that such wrongs may be righted and brought into the Light of Christ.