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.