Suffer the Little Children

Suffer the Little Children

I’m not a Catholic and not a child and decidedly not a little boy. Yet this story, covered in depth by Ruth Graham of the New York Times earlier this month, haunts me.

It’s based on a new report by the attorney general of Illinois covering decades, which names more than 450 credibly accused sexual abusers in the Roman Catholic Church, including priests and lay religious brothers. That is more than four times the number that the church had publicly disclosed before 2018, when the state of Illinois began its investigation.

The 696 page report found that clergy members and lay religious brothers had abused at least 1,997 children since 1950 in the state’s 6 dioceses, including the prominent Archdiocese of Chicago. Notably, the report adds 149 names to lists of child sex abusers whom the dioceses themselves had publicly identified before or during the investigation, bringing the total number of identified abusers to 451. The additional names were supplied by victims who came forward and shared their accounts with investigators, who then followed up on their accounts. Investigators often also reviewed more than 100,000 pages of files held by the dioceses and interviewed church leaders and their representatives.

One case among many documented in the report involves Thomas Francis Kelly, a priest who abused more than 15 boys ranging in age from 11 to 17 in several parishes in the 1960s and 1970s. A victim contacted the attorney general’s investigators to describe being singled out by Father Kelly as an 11 year old altar server. The priest invited the child to drive-in movies and to spend the night in the rectory, where the priest offered him beer. The boy woke up in the night to find Father Kelly performing oral sex on him, the report says. The priest’s tactics were well-enough known that they became a topic of conversation among the victim’s peers, that is, other children. Two other victims of Kelly shared similar experiences with investigators. The archdiocese moved the priest from parish to parish, according to the attorney general’s report. Kelly died in 1990.

I am not a Catholic and I am not a little boy, nor am I a resident of the state of Illinois. But Illinois is merely the latest state to detail decades of abuse. Attorneys general and grand juries in numerous states (not to mention other countries) have investigated sexual abuse in the church, including an investigation into the Archdiocese of Baltimore released in April of this year. The many investigations were inspired by a sweeping report back in 2018 on 6 dioceses in Pennsylvania, which stunned Catholics across the country. The Illinois report was initiated by Lisa Madigan, the predecessor of current Illinois attorney general Kwame Raoul, who identified early in her investigation a significant gap between the number of clergy members credibly accused and the much smaller number disclosed by the church.

Why does it matter so much?

Well, the effects of clerical sexual abuse and the crisis they created have been rippling through the Catholic Church in the United States for decades. They burst into public view 20 years ago when the Boston Globe documented a massive cover-up of abuse in church settings, brilliantly memorialized on film in the 2015 biographical drama “Spotlight.”

The Catholic Conference of Illinois estimates that Catholics make up about 27 percent of the state’s population—above the national average for a state. In the early 1990s, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago led a pioneering commission on sexual abuse in church settings, establishing a board made up mainly of lay people to evaluate accusations of abuse against clergy members. The attorney general’s report calls the Chicago archdiocese “a leader in the new era of handling abuse claims,” with a policy of removing credibly accused clergy members from ministry rather than shuffling them to new posts. But the report also documents how the archdiocese sometimes failed to act on its own recommendations. In other words, same old, same old.

In advance of the release of the attorney general’s report, the state’s 6 Catholic dioceses released a statement. Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, said in this statement that the church in Illinois “has been at the forefront of dealing with sexual abuse of minors for many years.” But Mike McDonnell, a spokesperson for SNAP, an advocacy group for victims of clerical sexual abuse, said that “this report clearly tells us that no one knew more about abuse and did less about it than these dioceses themselves.”

Most of the abuse documented in the report happened decades ago. The report frankly acknowledges that both criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits will be impossible for many survivors, because of statutes of limitations and the deaths of perpetrators. The investigation’s goals, rather, were to offer an account of past abuse and “provide voice to the survivors.”

Yet I ask why.

Why only that? Some states, including California and New York, have enacted a “look-back window” allowing victims of child sexual abuse and select others to bring civil claims that would otherwise be barred by statutes of limitations. But Illinois is not among them. You may remember my commentary recently about E. Jean Carroll being able to sue for damages in civil court (and win $5 million from Trump for his sexual assault and abuse of her decades ago); she was able to do that because of the New York State ASA: the Adult Survivors Act. Obviously, that act would empower survivors of child abuse as well, at least in New York State and in California. But not in Illinois.

And I find myself thinking, where is the simple human empathy? How can these men—priests, religious brothers, friars, all men, oh claiming even to be men of god—bear to breathe air? How can they serve their masses to the faithful alongside the children they have violated and continue to abuse?

These are mostly boy children. But the human capacity for empathy that I am feeling surely exists somewhere even in the obsessed hearts of their abusers, no? We know about the patriarchal abuse of women, its systemic, all-encompassing qualities. The problem in fact seems to lie with men, because even when there are societies exclusive of women, like the church priesthood, still the commission of acts of violence, domination, perfidy, cruelty, hypocrisy, and mendacity are consistently the same.

The numbers are overwhelming, although they must take their place alongside the millions of women who were burned as witches by the church and the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of women who have died from butchered illegal abortions enforced by the church, and the brutalized women of Ireland’s Catholic Magdalen Laundries and on and on endlessly.

But this is not about numbers. Numbers can, like their very name, literally numb you out.

No, numbers boil down to one child, one child suffering, in this case perhaps one little boy. He is not yet an alcoholic, or Jack the Ripper, not yet a rapist or a batterer, not yet a captain of industry or a ‘bro. He’s just a little boy, sweet, sensitive. Just a child. I think about him, of the cost to the children who will grow into men, some of whom will grow into abusers themselves, tyrannizing other children —boys, and girls, and women.

I am not a Catholic; indeed I am not a religionist at all. But my heart mourns for those whose loss of what they call faith due to this abuse has embittered their entire lives: when they search for the sacred, they don’t think to gaze at the blur of a hummingbird’s wings or inhale the heady perfume of lilacs. Instead they find that the sacred wears the leering face of a priest with whiskey breath.

So, not being a Catholic or a Chicagoan or a little boy, I’m left stunned yet again at the miserliness in those individuals and institutions so systemically in debt to patriarchal thinking that they are utterly bereft of even a shred of empathy. Oh, I have my hands full dealing with the large atrocities and small indignities women weather, every single day of our lives. But that doesn’t mean I can’t spare a moment to stop and grieve for that little boy.