Sexual abuse in religion, particularly within the Catholic Church, is again making headlines across the U.S. This time, the thrust of the charges is that religious institutions — from Catholic Church to the Jehovah’s Witnesses — have not implemented policies to protect the abused and still tend to keep such matters behind closed doors.
In an in-depth article on clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in National Review (Feb. 11), Rod Dreher notes that since the emergence of sexual abuse cases in the mid-1980s things have not drastically improved much in how the church deals with such offenses. The spotlight now is on the Archdiocese of Boston, where priests admitting to sexual abuse were allowed to function as priests in parishes and were not reported to the police even when their activities came to light.
Dreher writes that although some bishops have made an effort to cooperate with the law in reporting sexual abuse cases, even newly written Vatican directives tend to restrict the right of bishops to move quickly against suspected pedophile priests. Another change since the late 1980s is that laity are more skeptical of the hierarchy and “no longer trust the bishops to do the right thing by their children.” Laity — both conservative and liberal — are not hesitant to “appeal to law-enforcement authorities and the secular media for remedy.”
In a Feb. 7 article for National Review Online (http://www.nationalreview.com/dreher/dreherprint02072.html), Dreher reports that many conservative Catholics are rethinking their view that sex scandals involving Catholic priests are the fault of moral and theological liberalism. This is because one of the leading traditionalist Catholic groups, the Society of St. John, is now under scrutiny for charges of sexual molestation by two of its leaders.
The society, a breakaway group from the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, and the bishop supervising the group, Bishop James Timlin of Scranton, Pa., are being accused of foot-dragging and covering up these crimes. The two priests were reassigned, but not suspended, pending the outcome of an investigation into the case.
Meanwhile, recent allegations of sexual abuse in the Jehovah’s Witnesses by current and former members are posing more serious challenges to the Watchtower organization. There have been several court cases in the past few years where members have accused Jehovah’s Witnesses elders or leaders of sexual molestation. Now two cases are working their way through the courts that seek to indict the Watchtower organization itself for shielding and supporting child abusers. One case filed in January in Washington state seeks unspecified damages from the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters for policies that discourage abuse victims from reporting this crime to police.
Last year’s formation of Silent Lambs (http://www.silentlambs.org), an advocacy and support group for JW’s experiencing abuse, signals a new assertiveness on this issue. Founder of Silent Lambs, William Bowen, says that Jehovah’s Witnesses are “where the Catholics were on the abuse issue about 20 years ago.”
In an interview, Bowen told RW that the JW’s practice of discouraging members from going to courts to resolve issues — particularly when they involve fellow members — as well as disfellowshipping (or shunning) dissenting members makes the organization amenable to sexual abusers.
Those who experience abuse are told to “leave it in God’s hands,” while elders who may have committed such acts are forgiven and not reported to the police, according to Bowen. Since attempting to confront leaders over the issue can lead to shunning, many abused members choose to suffer in silence, he adds The Watchtower Society has issued a statement denying that the church has any sanctions against congregation members reporting abuse to authorities. The statement adds that the church complies with laws requiring elders to report such incidents to the authorities.