For a long time now, I have been thinking about a metaphor good enough to represent the many ramifications of priest pedophilia and child abuse. One analogy is ripples in a pond: abusing a child is akin to throwing a stone in a pond — it sends out widening ripples impacting family, relatives, friends, believers, society. So the ripple effect means that abuse of one child ultimately creates many victims.
Now recent events have set me wondering if I need a better metaphor. The Defense Dept. has recently released the results of a study showing a rise in the number of reported cases of sexual assault in the military, with thousands more going unreported for fear of negative consequences. This depressing evidence of what the New York Times calls an “entrenched culture of sexual violence” in the military suggests that we need to move beyond a conception of abuse as one-on-one violence, and see it for what it really is, namely, institutional abuse.
Why? Because apparently different cases of child and adult abuse involving religious or military members all have one thing in common: they are all linked by abuse of power between a superior and an inferior, within an institutional context — a context (whether Vatican or Pentagon) that enables the abuser, by providing him or her both status and opportunity, with little fear of sanction.
Whether it is an Air Force officer in Colorado Springs leaning on a subordinate for sexual favors, or a Catholic Cardinal in Edinburgh, Scotland leaning on his seminarians and new clerics to service his needs, or a Salesian priest from New York taking advantage of disadvantaged youth at summer camp, all these recorded cases are fueled by the same dynamic. Under cover of title or privileged status, confident of shelter by authorities, or manipulating fears of exposure or dismissal, the more powerful member of an abuse dyad uses his or her authority to force the victim to conform, to obey, to submit, to surrender. Respect, dignity, humanity are all sacrificed to the thrill of sexual power, in order to subject other people (child or adult) to your will.
Children and adults get victimized, not only because they are available, vulnerable, and exploitable, but also because there is often little risk that the umbrella institution won’t cover up for the abusive employee, in order to save face and preserve its public image. So abusers abuse twice — first the victim, then the employer — leveraging the latter’s vulnerability along with that of their victims. Penn State, for example, was abused by Sandusky; unfortunately it fell into the trap Sandusky set for them.
Sure, we have laws and constitutional protections to safeguard us from harm. But harm occurs, regardless, because people exploit the system, knowing that the system is weak and exploitable. And even if you are caught, recent evidence (both religious and secular) amply demonstrates how the self-preservation instincts of the institution often trump criminal prosecution. It’s not that institutions are immoral, it’s just that their morality is expediency.
While I search for a new metaphor to capture the harmful effects of abuse of power expressed via sexual assault, President Obama and his new Defense Secretary could provide a salve to my pessimism by crafting an honorable solution to a chronic military problem. Even Pope Francis might take note of that.