If you’re not from New England, you may have missed news of a devastating sexual abuse scandal engulfing St. George’s School, a prestigious Rhode Island prep school that educated President George H.W. Bush and other children of America’s aristocracy.
Two of the lawyers representing an ever-growing number of accusers there — Eric MacLeish and Carmen Durso — represented dozens of victims in the Catholic Church abuse scandal as well. And the patterns between the two cases are stunning.
Decades of abuse unreported to law enforcement. Institutional secrecy, cover-up, and denial. Perpetrators relocated, but not punished. Victims intimidated and harassed. And when the story made news, as in the Church case, emboldened accusers went public. The number of accusations skyrocketed.
The cover-up of abuse in the Church, which daily preaches morality, is a reason many Catholics cite today for leaving it. And surely there is no good news in the growing number of abuse stories being reported now in private and public schools. Durso has called educational abuse “the clergy abuse crisis of this century.”
Still, as defenders of the Church have long argued, the Church’s horrible performance is hardly unique. Teachers, too — trusted by parents and children alike — not only abuse, but are protected by other teachers and school bureaucrats in the same way Church leaders protected deviant priests.
“A lot hasn’t changed. We didn’t make the child molesters go away,” said MacLeish, who represents the initial St George’s accuser and was also featured in the Church abuse movie “Spotlight.” As a Church victims’ lawyer, he told two Boston newspapers in 1993 that he’d found at least 20 alleged abusive priests in Boston. But neither paper followed up on his claims.
Said MacLeish: “From where I am, I know I can get jaded. But it’s really like all the institutions in America are crumbling, just coming part.”
Said Durso: “Clergy abuse hasn’t stopped. I don’t think it will ever stop. But in all institutions, the first instinct it to protect themselves and each other. The priests, the teachers.”
He cited studies by Charol Shakeshaft, a leading researcher on school sexual abuse. She found that teachers who target elementary school children are often the most popular teachers with a disproportionate number of awards for excellence. Their colleagues can’t fathom that the “teacher of the year” could possibly abuse a small child. In a particularly disturbing Los Angeles case, public school officials knew of complaints against a third grade teacher for 30 years. It took an outside whistleblower — a photo shop clerk noticing what looked like child pornography — to report him to authorities. In 2013, Mark Berndt, by then in his 60s, was finally convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to 25 years in jail.
Mitchell Garabedian, the hero lawyer of “Spotlight,” said this week that victims of clergy abuse from all over the world “are still pouring into my office. It’s endless.” He’s now representing a woman in the Bill Cosby case as well as student victims of sex abuse at prep schools like St. George’s.
“Child abuse is wherever the children are,” he said.
“The bright side is that the public is more aware of protecting their children. But institutions are not going to change. They’re about power and money and secrecy and the victims in these institutions are taught to respect the priest or teacher or Boy Scout leader or coach.”
It’s a bizarre institutional dynamic, really. Many of us, even if we’re not particularly brave, would instinctively act to rescue a child. Run into the street if a child were about to get run over. Dive into the water to save a child drowning.
Yet many of us instinctively do exactly the opposite when a child claims sexual abuse in an institution we’re attached to — or against a teacher, coach or priest we know and admire.
Remember Jerry Sandusky, the much-honored football coach at Penn State convicted in 2012 of molesting dozens of boys and sentenced to 30 to 60 years? Remember how other coaches (including the legendary Joe Paterno) and administrators knew of at least one apparent rape — one coach actually witnessed it — yet for nearly a decade did nothing to prevent Sandusky from raping again and again?
So what is this bizarre dynamic about? Why do so many deny the truth of children’s claims?
None of this is meant to give the Church a pass. Durso said the Catholic hierarchy only acted after being “dragged, kicking and screaming” by lawsuits and law enforcement into admitting its collective criminality.
Clearly its institutional failures continue. Pope Francis, so inspiring and savvy in other areas, seems still not to understand the damage done to children.
In Chile, laypeople have just occupied the local cathedral in protest of Francis’ appointing a bishop linked to the country’s most notorious abuser priest.
In Germany, emeritus Pope Benedict’s brother claims he knew absolutely nothing about the physical and sexual abuse of 231 boys in the famous boys’ church choir there — even though he directed that choir.
In Boston, long-time protestors who’ve braved rain, sleet, and snow every week for 14 years outside Holy Cross Cathedral just announced they’ve given up. They do not believe Francis, or the Church, will ever do what it must to protect children, prosecute priests, or punish bishops who let it happen, including Boston’s own Bernard Cardinal Law.
This is meant to point out that the Church, sadly, is no institutional outlier. Children remain victims. And the powerful keep protecting each other.