Invisible Walls

I saw a story on Facebook this week from the Irish Times, one of Ireland’s major papers, entitled We Owe Sinead O’Connor an Apology. And I thought, what? I had not heard that name in years. But I remember very distinctly what she did in 1992 on a live broadcast of Saturday Night Live. She tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II. And I was watching. Like any other good Catholic boy, I was outraged. This was John Paul, the Polish Pope, the anti-communist Pope, the man people rank with Ronald Reagan for ending the Cold War. He was beloved by Catholics and millions outside the faith for his strength and courage. He restored prestige to a Papacy that had been tarnished by its mixed record during the Second World War. The last thing I wanted to see on Saturday Night Live was some counter-cultural nonsense that our Pope was the enemy. I tuned out whatever message she was sending with her music, and happily joined the popular outrage at her actions.

But many decades later, it turns out the message I refused to hear when it was given was that children were being abused by the Catholic Church. I built an immediate mental barrier to this new information. And sadly, that is the normal human response. Some psychologists refer to it as the “invisible wall” effect that has us running into the same facts again and again, but never willing to accept them. It is the wall we build between reality, and what we want reality to be. And unfortunately, this invisible wall is particularly high and pernicious in the context of child sexual exploitation.

In modern times, the sexual exploitation of children is perhaps the only crime for which society has no tolerance. The mere mention of it frequently brings out a medieval mindset in people who will exclaim “castrate them all” or “kill them all” even in polite company. And yet it happens, and by some measures, is happening more frequently now than before. And so, the invisible wall goes up. Rather than accept that piece of unnerving information, we filter it away and pretend it does not really exist. Why? Because accepting the information would require us to take action and make fundamental change. Since humanity prefers not to do that, we turn a blind eye instead. Would prostitution really be an institution if men did not build an invisible wall filtering out evidence that it is frequently child rape? Would police departments still arrest child victims of trafficking, instead of perpetrators and pimps, if there was not an invisible wall concerning child sexual trafficking? Would parents ignore signs of sexual abuse from people they trust, if not for the invisible barrier that keeps them from recognizing a horrible truth?

The Catholic Church is not the “true enemy” as Sinead O’Connor declared. ECPAT was founded with the help of Catholic orders that today do amazing work in the field of human trafficking and on a host of other issues affecting children. But the Church does have a very high invisible wall in dealing with clergy that have committed horrible crimes. As nearly everyone is now aware, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court released a report identifying over 1,000 children who had been abused in the State of Pennsylvania by over 300 clergy over a period of 70 years. The report notes the efforts of Bishops to cover up the cases in a familiar pattern of transferring priests to other parishes and pressuring families to say nothing. Tragically it is a tale we have been forced to read again and again, in Boston, Ireland, Canada, Australia and Chile. And equally tragically, you can watch the invisible walls to this information being built. The President of the Catholic League Bill Donohue, remarked “Most of the alleged victims were not raped: they were groped or otherwise abused, but not penetrated, which is what the word ‘rape’ means.” Meanwhile, in a deposition, Syracuse, New York Bishop Robert Cunningham suggested that since the “Age of Reason” — meaning the ability to tell right from wrong — in Catholic doctrine is age 7, boys who experienced sexual abuse may have some culpability for it. The responses are as predictable as they are disappointing.

Fortunately, today, Pope Francis issued a letter to Catholics around the world, that struck a different tone. He said:

"With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them."

It is an important first step in bringing down the invisible wall that has kept the Catholic Church from making the sort of fundamental change necessary to move past this era once and for all. As has occurred in other jurisdictions, we believe that the statute of limitations should be waived for these cases in Pennsylvania. We also think that the Catholic Church, like other institutions that have adults working in close contact with children, must adopt more rigorous screening standards for clergy and seminarians.

However, an important lesson for all of us is to attend to the invisible walls that we throw up that make it easier to ignore difficult realities. When Sinead O’Connor criticized my Pope, I did not want to hear it. But way back in 1992, she was right. Children were being abused under Catholic care. She was correct to call attention to it. She was correct to protest. And so, I have to accept that like all people I have my blind spots. But that does not excuse us from identifying them and removing them. None of us should turn a blind eye when the lives of children hang in the balance.