The Catholic community, in America and abroad, is grappling with the horrific details put forth in a new report from the Illinois Attorney General claiming that church officials covered up for over 500 priests accused of abuse, releasing a public document with 185 names on it after compiling a list of 690 priests. The Illinois report followed on the heals of a Pennsylvania grand jury report claiming over 1,000 victims of rape and sexual predation were ignored or actively silenced by church leaders, many of whom sheltered the perpetrators of awful crimes. Though both reports are devastating in their details, neither is shocking. Catholic clergy have a history of raping kids and the church has a history of covering it up.
The practical question the report forces Catholic parents of young children to answer is one parents in the church have faced before: Does my family’s participation in church life jeopardize the safety of my kids? Given that the reports out of Illinois and Pittsburgh follow revelations of a similar nature in Boston, Ireland, Kenya, the Philippines, and Croatia, we must entertain the notion that the answer is “yes.”
As such, many Catholic parents like myself are reconsidering how they engage with churches and religious institutions. Some will walk away. I will not. Instead, I will double down on my involvement in church matters because I’m aware that the presence of a father tremendously diminishes the likelihood of harm befalling a children. Pedophiles disproportionately targeted children with absent fathers. This seems to be particularly true of priests. As such, I see my consistent presence as a prerequisite for my children’s involvement in church life.
In the past, predator priests thrived because they were not seen. As trusted leaders, they could take children out of the sight of parents and other parishioners and commit heinous acts. Consider the landmark 2004 John Jay College of Criminal Justice study of abuse in the priesthood, which found that 40 percent of abuse by priests occurred in the priest’s home or parish residences. Priests lured kids into private spaces with the promise of adult attention and, more specifically, adult attention from a perceived father figure. No wonder that a disproportionate number of victims were wanting for exactly that. No wonder that the offending priests seemed to seek those children out.
“There are all kinds of predators but a true manipulative pedophile will use issues with parents as a way to groom them,” explains Stacey Honowitz Florida supervisor of the Florida State Attorney’s Office Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit. “The trust builds. The abuse takes place and the victim doesn’t want to report the person that abused them. If the parents are completely checked out, that’s a windfall for a pedophile.”
In a video connected with the release of the grand jury report, Robert Corby, an 83-year-old victim of abuse, describes being “targeted for being fatherless” and the grooming that followed. His abuse occurred in the late 1940s as a 13-year-old altar boy. Then his tormentor was gone. No one believed his stories of abuse.
One female victim who spoke to the Grand Jury described being from a broken home and living with an alcoholic father. The priest who abused her was Francis J. Fromholzer. He fondled her breasts and “touched her vaginal area” under her clothes during a trip to the Poconos without her parents. When she reported the abuse to the principle of her Catholic school, Father Robert M. Forst, the priest called her dad in and told the victim “Now, I want you to tell that story that you said – the made-up story that you said about the priest to your father – with your father here.” After the victim told the story again, her father literally dragged her home and beat her with the buckle end of a belt. Fromholzer knew how to choose a victim.
“I think pedophiles and manipulative people like that are probably more fearful if they know that the dad is present,” explains Honowitz. “That’s what I’ve seen. If dad’s in the picture and showing strength, predators are a little bit more hesitant to deal with the kid.”
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University has years of data related to church participation by gender. “Historically women have attended mass more frequently and more regularly than men did,” explains CARA senior analyst Mary Gautier. “While 51 percent of self-identified Catholics are female, women make up 64 percent of those in the pews.”
Despite the horrendous Grand Jury report and the media coverage of its release, it seems unlikely that parishioners will react with concern. One study, released after the flood of news coverage in the wake of the 2002 Boston Globe expose on predator priests, found that news coverage did not affect parishioners views on the church. If anything they felt that the media was biased and had more confidence that the church would be better at handling abuse. I’m not one of those individuals.
As the Pittsburgh report has come to light, I’ve become more acutely aware that my role as a participant in my family’s religious life is not what it should be. I am one of those dads absent from the pews. But my presence is no longer simply a matter of faith. It is now also a matter of presenting myself as a visible barrier. It’s a practical measure for the safety of my children.
As a member of the Cleveland, Ohio, diocese I’ve not seen any reports of local predator priests and have no knowledge of any abuse in my home parish. But I would be incredibly naive to imagine that the horrendous abuse at the hands of priests was somehow stymied by an imaginary, bureaucratic line that separated the states. Do suspect anything of my priest? No. Would I leave my children alone with them? No. That said, I want Catholicism to be foundational to my children’s moral upbringing. At its core, the teachings are profound and powerful. The message remains powerful despite some of the messengers being rapists.
I do not begrudge anyone who has left the church after revelations of sexual abuse. The decision is deeply personal and painful. But, for me, the underlying doctrine of the church carries more weight than the individuals in the church who allowed the abuse to continue and be covered up. Instead of leaving the church, I am going to press it to be better. And I’m going to do so vocally, for the sake of my children and those of my fellow parishioners.