[Note: I’ve changed minor details below in order to respect the privacy of the people involved. Also, this is a sensitive topic. Please skip this post if you suspect it may distress you.]
In light of the recent Penn State sex abuse scandals, Mark Shea wrote an excellent piece about Betrayal and the Power of Relationship, and Mary Graw Leary on Sexual Abuse and Moral Indifference. I agree with both. But I want to add one other observation:
Sexual abuse is very difficult to believe.
I once read about a woman who had murdered her school-age child. The neighbors were all quoted as saying “they couldn’t believe it,” she was, “Such a good mother.” They pointed to her diligence in making sure the child brushed his teeth — small things that showed her humanity and her visible love for her child. Whom she murdered.
Sin is like this. It is a corruption of something very, very good. Think of the devastation of a natural disaster — even after the land is ruined, there is still evidence of what once was. We see the few good and beautiful things that are left. We look for them.
It is a rare human (I have not met one) who is so consumed by sin that not a shred of goodness remains. And because sin prefers darkness, we all put our good parts forward, and conceal the rest. The more shameful the sin, the more diligently we cover it.
Sexual abuse violates something so sacred, so private and personal, that of course we want it hidden. Even the victim wants it hidden — that is, though of course wanting justice, does not want this very painful and intimate wound put out for the world to gawk at.
Because it is such a shocking violation of the one thing that should never be violated, it is difficult even for the victim to believe in it. Violent stranger rape? Yes, that is undeniable. But the subtle, groping hand of the pervert making his first tentative reach? It is easy to dismiss the internal shudder, the instinctive recoiling, as an over-reaction, perhaps a misinterpretation of a harmless gesture. The molester certainly wants it perceived that way.
I once had to review the background check of a creepy guy. You would not like this guy. Inappropriate comments, inability to hold down a steady job, lousy hair, a thousand clues that added up to one thing: Run a background check. I gave it a 75% chance he had a record. I didn’t know what — bad checks maybe? — but I knew it was likely we’d find something.
What we found was this: Lewd acts with a minor.
And it was hard to believe. Here was an obnoxious, unpleasant, barely-literate and sometimes-delusional jerk, but you know, he was also a nice guy. Held doors for people out of genuine consideration. Kept his work area neat and clean out of personal pride. Would do small kind things for others, expecting and wanting nothing in return. Original sin and personal sin corrupt, but they do not completely destroy all that is good and pure in a man.
I could have believed bad checks. I could have believed armed robbery. But lewd acts? Really?
Most of us understand greed, selfishness, foul temper, impulsiveness, desperation. We are tempted to pass our smallish 13-year-old off as two years younger, in order to get the child discount. Though we would never rob a bank, we can connect the dots and understand that a poorly-instructed man might fall into that temptation.
But sexual perversion is not a sin we understand so easily. That a man would hop in bed with a grown woman? Certainly. But not with a child. It is unthinkable. Men who have no qualms about murder, or robbery, or arson, instinctively and violently lash out against the fellow prisoner who is guilty of sexually harming a child.
How could you do that? It is like a lightning on a clear day, or a hurricane in a desert. We cannot believe it. It is utterly foreign to all that we know.
The abuser knows this. And so keeps it very, very hidden.
If someone had come to the officials at Penn State and said, “We believe the coach is embezzling,” or “Someone saw him doing crack in the men’s room,” there would have been an investigation. Reluctant, perhaps. But it happens — great men can be tempted in these ways. We understand it.
But sodomizing a young boy? It is easier to believe in a false accusation. That, after all, is motivated by jealousy or revenge or greed, emotions we all can understand. It is easier to believe my creepy, seedy colleague was victim of a viciously slanderous ex, than to believe he molested a child. How much more difficult to believe someone so polished, so successful, so good and kind on such a grand scale, could do something so vile?
Our culture doesn’t believe much in either sin nor forgiveness. Out of a desire to do what we like, we re-categorize sinful acts, calling them innocent so that we might indulge ourselves. Out of fear of condemnation, we justify yet more, giving them particular names that explain our extenuating circumstances. The person who questions immoral actions is the villain — called a prude, puritan, pharisee, or hypocrite — whatever can be made to fit.
How can we believe in unbelievable sins? We have to first believe in the smaller ones. And then we have to forgive — not excuse — those sins. Good, kind, lovable people do evil things. Cultivating a heart of mercy and forgiveness is the only way bring ourselves to be willing to see that evil.