Watching from Afar

12-10-2017Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

Sometime during that long, painful Lent of 2002, as the Church’s abuse scandal unfolded, I said that one day, by God’s grace, the Church would be in a position of leadership on this issue. That day has now come. Now is the time to use our experience to help others. Watching someone else’s scandal unfold is painful and haunting. Someone asked if I was glad to see the media, Hollywood and public officials get their comeuppance, especially after how viciously so many of them went after the Church. Not at all. It is a joyless moment. That’s because another scandal means that people have been harmed and as the moral panic spreads a wide net is cast which means that innocent people will get caught up in the fallout as due process is shunted aside, and mob justice replaces it. Slowing down the moral panic that these revelations cause is often like trying to stop a speeding freight train. Sadly, a lot of bystanders get run over.

All of us in the Church know from our experience that as a scandal unfolds, it’s like nuclear fission; it will rip through organizations and institutions quickly and thoroughly, just as it tore through diocese after diocese in the US. To all of those who are going through an unfolding scandal in your organization, know that it will cause incredible pain and wreckage and extract a terrible price. At the same time, it can be an opportunity to rid your organization of the evil of sexual abuse. Steady yourself for the long haul, and don't be surprised if you often feel as if you are wading through pools of raw sewage. Unfortunately, trust will be destroyed, sometimes permanently, among people inside and outside your organization. Still, be committed to restoring trust.

And just as so many of us in the Church have asked, “How could this happen?” and “How is it that we didn't know about it?” many in other organizations are asking the same questions. That’s because sexual abuse and harassment often have fuzzy qualities about them. The film, Doubt does a good job of showing how most people mistake the signs of abuse for something else. But those who are armed with knowledge and a willingness to enforce the rules, as the Mother Superior in the film was, can spot the early warning signs of abuse.

As someone who has dealt with the issue of sex abuse for the past 30 yrs from just about every angle, there are some things I would share with those in the media, Hollywood, and the Halls of Congress. First, stop splitting hairs; don't compare degrees of abuse or harassment cases. That only gets you tripping over your words and makes it look like you are absolving some and condemning others.  The media frenzy and contingency lawyers will be in relentless pursuit. You will not win the PR game. Therefore, commit yourself firmly to putting in place policies and procedures to prevent abuse, to allow for reporting of real or suspected abuse, to develop objective investigation procedures, and make sure that you are doing what you say you are doing to make your organization a safe place for men, women and children. This means that everyone has to abide by the same rules, no exceptions ever. From the CEO to the janitor, all must be trained repeatedly on how to create, maintain, and monitor the environment so that it is safe.

When the two ingredients of power and opportunity combine, abuse becomes more likely. So if it is a Hollywood director who has the power to make or break an aspiring actress’s career and they are together alone and unobserved, the situation becomes unsafe. That power differential can be played out in a hundred ways in all sorts of organizations. So create safe environments where people can be observed. Have a process in place so that a person can report incidents of harassment or abuse so that it can be objectively investigated, and all person’s rights can be respected. The accused deserve due process; not all accusations are real. Then make sure to have a policy of disciplinary procedures so that you know what action to take in each circumstance. Is this referable to law enforcement? Is this an HR issue? Is counseling or additional training required, etc?  The punishment should fit the crime. Again, no one gets a pass because of position or title. This is not a one-time deal. It is a commitment to a way of doing business permanently.

As you read this, I realize I am not telling you anything you do not know. Those who work and volunteer in the Catholic Church are well trained in Safe Environments. I know that it is not always fun to renew the training each year, but I hope, in light of all that has unfolded recently in our culture, you can see how important it is. Because of your trained eyes and ears, we are able to keep our environment safe and able to deal with any issues before they become problems.

So if you are not up to date in your training, you have until the end of this month to do so, or I will have to “disinvite” you from volunteering or participating in Church-related ministry. If you need help, contact the Parish or School Office for assistance. In the meantime, please pray for all those who have been harmed by sexual abuse or harassment and that a greater respect for all people may emerge from this latest scandal.

Love, Fr. John B.

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