A couple of weekends ago I saw the movie Spotlight, the film about the Boston Globe Spotlight investigative team of reporters that broke the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in 2002. A few days after seeing the movie the City of Swift Current issued a public apology to the victims of Graham James, a hockey coach and sexual predator who in the 1980s devastated the lives of a number of junior hockey players.
Some may question why a city should apologize for the actions of one criminal, or why the church should be held responsible for the actions of disturbed individuals. But a quote from the Spotlight film stays with me. A Boston lawyer for some of the victims, Mitchell Garabedian, tells a reporter, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”
Pedophiles, we have learned, have multiple victims, sometimes numbering in the hundreds in crimes that go undetected for years. Confounded people shake their heads and wonder how. But someone, maybe many, always know, or suspect, or have at least a tiny hunch that something is off, and they let it go, look the other way, push it from their minds, perhaps to protect the reputation of a successful hockey team, a community, a family, an individual, an institution as large as the church, or maybe they simply can’t fathom the horror of such a thing and choose to ignore it. It has nothing to do with me. It can’t be happening. Or else, it’s exaggerated. After all, this person is known, friendly, kind, responsible, contributes to the community. Surely this isn’t true.
The Village has a million rationalizations. What’s a kid compared to a Village? Villagers would rather deal with their own niggling suspicions than take the risk of investigating. And anyway, these are kids. Kids get things wrong, make things up, don’t they? No one is really being hurt, right? How bad can it be? They’ll forget about it. Bounce back. They’re resilient.
We hear of adult abuse victims who turn to alcohol and drugs, behave recklessly and sometimes take their own lives. They must be the exceptions, we tell ourselves. The poor sods who couldn’t forgive and forget.
Maybe some of you are sick of hearing about this. Well, except for the high-profile abuse victims who turn their lives around: Sheldon Kennedy. Theoren Fleury. Oprah Winfrey. Tyler Perry. Carlos Santana. Yeah, we figure. You can talk about it if you’ve done something awesome. The rest of you quit blaming and just get over yourselves.
It’s not that simple. One of the adult victims interviewed by Spotlight reporter Sacha Pfeiffer tells her, with emotion, that when someone does those things to you at an early age, “it really messes you up.”
You can forget, sort of. At least the details, if you don’t “go there.” You can forgive. People can forgive almost anything. But there is life past forgiveness and in that life there is still infection. And that’s the messed-up part. The infection is called shame, so deep-rooted it evades healing even with years of therapy. It has nothing to do with memory and forgiveness. It’s just there, beyond thought. Part of you, like skin.
Shame lives inside issuing directives. Make yourself small, so small, as not to be noticed. Unobtrusive. Be thin in mind and body. Shrink when you’re with others so no one will have to touch you. Be invisible.
Shame tells you your very presence is offensive. It is the sense that everyone can see the flaw inside — it emanates like a foul smell — and no matter what you do, it can’t be disguised. Not by artfully tied scarves, expertly applied makeup or a fit physique. Shame sets up a prescription for perfection in order for you to be acceptable, and berates you when it cannot be attained. Shame is demanding and cruel. No mercy.
Shame makes you cold — you’re a dead fish. No one wants to hug a dead fish and fish don’t have arms so they shouldn’t hug anyway. Shame makes you hesitant to hug your grown children because it tells you they are old enough to feel the disease and be disappointed. Disappointed with you.
Shame tells you not to trust. It is not trusting that you can be loved, and not trusting those who love you. Shame is suspicion. It doubts the goodness of the world and sees peril in ordinary days. Be wary.
Shame insists you are not good. It says you are not enough. Shame tells lies — you know they are lies — yet you are seduced into believing them.
It watches as you construct the building blocks of a solid foundation every day, and takes pleasure in knocking the blocks down, sometimes removing one or two, and sometimes sweeping the whole foundation away. Shame is exhausting. Depressing. Diabolical.
But not insurmountable.
The sexual abuse of a child causes a rupture within that child’s soul, impairing relationships — with the self, with others, and with God. It is the work of a lifetime to mend the breach.
It took a city — an earthly city — 20 years to apologize for the crimes of one man. What about God’s city? The church is supposed to be in the business of saving souls, yet after hundreds of years it cannot take responsibility for the systemic destruction of countless souls.
If it takes a village to abuse a child, it is the village’s responsibility to take part in the healing.