Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Cultural Blindness

"If it takes a community to raise a child," psychologist Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea writes, "it also takes a community to abuse a child; whenever a minor is sexually violated, someone's eyes are closed." (Perversion of Power, 31)

My ongoing research into various dimension of the clergy sex-abuse scandal has increasingly made me aware that the act of "sex abuse" seldom involves exclusively the Perpetrator and the Victim. Of course, at it's basal level, it does: the perpetrator abuses his/her power and takes advantage of one entrusted to him/her. Nevertheless,  it does appear that a great deal of the anger elicited over the scandal has arisen from the realization that people knew, that authorities had information, yet failed to act. A culture of fear - one does not betray a brother priest - as well as a culture of deference - "Father could never have..." - both contributed to this problem.

A project I'm about to begin, in hopes of presenting the paper at a conference, engages this question: why is it relatively easy to report, or talk about, clergy sex abuse when we have, as a culture, a difficult time talking about the exploitation of minors? This occurred to me in reading a piece in the paper last week by Renée Loth entitled "Exploited boys remain invisible."

Loth suggests that one of the challenges facing those who want to confront the issue of sex trafficking among boys is that we are freighted with culture baggage, attitudes "that refuse to see young men as victims; that somehow they should be able to defend themselves against exploitation."

My thesis: there are certain structural features of clergy sex abuse - a corporate style of dealing with information and moving predatory priests, a culture of secrecy, the exploitation of the vulnerable - that gives a template for discussing these instances of abuse. We've become accustomed to talking about sex abuse by clergy in a particular style.

Yet we have, as a culture, no real template for talking about other types of abuse. Our culture blinds us to the exploitation of entire segments of our society, so we remain in the dark. It's become easy to imagine clergy abuse, but hard for us to conceive of the mass exploitation of children in other ways, particularly sex-trafficking. We've become fixated on one type of scandalous abuse to the detriment of many other victims.

I raise this more as a way of continuing to think through the early stages of my own research. It's a hunch, an intuition, but I fear that failing to ask such questions will contribute to a lingering darkness when our culture desperately needs the light of truth, regardless of how painful and shocking it is for us. 
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