Friday, April 12, 2013

Heroes and Villains

As I mentioned the other day, a great deal of my research this semester has been done on the topic of the sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic clergy. It's been a painful subject -- were I to do it over again, I'd not do it during Lent...too much penance! -- but one that has been, ultimately, quite valuable.

The aim of my paper was twofold. First, I wanted to look at two "axes" for considering abuse: the temporal axis and the causal axis. In non-pretentious terms, I simply wanted to know "when" the scandal took place, or if it is continuing to take place, and "what" contributed to it. Was it a problem of homosexuality? Celibacy? Authority? Second, I wanted to consider how the stories of sex abuse were reported. If you look at various news reports across the country, it is surprising how much of a family resemblance there is between the way articles appear. This could be because all cases of abuse are alike or, as it is my assumption, it may be because there is a reigning "narrative template" that enables quick and easy reporting using readily accepted and recognizable phrases.

Although I read a number of studies, articles, and books I settled on three as giving three different portrayals of the crisis: Jason Berry's Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea's Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church, and the John Jay College Research Team's Causes and Context report. Any number of books could be substituted for each of these selections; my choice was based fairly randomly but did take into consideration the varying stances, or on-looks, of each author: a journalist, a psychologist, and a research team.

As I examined the three authors with an eye toward "when" it occurred and "what" enabled widespread abuse to take place, I was struck with what seemed to be a fundamental divide between the authors. Berry's reporting, as with a great deal of news reporting, tended to portray stories of abuse in mythic proportions: good versus evil, heroes and villains. Frawley-O'Dea and the John Jay Report, however, resisted such a construction. Without diminishing the atrocity of any act of abuse, they did nuance their presentations to bring out the complexity of the social and psychological issues at play.

When the vast majority of our information comes from popular news sources, news sources dependent for their livelihood on our consuming their product, it is in their best interest to present the flashiest, most sensational product. Stories typically pander to our baser instincts - TMZ, for instance - and reduce very complex issues to seemingly simplistic typologies of good/bad, right/wrong, right/left, heroes/villains. Most of us know on any given day reality rarely, if ever, is so easily divided into such categories. Yet these categories make for an easy telling of a story, an easy rendering of events.

Discussing the issue of sexual abuse of minors - whether by clergy or any adult, whether it be in a school, church, or youth organization - is going to be painful. It is going to force us to consider the ways we as a culture have turned a blind eye to instances of exploitation. I've written about the abuses of power before: this is not a Catholic issue, it's a social issue we all must face. My stomach churns equally when I read stories of a female teacher seducing male students as when a priest is reported to have molested a child. Culturally, however, our reaction is different: we still think that boys can't fall victim to women, we make light of such abuse, we turn a blind eye toward it.

As a society, we need to work harder to move beyond simplistic dichotomies and grapple with the complexities we are facing. These are neither easy, nor pleasant, exercises. Nevertheless, for the sake of future generations, we need to confront many of these issues forthrightly if we are to avoid a repetition in the future. Stories of Heroes and Villains are fine for cartoons and adolescent novels. Our adult lives seldom fall into such neat categories and the sooner we learn to look beneath simplistic typologies, the sooner we will find the strength to address these issues head-on. 
Post a Comment