Reports about the sex abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church reveal a clerical culture conducive to both sex abuse as well as its cover up. For example, a 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report covering six Catholic dioceses says that hundreds of priests abused at least 1000 children over the course of thirty years. Bishops overlooked numerous crimes of priests who remained in active ministry.
Most stories focus on the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and their role in this culture of sex abuse and cover ups. Few mention the complicity of the parents and other laity. As a Catholic mother of four kids, I have been preoccupied with the nature of some of the abuse. Parents cannot prevent all bad things that could happen to their children. However the fact is that clergy abuse of children was common and ongoing in many Catholic families. Some kids were abused dozens of times. There are examples of multiple children in the same family being abused over multiple years. Teenage girls would end up pregnant. At least one priest facilitated an abortion of a girl he impregnated.
Why didn’t the parents of these victims do more to prevent abuse or to stop ongoing abuse?
The idea that many higher-level bishops were not aware of the crisis strains credulity. However it is equally difficult to believe that the parents of victims were simply unaware of what was happening to their children. The most reasonable assumption is that a good portion of the parents of abuse victims did suspect their children were being abused. A good portion of these parents must have come to suspect that something was gravely wrong with the relationships between their kids and their priests. At least a decent portion must have been presented with solid evidence of the abuse of their children, such as injuries due to rape or pregnancy.
This is one of the things Catholics do not want to face. We attend child protection trainings. We tell ourselves that the one key to preventing further abuse is memorizing signs of sexual grooming. However we fail to acknowledge the complicity of the laity in the abuse crisis. We fail to acknowledge the likelihood that hundreds if not thousands of Catholic parents ignored the abuse of their own children by priests. These parents were either profoundly negligent, willfully ignorant, or fully cooperating in this abuse.
As lay members of the Roman Catholic faith community we need to acknowledge that members of our own ranks also participated in the culture of sex abuse cover ups. As newly ordained priests inherit a legacy marred by the forebearers of their vocation, we do as well.