The year of our Lord 2002 will be known, in history texts yet to be written, mostly for economic recession, our war against terrorism, and the Bush campaign against Iraq. The church must add to that litany of infamy, however, another crisis-come-to-light. We must remember well and never forget the crisis of clergy sex scandals.
It did not begin last January, of course. The scandal has been with us always—just hidden from public scrutiny and media commentary. Thousands of clergy abuse victims have known all along what was going on, confusing though it may have been for them. Surely their perpetrators knew, despite denials and claims of memory lapse. Even ecclesial judicatories knew of many abusive situations, but covered them up so as to protect reputations and church coffers. Many others of us have known of sexual misconduct on the part of our pastors or peers, but we said nothing.
This was our shame, whether or not we felt ashamed. As a corporate body with offending and offended members, we were guilty long before we were forced to acknowledge our culpability.
And now the church’s shame is its victims’ vindication. The floodgates of pent-up suffering in silence—victimization without voice—were opened a crack last January. Every day since has seen new revelations, more allegations, long-held secrets disclosed, further inquiries, many convictions—and a mounting sense of crisis. Hopefully the church and its clergy leadership will never be quite the same. Hopefully, perpetration with impunity will be tolerated no longer and public scandal will lead to ecclesial accountability.
Victims found their voice this year. While each new revelation of abuse arouses outrage in some, fear in others and increasing shame for us all, there is this other dimension to disclosure that must be recalled. From privatized victimization to public vindication—that is indeed a memorable era for victim-survivors. Let us note this, and remember.
Outside my seminary faculty office door hangs a graphic reminder. The charcoal sketch of two female faces is framed with cloth in an African print, which is wrapped like a head-covering in the ethnic tradition of its female creator. Done as a project for my introductory course in pastoral care and counseling, the artist depicted her own image as a child sexual abuse victim. The accompanying image is that of the same woman, older now, an adult sexual abuse survivor. The eyes of both are large, sad, brimming with tears. There are no mouths. Until recently, she had no voice.
By permission, with her blessing, I display the victim-survivor’s creation as a reminder to me and all others who enter my office or simply pass by. What the artwork means to each of us varies according to interpretation and our own experiences in life. Yet none who gaze can help but notice the eyes and miss the mouths.
Post-2002, what this might signify is that public shame for some is public vindication for others. For all those victims of clergy sexual abuse who previously were without voice, 2002 has been a banner year. Innumerable others are voiceless still.
Lest we forget.
Tarris Rosell is associate professor of pastoral care and practice of ministry at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.