God vs Gavel
Egypt Can Learn from Survivors
How do the powerless overcome the powerful? Sometimes it is a very basic story. Young David killed the imposing Goliath with no armor and a slingshot. The clergy sex abuse movement started with less, as has the Egyptian movement for democracy. Yet, both show signs of success.
The survivors of clergy sex abuse, especially those from the Catholic Church, have forced an arrogant religious hierarchy to be more accountable and liable. They have dragged the bishops' callous actions and attitudes into the glare of a public spotlight; filed personally painful lawsuits that resulted in the disclosure of an increasing mountain of incriminating information and forced the bishops to pay for the harm they caused; and they have worked tirelessly against all odds.
Here are their three most potent weapons: 1) the internet; 2) their bravery; and 3) their tenacity.
The internet has been a critical tool for survivors to find each other. When an adult sexually abuses a child, it is usually accompanied by threats against disclosure, so a sex abuse survivor can be the loneliest person in the world. When a few began to tell their stories in public, others chimed in, groups like SNAP and Link-Up were formed, and individual suffering became a uniting rather than a dividing force.
The internet was crucial for the movement, because victims were spread across the United States (and we now know around the world). Not only did it assist with bringing the victims together, but it also made it possible for everyone to have access to the blockbuster files from within the bishops' "secret archives," and to reports like the Philadelphia Grand Jury Report on clergy abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. No one needed to leave their living room to become fully educated. The gathering information spurred Anne Barrett Doyle and Terence McKiernan to form www.bishopaccountability.org, which now houses a remarkable trove of hard information on the cover up.
The clergy abuse warriors also have had to be brave against a condescending, wily, and aggressive enemy. The bishops tried to transform the victims into the Church's oppressors. They charged that any victim who filed a lawsuit was just "money-hungry." They then worked to triangulate the parishioners against the victims by telling the parishioners that the victims were intent on destroying their parish and dismantling the Church. They have offered the bare minimum in counseling to those they victimized, as though the lifelong problems suffered by child sex abuse victims were not their fault. Of course, they did not bother to disclose their extreme wealth unless required by court order. It is anathema to them to publicly admit that United States dioceses own vast real estate holdings unrelated to religious use, like office buildings, hotels, and empty lots. The victims have had to learn to accept re-victimization as part of the process.
Finally, their sheer tenacity has been an absolute necessity. Every time the bishops have held a meeting at which they have conferred and then announced "new" initiatives to redress their clergy sex abuse problem, the obvious intent has been to sweep as much as possible back under the rug.
Irrationally, but heroically, stubborn survivors have refused to accept their half-measures as enough. They have missed work, family gatherings, and an infinite number of hours of sleep laboring for this one just cause.
Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge, 2008) and God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge, 2005, 2007).