Sexual abuse, abuse of power, it’s all awful and terrible and nauseating in any form. But if you’re a person of faith or with even a tenuous connection to any faith, it feels exponentially more awful when the abuse is perpetrated through a God lens.
This week I’ve watched so many of my fellow religion journalists and editors report the heck out of a damning grand jury report released in Pennsylvania that names more than 1,000 children abused at the hands of more than 300 Catholic clergy across six PA dioceses. It has been stomach-churning, visceral and just heartbreaking.
I’ve held sympathy and solidarity across social media with numerous Catholic friends struggling with this, knowing that this is not limited to the Catholic faith. As religion reporters/editors, you inevitably come across this in your work. I’ve been on the “Muslim beat” a long time and can unhappily report that all faiths have their stories of sexual abuse and abuse of power. But what we are seeing reported now is unprecedented.
There is something that much more sickening about preying on children, on people from behind a lens of religion and God. You diminish or destroy what the Church (or mosque or synagogue or temple or whatever) can truly be for people. You rip asunder the relationship people seek to have with God, and you destroy the rafters of what organized religion should be.
It is flesh-and-blood so-called leaders of faith who do this, who wreak this abuse, this havoc, this repulsive destruction. Men (and at times women) in positions of power, some who become celebrity preachers and then that celebrity status goes to their head and bad things happen. Leaders who develop intimate relationships with the men, women and children they council, who use their power and status to grossly twist God’s words and love to prey on the weak.
Or, to quote a famous line from the 2016 Oscar-winning film “Spotlight” which told the story of a team of reporters from the Boston Globe who broke the story of decades-long sexual abuse that tore apart the Catholic Church community in Boston — When you’re a poor kid from a poor family, and when a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal. How do you say no to God?
I’m reminded of recent accusations of abuse against celebrity Muslim religious leader Nouman Ali Khan, or more acutely reminded of the sexual abuse case against the former president of the Institute for Islamic Education in Elgin, ILL, Mohammad Abdullah Saleem.
In covering and reporting on the IIE case three years back, I wrote the following:
How does one move past as the stories keep unfolding, the repercussions keep reverberating, and the community raucous grows louder and more divisive?
How are we, as a far-reaching, non-monolithic Muslim community to respond to charges of sexual abuse in our Islamic schools or places of worship? Do we suppress victims’ stories behind a purdah (curtain) of silence, a notion that we must keep our sins quiet and fix these problems without exposure? Or, do we stand up for victims – shield them, protect them and let their voices be heard? Let the charges be aired out in whatever manner the victims choose, whether in private talks with the accused or publically in a court of law?
What would you tell your loved one, if they said they were being abused? Shhhhh, keep it quiet. You must’ve been mistaken. These things happen. Better to move on.
Or, I will stand with you, and we will seek justice?
When it becomes personal to you, only then will you know.
I’m thinking of Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin’s words in his Religion News Service column, where he lay his sorrow and shared in the pain of his fellow Catholic brothers and sisters:
You, my Catholic friends, deserve the good church. So does the world. …
As difficult as it is now, as betrayed and as befouled as you might now feel – I urge you to cling to the idea that your faith might yet be more powerful than the malfeasance of those whom you once might have trusted.
God stands above our humanly-created structures. God alone deserves your faith.
Paul said: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Which is to say: all of our religious institutions are earthen vessels, imperfect, broken. There is deep promise in those institutions. They are holding treasures.
But, at this moment, God is weeping.
I wonder how we move past betrayal, past abuse, past the twisting of our houses of worships and shattered trust in our leaders of faith. How do we come back to God? I think about these things over and over through years of listening to other people’s stories, through digging deeper into betrayals, reading of testimony and reports of abuse, through having survivors and victims share their stories, just wanting to be believed.
What drives those in positions of power and leadership to prey on those they should be committed to uplifting, to counseling, to ministering, to fostering faith, to helping in the creation of relationships with the All Mighty?
As one who has been on the religion beat, the “God beat” as we call it, for nearly two decades, I’m often left with more questions then answers. I know many of my colleagues feel the same, and my Catholic colleagues and friends even more so. It’s a painful time, a hurtful time, a soul-crushing time.
A time for praying.