More sex abuse scandals: “We found a culture of secrecy…”

But it’s not what—or who—you might think it is.

Catholics are understandably weary of hearing about sex abuse scandals. But we mustn’t deny what has happened and, sadly, what continues to happen:

“We found a culture of secrecy,” said Carrie Teegardin, a reporter on the paper’s investigative team for the project.

“It’s treated with a sort of secrecy that we don’t see in other arenas when we’re talking about allegations this serious,” she told ABC News. “It’s still swept under the rug in so many cases.”

Some high-profile cases have led to criminal prosecutions.

That is from a July 6th ABC News piece, which in turn is about a much longer and in-depth piece recently published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The title? “License to Betray”—with the subhead: “A broken system forgives sexually abusive doctors in every state, investigation finds”. The investigative piece is everything you might expect: harrowing, shocking, angering, maddening, and sickening.

ABC News summarizes some key points:

More than 2,400 U.S. doctors have been sanctioned for sexually abusing their patients, according to a new report that, for the first time, surveyed records from all 50 states and reveals the nationwide scope of a problem that may be almost as far-reaching as the scandal involving Catholic priests.

State medical boards, which oversee physicians, allowed more than half the sanctioned doctors to keep their licenses even after the accusations of sexual abuse were determined to be true, according to a yearlong investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

This comes about nine years after the Associated Press ran an in-depth report about sexual misconduct in public schools in the U.S.:

Students in America’s schools are groped. They’re raped. They’re pursued, seduced and think they’re in love.

An Associated Press investigation found more than 2,500 cases over five years in which educators were punished for actions from bizarre to sadistic. There are 3 million public school teachers nationwide, most devoted to their work. Yet the number of abusive educators — nearly three for every school day — speaks to a much larger problem in a system that is stacked against victims.

Most of the abuse never gets reported. Those cases reported often end with no action. Cases investigated sometimes can’t be proven, and many abusers have several victims. And no one — not the schools, not the courts, not the state or federal governments — has found a surefire way to keep molesting teachers out of classrooms.

The parallels to the cases of predator doctors are striking and sickening, as described in the AJC piece:

How do doctors get away with exploiting patients for years? Some victims say nothing. Intimidated, confused or embarrassed, they fear that no one will take their word over a doctor’s. Colleagues and nurses stay silent.

Hospitals and health care organizations brush off accusations or quietly push doctors out, the investigation found, without reporting them to police or licensing agencies. …

Physician-dominated medical boards gave offenders second chances. Prosecutors dismissed or reduced charges, so doctors could keep practicing and stay off sex offender registries. Communities rallied around them.

Predators are adept at finding positions of power and authority; they are willing and able to live double lives and to use their positions to control, manipulate, and abuse. They are sometimes able to rely on superiors and “the system” to cover up their evil acts and to allow them repeated access to potential and actual victims. While I have never had first-hand experience in such matters, I do know people who have been sexually abused, and in all cases the perpetrators were astonishingly adroit in their ability to deceive and mislead. The word that comes to mind, again and again, is “pathological”.

When the clergy sex abuse scandals became national news in the late 1990s, it became routine for critics to claim that clerical celibacy was one of the reasons for such abuse—or even the biggest reason. “If only priests could marry!” became a routine line, even among many Catholics. Attempts to show that sexual abuse by Catholic priests was not disproportionately higher than abuse within other institutions or among other groups (religious or non-religious) were usually met with ridicule and claims that Catholics weren’t serious about addressing the issues. And, of course, Catholics were told that priests should be “held to a higher standard” (as if teachers or doctors should meet a “lesser” standard!). But this ignored or dismissed some essential points:

1). Catholics who argue for some sense of proportion are not—at all—making light of abuse. On the contrary, they are pointing out that acting as if abuse is predominantly a “Catholic problem” actually gives cover to other abusers.

2). If you are really against sexual abuse—and every decent person is and must be—then you should be willing to not only admit that it has been a serious problem within the Catholic Church but that it continues to be a serious problem within public schools, medical institutions, sports programs, and other secular institutions.

3). Sexual abuse, whether or children or adults, is not an evil caused by the taking of vows. Rational people should be able to see that such abuse is not fueled by vows of chastity but by deeply disordered desires that are, I think, only partly sexual. The need to control, coerce, and manipulate speaks to something else; certainly it is incredibly vile and destructive.

4). Catholics are completely within bounds to argue, as I often have, for the beliefs and disciplines involved in the Church’s teaching about chastity and continence, while also denouncing and condemning any sort of abuse and all sexual sin. In fact, I don’t see how it could be otherwise. Sadly, too many Catholics are deeply confused (either intellectually, morally, or emotionally) about the distinctions involved in such a stance.

5). Finally, Catholics should not fail to point out that the Church, despite the many failings of various individuals, has done more to address sexual abuse within her institutional structures than any other institution. Yes, we can always do better. But we also recognize how weak and frail we all are, and how those who give in to their twisted passions and prey upon others can be incredibly resourceful and deceptive—as the ASJ piece describes, in quite horrific detail. 

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Carl E. Olson 1233 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.