It would have been a shocking story no matter when it came to light, but 20 years ago the Catholic Church sexual abuse case rocked the world. Pope John Paul II, in his first email, apologized on behalf of the church in November 2001— saying the "fathers wished to apologise unreservedly to the victims for the pain and disillusionment caused to them.” His message came in a report from a gathering of clergy, or synod meeting, held in 1998. And it was part a long list of formal regrets about other church misdeeds.
A year after John Paul II's statement in 2002, the horrific circumstances and extent of the sexual abuse were exposed by The Boston Globe. In 2018, Pope Francis apologized again for the “shame and sorrow" of the tragic history. The Globe’s Spotlight investigation went beyond Boston to include other countries — linking thousands of priests to the abuse of mostly boys. The vile details of the abuse anchored on the front pages of the Globe was another kind of breakthrough. Twenty years ago, there was little public dialog about sexual abuse. Forcing this behind-closed-doors discussion out into the open was critical in helping drive the movement advocating for victims and survivors.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center founded the annual public campaign to inform, educate and raise awareness about sexual abuse during the month of April. I’m deeply saddened that this month’s campaign is the backdrop for more than one high profile incident of abuse.
Given that every 73 seconds an American is sexually abused, abuse is happening every day, every month. During the last few weeks, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz has been accused of exploits with a 17 year old and of brandishing nude photos of women he dated on the floor of Congress. Both are possible crimes — sex trafficking and nonconsensual pornography. The Justice Department is investigating the alleged relationship with the 17 year old, and the House Ethics Committee has also launched an investigation. Gaetz responded to the House probe saying, “These allegations are blatantly false and have not been validated by a single human willing to put their name behind them.”
Meanwhile, Bostonians are still reeling from the revelations of a retired police officer’s decades of child sexual abuse. 66-year-old Patrick Rose was criminally charged in 1995 but was able to stay on the force for more than two decades. During that time, he became president of the patrolman’s union. Last summer, he was charged with 33 counts of sexual abuse against minors. In announcing that she would release the redacted police files of his case, acting Mayor Kim Janey said, “As a mother and grandmother, I was heartbroken and angry that nothing was done to keep Mr. Rose away from children.”
At a time when sexual abuse is discussed widely and with ever increasing frankness, certain misunderstandings persist. The biggest: that sexual abuse is about sex. It’s not. It’s about violence. Many also believe the false notion that the victim “wanted it.” Maybe that’s why there is a general lack of empathy for victims, who are not only not believed but who are also usually alone navigating a lifetime of psychic — and sometimes physical — damage.
Certainly the #MeToo movement demanding accountability of abusers, and the willingness of more survivors to tell their stories publicly, has fundamentally shifted the way sexual abuse is viewed.
But for all of the high-profile stories, a staggering amount of sexual abuse will never come to light. Child advocacy experts confirm one in six boys and one in four girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18. And from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network come equally chilling stats — nearly one in five women and one in 67 men has been raped at some time in their lives.
It’s urgent that Sexual Assault Awareness Month is more than just a note on the April calendar.