“Knock It Off — Or You’re Gone!”: Best Way to Stop Sexual Assault and Child Molestation
Enough with the crimes and the sins!
Two major U.S. institutions — the military and the church, i.e., the Roman Catholic Church — have allowed (in the former) a major crime and (in the latter) a major sin to go essentially unaddressed for decades, enabling their ongoing perpetration.
What crime, what sin? Both institutions have allowed those human beings perceived weaker in their ranks or flocks to have their physical being, their very persons, assaulted — violated — with those assaultive violations committed by perpetrators within said institutions, exercising their superior power and, worse, getting away with it.
The latest instances: In June, 20 state attorneys general released reports of investigations they conducted into priestly abuse of children in their states, including Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Maryland, “cataloging,” per The New York Times, “decades of abuse [that] yielded few criminal prosecutions.” In Pennsylvania, “More than 300 priests were found to have abused children, at least 1,000 of them, over the course of seven decades.”
And just now, the White House announces “sweeping” changes to the Pentagon’s handling of sexual assault cases: removing them from the chain of command, that is, from the complainant’s commanding officer (who may be the problem or part of it) and placing them with military prosecutors. Which only reminds us of the sweeping scale of the problem, with one in three women in the military claiming to experience harassment or assault, and with headlines like CNN’s from late 2022: “Reports of Sexual Assault in the U.S. Military Increased by 13% Percent.”
But to go statistical, citing numbers and rate of increase, is for my purposes useless; by this I mean no disrespect to the victims, just that numbers don’t much register anymore. Instead, the reality of sexual assault in the military and child molestation in the Church is universally acknowledged. My purpose here is to highlight the human suffering behind that reality — and, with this human suffering foremost, to call, again, for a stop to it.
How did we get to this low point? Clearly, the minimalist remedy — keeping the handling of “the problem” within the command structure of both institutions — has not worked.
Why? Because institutional command structures invariably treat “the problem” in the most minimal way possible — doing little to the perpetrator and even less for the victim — all to avoid scandal, all “for the good of the institution.” Not understanding — even after decades when abundant lessons should have been learned — that institutions are hurt even more when “the problem” — sexual assault or child molestation — unfixed, becomes endemic to the institution. Because, facing no consequences — other than perhaps transfer — perpetrators perpetrate another day.
What will it take to end — finally — these crimes and these sins?
Clearly, the maximalist approach is called for — and should have happened long ago. Meaning:
The Commander in Chief of the United States military, President Joseph R. Biden, and the Holy Father of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, need to make it explicit and resoundingly clear about any further sexual assault or child predation in their respective institutions:
“Knock it off — or you’re gone!”
The President and the Pope would use more formal language, of course, but this same point cries out to be made: “By the ultimate authority vested in me, I declare this abhorrent practice done, over, banned forever — on pain of the following stipulated punishment.”
What is meant by “maximalist” punishment?
In the military, a dishonorable discharge — with all retirement benefits stripped, notably the generous healthcare benefits veterans receive for the rest of their lives on leaving the service. About these benefits, I can speak personally (my husband is retired Navy): We have benefited from various surgeries, ongoing care, all our medications — all free of charge, thanks to American taxpayers. To be cut off from this all-encompassing healthcare would pose, or should, real hardship to any perpetrator and might stay his (almost always his, not her) hand as he fixes on the next prey. This healthcare “benny” is front-of-mind for everyone in the service and keeps members in for the 20 years needed to qualify; it is a “biggie.”
In the church, banishment from the Church proper — not only participation in all its rituals, but from any further contact with the priest’s former congregation: with the flock. As with the military, too often in the Church the predatory priest is simply transferred to another diocese, as if miraculously the problem vanishes: It doesn’t. For an institution that holds itself forth as a moral teacher, the self-inflicted damage wreaked by the predation of children to the Church’s moral authority is incalculable, possibly fatal. It is especially sad to see a moral institution “go institutional” and forget about the moral. Until it remembers its moral mission, polls show one-third of American Catholics are considering leaving the Church.
Leadership of the highest kind — moral leadership — is desperately needed in this moment. Here’s looking at you, President Biden and Pope Francis.
It is simply not enough for Pope Francis to express “shame and sorrow” and say, in response to the horrific report of the Pennsylvania Attorney General of rampant priestly abuse: “Victims should know that the pope is on their side. Those who have suffered are his priority, and the church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent.” Enough with “listening”; besides, he hasn’t heard enough by now?
Better by far, Holy Father, to say: “Knock it off — or you’re gone!”
Likewise, President Biden may believe taking the adjudication of sexual assault out of the chain of command and giving it to prosecutors will stem the problem. Certainly it’s the hope of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who did yeoman work teeing up this matter. But: This fix is after-the-fact — after the assault has been committed, the suffering sustained. Truly, will an administrative fix stay the hand of a perpetrator before committing another assault? As a former equal-opportunity practitioner, I wonder. Besides, considerable sway still lies with the chain of command (selecting the jury, for example). And the accompanying Executive Order: Oh Lordy, the argle-bargle — see the heading, “Strengthening and Professionalizing the Sexual Assault Response Workforce….”
It may work, Mr. President, but better to deliver it with: “Knock it off — or you’re gone!”
I confess I am especially bewildered by Pope Francis: The desecration of children must rank as the most evil and most heinous of deeds, especially if carried out by someone the child trusted. If one gets off the daily round and stops to imagine what exactly is entailed in a molestation — if one truly sets on the path to “go there” in your head, then, if you are in possession of a conscience and heart, you want to step in instantly and stop the molestation and save the child. I cannot imagine the Pope has not pondered the matter thusly and, nauseated, not felt impelled to do the same: stop the molestation, save the child. Yet: He has not. History will be, I think, harsh on this moral leader. (I raised the same question about his predecessor, Pope Benedict: “Where is the Vatican’s Outrage about Child Molestation?”)
Similarly with President Biden: He is an empath of the first order and a moral man. He is also a political animal and now occupies the office of President he long wanted. It has not occurred to him he has the power, as Commander in Chief, to reset the ethical-moral order of the troops? Both President Biden and Pope Francis are good men. But must goodness be so recessive, so lacking, so….lame? Some matters call for towering outrage, ringing denunciation. Sexual assault and child molestation are two.
Because: Absent champions laboring on their behalf, reordering the moral universe as atonement, the suffering of women assaulted and children molested is — well, how to quantify it? One can’t; one can only imagine the lives blighted, the humiliation flashed on daily, the sorrow that can’t be thrown off. And it is the cruelest cruelty, after yet another scandal erupts, when select victims step up to “tell their truth” — only to see nothing change when the spotlights are cut. Meanwhile, injustice sears as perpetrators go free, get promoted, live carefree lives….
It is not too late, it is never too late, to right the wrong. The moment is low, the degradation is comprehensive. Thus a clarion call, of moral import, could register and raise us up along with the nation’s Soul — and, most importantly, stop the crime and stop the sin. Give it a go, Holy Father and Mister President. In re the matter of child molestation and sexual assault:
“Knock it off — or you’re gone!”