- in Philadelphia –
A horrible story is beginning all over again, like a déjà vu nightmare. What happened in Boston 10 years ago is beginning in Pennsylvania today.
Ten years ago next week, The Boston Globe broke the story about sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston. The story of priestly criminality and episcopal negligence exploded, running on the front page of the Globe and its parent company, The New York Times, every day for weeks on end. A decade later, the scandals and their aftermath are still a searing experience.
Some victims achieved a measure of healing and justice, although for many, revisiting the past was deeply painful. Wolves in sheep’s clothing were revealed, cover-ups exposed, evasive explanations offered, trust shattered, reputations destroyed, credibility lost and, as is the American way, an avalanche of acrimonious lawsuits filed. That voyage into darkness is about to begin anew for America as a whole.
A few days before Christmas, sexual abuse allegations were on the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer. They were allegations from long ago, about a now celebrated local figure, a shock to his colleagues and admirers. The allegations were made against Bill Conlin, longtime sports reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Four women accused him of molesting them as children. Now 77, he retired from the Daily News the same day as the report appeared. He denies the accusations. There will be no criminal proceeding as the statute of limitations has expired.
Bill Conlin was a Philly institution, recently honoured with a lifetime achievement award from the Baseball Hall of Fame. The accusations would be familiar to anyone who has read sexual abuse cases — young girls taken advantage of by a respected professional who cultivated their trust. What is unusual is the motivation for making the accusations public now.
It was the Penn State sexual abuse scandal that prompted the four women to come forward. But Penn State is several hours away. This very year in Philadelphia itself there have been charges of clergy abuse. It has been a major, even dominant, story this year. Why wasn’t that enough?
Why hasn’t the agony of the clerical abuse scandal led to more attention to sexual abuse elsewhere? There has been significant investigative reporting on widespread sexual abuse of minors in public schools and in juvenile detention centres, for example. Editors have largely chosen to let that story pass. There have been more than hints of the problem in elite sports and in Hollywood. Sustained attention has not been paid. Penn State appears to have changed that. College football lies at the heart of American life in way that few other things do.
In the aftermath of Boston 2002, the Catholic Church in the United States went back more than 50 years to examine records for accusations of abuse. If big-time college sports were to do that, it would let loose a river of shame and disgust.
It may happen. Public universities might face political pressure to investigate their own programs — on the public accountability grounds that the football coach is usually the highest-paid state employee. State universities can be protected from civil actions in the same way that governments protect their public schools and prisons. Private universities, on the other hand, will prove attractive targets for trial attorneys, sitting as they do atop endowments measured in the hundreds of millions or even billions.
There is the potential for a decade or more of sexual abuse scandals in American public life — from newsrooms to legislatures, film studios to foster-care programs. If Penn State is no longer immune from exposure, no one is. The experience of the Catholic Church demonstrates that much good can be wrought from the suffering — punishment of abusers, healing for victims and protection for children. At the same time, evil exposed is evil experienced again. Necessary it may be, but it will wreak destruction.
Confronting evil is never easy or pleasant. For 10 years, Catholics in America and elsewhere have learned that in spades. What we have been through I would not wish on any other institution. But then, what no one would wish on any child did happen, and justice must have its day. That day came for Catholics in Boston in 2002. It has arrived for America now.