Abuse on the Margins

Published August 29, 2019

The Catholic Thing

Sexual abuse is a plague no matter where it occurs or to whom. But one of the underexplored facets of the clerical sexual abuse crisis in the United States is the way in which marginalized and minority communities have proven particularly susceptible both to abusers themselves and to the malfeasance of bishops and religious superiors who mishandled reports of abuse.

The Associated Press published a story this week about an extended family in Greenwood, Mississippi devastated by clerical sexual abuse. Three boys in the family – brothers, Joshua and Raphael Love, and their cousin, La Jarvis Love – have all alleged abuse at the hands of two Franciscan Brothers at St. Francis of Assisi School in the 1990s.

Certain aspects of the abuse are all-too-familiar: the grooming behavior, the threats, the silence, the ineffectual response by both Church authorities and, at least initially, law enforcement. But there are a few details of the Greenwood cases that stand out.

First, the boys in Greenwood are African Americans from one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest states. Their alleged abusers were both Franciscan missionaries from out of state – come to Mississippi to work in a mission parish among an underserved population.

In 2006, the local Catholic diocese – the Diocese of Jackson – settled lawsuits with nineteen (mostly white) victims for an average of $250,000. By comparison, the Franciscans offered each of the Love boys $15,000. And that only on the condition that they sign a confidentiality agreement.

“They felt they could treat us that way,” said Joshua Love, “because we’re poor and we’re black.” You can see why he might think that. Without lawyers of their own, two of the three Love boys took the deal.

The third Love, Raphael, did not take the deal. He’s in prison for a double homicide he committed when he was just sixteen. Would Raphael’s life have taken a different path if he hadn’t been abused? Would the two people he gunned down still be alive? The trauma of childhood sexual abuse has a way of throwing lives into chaos; it’s impossible to know what might have been. But it’s also hard not to wonder.

As for the Loves’ abusers: Brother Paul West left the Franciscans in 2002 but was teaching at a Catholic grade school near Appleton, Wisconsin as recently as 2010. Brother Donald Lucas died in 1999, an apparent suicide.

Poor black kids in the Mississippi Delta aren’t the only ones who have reason to feel doubly betrayed – once by their abusers and again by the Church for treating them shabbily.

Jesuit missionaries working among Native American communities in Alaska racked up a staggering human toll over several decades. The raw numbers aren’t as striking as you might find in big cities with large Catholic populations, but given the sparse population, the decades of abuse, and the number of Jesuit priests and volunteers involved, the overall picture is truly gruesome.

The Oregon Province of Jesuits has denied that it used Alaska as a dumping ground for accused priests, but the numbers are telling. Take this tidbit from the National Catholic Reporter covering the Province’s 2009 bankruptcy:

During the period in question, [one Alaska lawyer] said, there were at most 29 priests serving at any one time in the diocese. During those years, he said, at least 20 Jesuits were credibly accused, and there were times, he said, when as many as eight of the accused were serving simultaneously.

Or consider this: One town in Alaska, Holy Cross, is home to around 200 souls. Between 1930 and 1971, there were sixteen different Jesuit priests, brothers, and volunteers assigned to Holy Cross Mission who have at least one credible accusation of sexual abuse on record. Sixteen credibly accused abusers in a 40-year period in a town of roughly 200 people!

Perhaps the single most underexplored facet of the abuse crisis in the United States is the way the abuse crisis has affected Hispanic Catholics. It has been noted that the response to the abuse crisis has been markedly different – somewhat more muted – among Spanish-speaking Catholics in the United States than it has been in Anglophone parts of the Church. The reasons for these differing reactions deserve examination, even if a large minority of American Catholics weren’t Latinos.

Whatever those differences, or the reasons for them, it’s worth pointing out that Hispanic Catholics have been taken advantage of both by abusive priests and by prelates looking for a place to stash abusers.

The Archdiocese of Chicago removed a pastor last year after he was arrested for engaging in sexual acts in a parked car with another priest. While that story was widely reported, it was less widely known that the pastor in question wasn’t the first pastor to be removed from that parish – a Spanish-language mission in an upscale, largely white, middle-class suburb. His immediate predecessor was arrested on child pornography charges.

What does a Spanish-language mission in the country’s third-largest diocese need to do to get a pastor who isn’t a pervert?

Then there was the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which under Cardinal Roger Mahony relocated abusive priests into Spanish-speaking parishes with high percentages of undocumented immigrants. Not surprisingly, it turns out that poor parishioners who are in the country illegally are less likely to go to the police when Father So-and-So gets out of line.

You don’t have to consider yourself a Social Justice Warrior to be sickened by stories like these.

Clerical sexual abuse is a plague no matter where it happens or to whom. One of the painful truths of this unholy mess is that both predators and prelates have gone out of their way to push abuse to the margins. Those who live there have borne the brunt.

Their suffering demands justice, too.

© 2019 The Catholic Thing.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

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