Saturday, October 15, 2011

Saturday Musings, 15 October 2011

Good morning,

The brisk chill of the morning air shares its stunning impact on my senses with the headlines of today's Kansas City Star. I heard the news on my car radio coming home from work yesterday, but it still causes a small lurch in the pit of my stomach: Kansas City Diocese Bishop Indicted. One small step for the victims of abuse by clergy -- one giant leap for humankind. Perhaps it remains to be seen in which direction the leap propels us, but I am inclined to think that we will move forward.

When the story first came to me yesterday by way of our local public radio, I almost had to pull my car to the side of the road. Holy catnip, I thought to myself. You go girl, I silently crowed to the Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney, Jean Peters-Baker. Later that evening, my husband and I debated the legitimacy of the mandatory reporting law, and the prudence of criminal remedies for noncompliance. He voiced opposition to both. I appreciate the dent in unreported child abuse made by the former, and feel that anyone who, in the course of their profession, learns of, but stands silent regarding, a specific act of child abuse, should be drawn and quartered. A misdemeanor indictment provides a small but thrilling start.

I do not know if Bishop Robert Finn has criminal culpability within the meaning of the statute under which Jackson County has charged him. The news regarding these events, which I have closely followed, suggests that he had knowledge of the allegations against a priest in his diocese, and that he did not make a report to state or local civil authorities. If the facts come into evidence as they have come into the press, he should be convicted. Whether the criminal charge should or should not be cognizable under our law might be fodder for deeper debate, but the duty to report exists as does the potential of criminal prosecution for the failure to do so. I leave it to better minds than mine to determine whether the statute should be repealed.

For myself, the move soothes wounds I thought had long since healed. More importantly, as a step in the fight against child abuse whether by clergy or otherwise, this criminal prosecution signals a public intolerance of the kind of thinking that perpetuates the shroud which once surrounded abuse victims. In early days of public debate about domestic violence, one of the more important works had this telling title: Scream Quietly or the Neighbors Will Hear. Indeed. And now, thirty years later, a gutsy prosecutor has hollered from the rooftops, and the neighbors around the world will hear: We will not tolerate abuse of our children, and we will not abide your silent absolution of the abuser.

I do not advocate a climate of victimhood for any person who suffers at the hands of another. I myself strive to shrug off the excuse of my violent childhood, just as I refuse to blame God or the Ages for the viral encephalitis that struck me in my tender years, and gave me these wobbly legs and this addled brain. But a child who has been abused needs two things to happen before that child can arise from the veil of victimhood to the dawn of rebirth: He needs the abuse to stop, and he needs the abuse to be acknowledged. Jean Peters-Baker has given us hope that society stands ready to facilitate both.

Sitting in my dining room, just a few feet from my kitchen, I see again the reddened face of an angry five-year-old foster child named Mikey who lived with my son and me for six difficult weeks along with Mikey's brother Jacob. Mikey had been savagely abused by his mother's flavor-of-the-week, both in the sense of being beaten and in the sense of being sexually tortured. He had not one -- not two -- but three recorded episodes of attempted suicide before the age of five, the last of which involved his opening a car door while traveling, unseatbelted, with his mother and his abuser on Interstate 70 and allowing himself to slip from the vehicle and tumble down the shoulder of the road. As the paramedics slid him onto a stretcher, he told one of them, I just wanted to die. Five years old. Five years old.

I had to request that Mikey and Jacob be removed from my home after Mikey pulled a knife from my kitchen drawer and charged at me screaming that he was going to kill me and then kill everyone. I had no training for dealing with the extreme behavior that this poor child exhibited on account of what had been done to him. I could not lie awake at night worrying that he would begin to perpetrate on his brother or my son. I could not endure the anguish that I felt each time I held him while he sobbed.

On one of Mikey's last days with us, he collapsed into my arms and whispered to me: I just want to be happy.

I have a friend who has made a career of serving foster children, along with her husband and their now-grown birth-children who have long supported her efforts. She has harbored the broken and the beaten, the bruised and the battered. She has sat calmly beside them while they told her, with equal quietude, about their father's friend, their mother's boyfriend, their uncle, and the things done to them in the night, or in the day, sometimes with their parent nearby and seemingly aware. She has taken their anguish into her five-foot frame and used it to toughen her resolve. She has endured knowledge of the brutality that sick minds can visit upon the weak and helpless. She has done more good in a single year than I have done in a lifetime, in the name of saving children from abuse.

I am not like my friend. I let my foster license lapse, ostensibly because of illness, then, when that illness no longer presented an impediment to service, because of a new marriage. A decade ago, those excuses seemed reasonable. Now, I recognize them as cowardice, though perhaps understandable.

But I have had my braver moments, and those have helped me to rise above adversity. As some might know, I made a claim against the Arch-Diocese of St.Louis arising out of things that I experienced in high school, and was one of the first to insist on both a written letter of apology from the priest in question, and a clause in the settlement agreement that allowed me to speak openly of the events including identifying the perpetrator. I have not felt the need to do so, but I can if I wish. And in a file, in a box, somewhere, is the letter that he wrote. He knows, and I know, and they know. It was enough for me. The priest in question knew that I came from a difficult family environment, and took advantage of me when I came to him for counsel. He deserved to be punished, and he was. It sufficed to trigger my healing.

But for others, public prosecution is needed. For the ones in charge of the abusers, open castigation might be necessary to stop their tolerance of the savagery of child abuse. Look: Child abuse does not exist only in the Catholic Church. But anyone who has unfettered access to children coupled with the kind of societal protection that we afford the clergy can take advantage of their captive audience and the aura of invincibility in which they matriculate. That recipe for disaster gave rise to the environment in which child after child has been subjected to the whims of abusers. This results in a special kind of insidiousness, because the victim has had trust in his abuser imprinted on his DNA.

So bravo, Jackson County. Bravo, Jean Peters-Baker. If Bishop Finn had reasonable suspicions of child abuse, as a mandatory reporter, he should have called the proper authorities and let the system work. If he did not follow the law, he deserves to do his penance. And I do not think five Our Father's and ten Hail Mary's will suffice. I want some quality time on his knees, and a whole lot of community service, and I do not want that obligation delegated to his underlings. Hand him a broom, and let him sweep the corridors of a home for troubled youth. Perhaps the sight of their accusing, haunted eyes will open his own.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.