A Public Voice for Private Grief

By Arthur McCaffreyAugust 10, 2018

A Public Voice for Private Grief
THE LATE, GREAT Barbara Blaine founded the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) in the late 1980s as an advocacy forum and support group for victims of sexual abuse like herself. A priest in her Catholic parish in Ohio began molesting her when she was 13, and continued until she graduated from high school five years later. Like so many young victims of powerful, prestigious predators, the experience left her feeling confused — in her own words, “very guilty, ashamed, dirty and embarrassed.”

She was traumatized into silence, and another decade would pass before she could confront what had happened to her. After reading a story about another abusive priest that triggered repressed memories and made her physically ill, she began to address her own need for healing, and “learned to care for the wounded child still living in my soul.

SNAP grew slowly as a support group, but the growing number of survivors drew strength from their common bond. “We’d spent so many years thinking we were the only ones — it was really affirming and consoling once we found other people,” Blaine recalled.

SNAP’s public advocacy work began by challenging Catholic Church officials to acknowledge the abusive priests they were sheltering. When they resisted, Blaine took her show on the road, seeking to expose both the predators and the Church’s collusion in their crimes. Thanks to her dauntless spirit, SNAP became a national and international force for speaking truth to institutional power, providing a voice for victims of clerical abuse in much the same way the #MeToo movement has done for vulnerable women mistreated by powerful men.

Blaine’s activism finally got company in 2002, when the Boston Globe started publishing its exposés of sexual abuse and institutional cover-up in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. The Globe’s Pulitzer Prize–winning coverage caused a cardinal to flee to Rome and inspired an Academy Award–winning movie (Spotlight). Abuse victims suddenly became a media cause célèbre, further accelerating Blaine’s own campaign for justice.

As Blaine’s personal history demonstrates, adult survivors often suffer post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their childhood abuse. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for them to talk about their trauma, despite the therapeutic benefit of unburdening the soul. A 57-year-old woman recently spoke out about her own experience of abuse at the hands of her psychologist: “Secrecy keeps you a victim. By speaking out, you become a survivor […] I feel like I have been heard. I feel like justice has been served.

It usually takes a trigger to unlock victims’ tongues, allowing them finally to name names — some brave person who first blows the whistle on a common tormentor, be that a priest, a university professor, a media celebrity, or a Hollywood mogul. The French have an idiomatic expression, “c’est le premier pas qui coûte” — it’s the first step that counts. Whistleblowers would rephrase this as, “c’est la première voix qui coûte” — it’s the first voice that counts. And Barbara Blaine was that first brave voice for so many victims from the 1980s onward — until social media began to play a bigger role in exposing covert sexual abuse and harassment. Now, the #MeToo movement has opened the floodgates for other victims to find their voice in solidarity with their peers.

But it is tough for even highly dedicated individuals to make a dent in large institutions; it is not just the bad apple in the corporate barrel that they protect — they try to protect the whole barrel. The Irish government found this out when the Church sought to deflect its initial inquiries. As the 2009 Commission of Investigation Report into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin (commonly known as the “Murphy Report”) stated: the approach of the Church to dealing with child sexual abuse was “the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets.”

Blaine and SNAP served as a public voice for private grief. As a first responder to hidden danger, the value of her personal initiative remains incalculable. But it needed to scale up to become the force for change she wished for. As a pioneer, she had lit the flames of compassion (for victims) and accountability (by institutions). When that torch was passed in the 21st century to national public inquiries and government investigative commissions, even stronger, louder voices were brought to bear on the mistreatment of citizens by powerful individuals and institutions, whether religious or secular, private or public. Blaine was a guerilla fighter who used her limited resources to make strategic attacks on large multinational corporations like the Vatican. But as public inquiries proliferated, the abuse terrorists and their institutional protectors began to be called to account by national governments instead of individuals.

It is fair to say that more public inquiries into institutional abuse have been initiated in the last 16 years than in the past 100. I discussed many of these in my first article on this subject for LARB last year. Since that piece was published, England’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) issued its first interim report in March 2018. IICSA championed the cause of survivors of the UK Child Migrant Scheme, which, from the 1920s to the 1960s, shipped more than 130,000 institutionalized children, aged three to 14, to Commonwealth countries like Australia and Canada. This misguided program was the subject of a 2010 public apology in Parliament by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who told survivors the country was sorry that their childhoods had been “robbed” by such “shameful” deportation. Following up on a proposal advanced by Prime Minister Brown, IICSA now recommends that, according to The Observer, “survivors of a postwar child migration scheme should be paid compensation by the government for suffering that included medical neglect, physical mistreatment and sexual exploitation.”

In my previous article, I proposed that the global proliferation of such public inquiries and reports on institutional abuse has given birth to a new genre of civic literature. Given the dearth of published narratives by traumatized survivors, these commissions of inquiry become virtually the only public voice for telling victims’ stories. Their reports need to be collected and cataloged as nonfiction testimonials, records of a sociocultural phenomenon just as important as Dickensian accounts of social conditions in England during the Industrial Revolution.

A new crop of Australian studies, especially a blockbuster national inquiry into institutional abuse, further strengthens my case for this emerging civic literature. The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (RCIRCSA) just completed five years of national inquiry, publishing its final report in December 2017 — seven volumes and over 17,000 words! A good synopsis is provided by Professor Desmond Cahill and Dr. Peter Wilkinson, who claim that

[t]he Australian Royal Commission has been the world’s most thorough examination ever of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. In its breadth and depth, it surpasses all 26 other major inquiries in Belgium, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, the UK and the US.

After listening to over 8,000 private testimonies by survivors between 2013 and 2017, RCIRCSA concluded that ministers and teachers were the most frequently cited offenders. The majority of abuse took place in institutions run by religious groups, with over 60 percent occurring in Catholic organizations. Abuse in other religious and secular settings was also acknowledged. In a direct recommendation to the Vatican, RCIRCSA has called for voluntary celibacy for priests, and for any reports of abuse heard in the confessional to be reported directly to the police.

In addition to this blockbuster report, research programs at two universities in Melbourne have been studying child abuse as a worldwide social and cultural problem. These programs are building online databases that link up the growing number of investigations around the globe, thus expanding our understanding of the causes and effects of institutional abuse. Cahill and Wilkinson are the principal investigators in one of these projects, at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT): Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: An Interpretive Review of the Literature and Public Inquiry Reports (August 2017). This review counts over 26 countries around the world — in Australasia, the United Kingdom, Europe, and Canada — that have held official public inquiries into institutional abuse. Cahill and Wilkinson are both ex-priests, and their in-depth analyses focus primarily on the historical role of the Catholic Church in institutional abuse.

Two of their observations are noteworthy. First, they point to the 2014 criticism of the Vatican’s handling of its child abuse history by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (to which the Vatican is a signatory). Next, they discuss the role of canon law in keeping clergy abuse a secret — specifically, Pope Pius XI’s 1922 instruction Crimen sollicitationis, which subjects all information about child sexual abuse to the strictest secrecy. Australian author Kieran Tapsell (an RCIRCSA expert witness) has written an excellent review of the RMIT report, with commentary on Vatican secrecy. Tapsell’s comments on the Royal Commission report are also valuable.

The second academic study, also based in Melbourne, is at La Trobe University, where sociologist Katie Wright is constructing “a global mapping of institutional abuse inquiries.” Called the Age of Inquiry (AOI), it is a publicly available web resource for keeping track of who is investigating what where around the world, with cases stretching across the 20th century up to the present. There is a great deal of geographic overlap with the RMIT study, though Wright’s focus is more catholic than Catholic, as she records the growing number of formal inquiries occurring in more and more countries. One of her notable observations is that the majority of countries studied have all had at least one national commission of inquiry, with a prominent exception — the United States. Despite many local and regional investigations, We the People have yet to be represented by a formal governmental inquiry into institutional abuse across the 50 states.

This new civic literature of institutional abuse tells the story of how the quest for justice and accountability has evolved from private initiatives like Barbara Blaine’s to formal public inquiries. Civil society, through its elected representatives, has slowly learned how to be a collective voice for silent or silenced victims. If the wheels of justice do grind exceeding slow, we still hope they grind exceeding fine. We may have started slow, but we are finally in the race. Will the tortoise catch up to the hare? Maybe — but at least we now know what the hare looks like and where he hides.


Dr. Arthur McCaffrey is a retired Harvard University psychologist who writes frequently about child abuse.

LARB Contributor

Dr. Arthur McCaffrey is a retired Harvard University psychologist and research scientist. In addition to writing for LARB, he writes frequently for national and international media, including: The Tablet (London), Open House (Scotland), Boston Globe, Boston Herald, New York Daily News, USA Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and San Francisco Chronicle. He can be reached at [email protected].


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