As a relative newcomer to Alaska, I have been impressed by the priority that Governor Parnell has given to addressing domestic violence and sexual abuse in our state. The subject of physical and sexual abuse, especially of children and young people can, at times, be shrouded behind silence and denial.
Unfortunately there are reasons why victims of physical and sexual abuse remain afraid to speak out about the harm done to them. Some victims and survivors remain silent because of fear. They may be afraid of their abuser; afraid that no-one will believe them; afraid that someone will blame them for the abuse; afraid that the situation may get worse. This fear can be gripping and lead to silence. Denial can cause a family or a society to remain silent about domestic violence and sexual abuse. It is devastating to learn that someone from our own family or community could harm an innocent child or young person in this way. Some who speak up are subject to even more abuse and intimidation. But for the sake of the victims of abuse we cannot remain silent. Even though it hurts to reveal the truth, it is nothing compared to the pain that society, communities, families and individuals will endure for generations to come if we do not face the truth today. Abuse hurts, and so does the truth. While the silence of the victims and survivors, tragic as it is, is understandable, our own silence as a society is inexcusable.
I say this knowing full well the harm caused within my own beloved Catholic Church by silence and denial about sexual abuse of children and young people. For too many years sexual abuse by Catholic clergy was denied and covered up by those in authority in our Church and as a Church we failed to protect our children. In St. John’s gospel, Jesus says: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (8:32) The truth about the scandal of clerical sexual abuse has been very painful for everyone in the Catholic community, but I am grateful that the victims and survivors of clerical sexual abuse have finally been able to speak openly about what happened to them. Their courage to speak and to be heard has helped in their receiving the assistance and support they deserve.
It has hurt to learn the truth. It has hurt to listen to the pain and anguish of abuse survivors. It has hurt to learn that in this diocese and elsewhere there were priests who betrayed their authority and the trust we had placed in them. Catholics and members of the wider community have been disappointed and angered that Church leaders did not fully exercise their responsibility in dealing with this issue.
But learning the truth of what happened and facing up to it has been the first, necessary step towards healing for victims and to insure the safety of our children. From my perspective, I am convinced that the truth, however painful, will help to free victims and survivors from the hurtful burden of silence which has been imposed on them for too long.
My hope is that together we will do whatever is necessary to make our families, churches and society safe places for our young people and those who are dear to us.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.
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