by Ann White
Becky Ianni, third in Mark’s series of speakers and a leader in SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), will remind us that priests abuse girls as well as boys.
Consider, for example, a 7-year old girl in her first Communion dress. Her priest follows her into the bathroom of her house, calls her “the chosen one,” and puts his tongue in her mouth.
This little girl was Sheri Biasin of West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Her priest continued to abuse her until she was 12, at family picnics, sleepovers, and beach outings. He would touch her breasts, put his hand inside her bathing suit, rub up against her.
This priest was a trusted family friend, often in Sheri’s home and along on family outings. He was considered a person who could do no wrong. Sheri remembers her family scurrying to tidy up when the priest was expected: “It was like God coming to the house.”
Like abused boys, girl victims suffer great trauma, requiring years of counseling, their lives wrenched out of normal shape. From the beginning, girls who suffer abuse struggle in their relationships with boys.
Becky Ianni: “I never dated in high school. I was too afraid… I didn’t get to go out and be nervous about my first kiss or hold anybody’s hand, but I really wanted to. But I couldn’t because I was too afraid.”
Abused girls grow up feeling dirty, as though they themselves were responsible for what happened to them.
Founder of SNAP Barbara Blaine spoke of feeling shame and guilt because she was raped by a priest who was her teacher. He took her and other girls from their classrooms in a Toledo, Ohio, Catholic school and raped them in his bedroom in the rectory. He raped Blaine repeatedly from her 7th-grade year until she was a senior in high school.
The criminal did the raping, but the victim felt the shame and the guilt. Becky Ianni has this to say about her fear of dating: “I wasn’t afraid because of what would happen. I was afraid I couldn’t say no.”
The self-blame is worse for girls than for boys. Men examining an abuse case–church officials, attorneys, police–often think an attack can be caused by a girl’s seductiveness.
Corinne Curley, a Kansas City attorney abused by a priest as a teenager, says: “They’re going to assume that you’re Lolita, a temptress.” Gary Schoener, a clinical psychologist in Minneapolis who has handled hundreds of clergy abuse cases, says, “Girls are asked what they were wearing. They’re accused of being seductive. This is routine.” Schoener reports that financial settlements tend to be smaller for female victims.
This blaming of the female victim frequently occurs in sexual-abuse cases in general. But in priest sex-abuse cases, the victim-blaming gets even more perverse. It’s not just any man that “little Lolita” has “seduced.” It’s a sexually pure, celibate holy man. Barbara Blaine: “We’re treated like the evil sinner, like we caused the good, holy priest to sin.”
According to the John Jay Report, commissioned by the US Catholic Bishops, the most likely age of victims, both girls and boys, is between 11 and 14. But girl victims tend to be younger than boys: The percentage of abused girls under age 8 is higher than the percentage of boys under age 8. Priest abusers with large numbers of victims tend to target boys, establishing what some have called a “lifestyle,” whereas a girl is more likely than a boy to be an abuser’s only victim.
In society as a whole, the overwhelming majority of sex-abuse victims are female. But the John Jay Report gives the well-known statistic: in priest sex-abuse cases, 81% of the victims are male, 19% female.
These John-Jay numbers, however, may be misleading. Two reasons:
1. The report covers five decades, the second half of the last century. For the first 35 years of that period, the Catholic Church did not have girl altar servers. The sexual abuse of minors is a crime of opportunity. Yes, priest sex-abusers in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s had the opportunity to prey on girls in school or at home. But not in one of the primary venues of opportunity–the sacristy. (Credit to Chris O’Leary for pointing this out.)
2. Second reason the John-Jay Report may misrepresent the true boy/girl percentage: There is a higher number of unreported cases with girl victims. Barbara Dorris, victim and SNAP leader, says that church officials are “more apt to write down, save, and take seriously the allegation” of the sexual abuse of a boy.
All survivors of sex abuse, no matter male or female, live with continuing pain. Sue Archbold, an advocate for abuse victims who was sexually abused by a priest when she was a teenager, comments: “The traumatic suffering that comes from the abuse extends beyond any age or gender barrier.”
All priests who abuse a minor commit a heinous criminal act, no matter the sex of the victim. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that homosexual acts are inherently wrong, whereas heterosexual acts can be beautiful and holy. But heterosexual abuse of a minor is just as much a crime as homosexual abuse of a minor. All of these criminal offenses should be met with prompt, severe punishment.