The Long Silence about Sexual Abuse

If the Harvey Weinstein scandal has resulted in some positive things, high among them is ripping the duct tape off the collective silence we’ve all maintained for a long time. David Leonhardt, writing for the New York Times, talks about his experience at the elite New York private high school, Horace Mann, where a new/old abuse scandal has just come to light. Leonhardt was a budding journalist even in high school, writing for the school newspaper:

For all of our crusading, we ignored the biggest story at the school. We were aware of the rumors — the teachers who made comments about girls’ bodies, the teacher suspiciously friendly with female students, the music teacher solicitous of male students.

But we never wrote about it. As best as I can remember, we didn’t even talk about writing about it. We didn’t know how. It seemed too dark, too uncertain.”

I’m not aware, even in retrospect, about similar abuse in my public high school or in college. But I did have a curious moment of awareness about the silence among faculty I knew at the College, which was run by the Sisters of Charity, and maintained even where the truth of what was happening was plain and undeniable. Religious orders of women were more apt to be accused of physical abuse of their students, not sexual abuse. But the latter did happen. At one point many years ago, I was at Stella Maris, the Long Beach Island retreat of the Sisters, staying in a 1950’s beach cottage with my dear friend, Sister Bernadette. These cottages were little wood frame bungalows, a throwback on a strip of land known for million dollar Architectural Digest homes. Some head of the religious order, decades ago, had bought beach property, and there it stayed, in the hands of the nuns and available to be their favorite summer retreat.

While we were at Stella Maris, a piece came out in local New Jersey newspapers about a woman accusing her high school principal, a nun and a member of the Sisters of Charity, of forming an inappropriate relationship while the woman was a high school student. Now deeply troubled, she was suing to get money for therapy. Once of the accusations from the woman was that the principal had brought her to Stella Maris and assaulted her sexually in one of the cottages, in one of the small private bedrooms.

I think the woman eventually won, and got some money.

There were Bern and I, right in the cluster of bungalows where the abuse was alleged to have happened. Reading the article, I looked at Bern, who was one of the most honest and courageous women I’ve ever known. I asked her, “How could this have gone unchallenged, even back then? Look at these little cottages — there was no way the other nuns staying here could have missed the fact that one of them was taking a student into a bedroom overnight. What in the world did they think was happening?

Bern looked pained, and agreed. She really had no answer about why the other nuns might have remained silent in the face of what was unfolding right in front of them. I suspect the answer lies in David Leonhardt’s words. “It seemed too dark, too uncertain.”

May it no longer seem too dark and uncertain — no matter who might be the perpetrator.

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