A Cautionary Tale
The Catholic Church is not the only institution to have been accused of harboring and hiding clergy who have sexually abused children. Clerics in all denominations have been accused of child abuse, and available data suggests that the percentage of clerics who have violated children is not proportionally higher in the Catholic Church than in other non-Catholic denominations. But the crisis for the Church, which began in January 2002 with reports in the Boston Globe that Fr. John Geoghan had been charged with sexually molesting 138 minors over many years (while superiors shifted him from parish to parish to avoid the consequences), cascaded nationally and internationally from there, generating so much media attention, justifiable outrage, and, finally, institutional reform, that it could turn out to be a watershed event.
That, in a sense, is the overarching storyline explored in Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis, 2002-2012 (Praeger, 2011), a fascinating, intellectually compelling, and very readable collection of 20 essays organized and edited by Santa Clara University psychology professor Thomas B. Plante and Kathleen L. McChesney, the first executive director of the protective agency established by U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to deal with the crisis. Following the book’s release, Santa Clara University hosted in May a national conference on what the past decade has taught us about the abuse, the abusers, the role of the Church, and the work that remains.
The question posed in the introductory essay is “How well has the Church dealt with the distressing problem of sexual abuse of minors?” Not surprising, given the complexity of individual and institutional behaviors, the results are mixed. But think about that for a moment: A book like this could easily have been an institutional whitewash or an angry harangue. instead, McChesney and Plante have recruited contributions from a broad spectrum of knowledgeable people—critics and apologists, academics and psychologists—to produce a reflective, nuanced volume that should be of great value to Church leaders, the laity, and, arguably, to other organizations struggling to recover from similar scandals. Quite simply, the book gets a lot of things right.
First, it acknowledges the suffering of the victims as being the central experience in this crisis, something that a defensive Church hierarchy was slow to do as the scandal erupted. The book opens with a prefatory essay by an unnamed woman who was abused by a priest starting when she was 14 years old. A devout Catholic, she writes not just about her physical and psychological suffering but about the spiritual anguish she experienced as a result of her abuse. The harm to the faithful, the loss of trust, and its consequences is a theme—a cautionary tale—that recurs throughout the essays.
Second, at the outset, the book presents a factual baseline on the scope of the problem of clerical sexual abuse, drawn from a study commissioned by the USCCB and conducted by scholars at John Jay College. its results are fascinating and in many ways counterintuitive. a crucial conclusion of this study is that it is imperative for the Church to educate would-be priests in a way that provides them with the emotional resources to deal with an uncloistered, consumer culture. The topic of screening and educating priests is examined in depth in a series of essays near the end of the volume, offering concrete recommendations that inspire hope for the future.
Third, the book grapples extensively with difficult questions about Church leadership during this crisis: Was the USCCB’s 2002 response—the “Dallas Charter”—enough? is something fundamentally wrong with Church culture? This discussion of organizational psychology and behavior should resonate widely, because it is in many ways a conversation about institutional power.
Power corrupts even our most hallowed institutions. The antidote to this darkness is light. Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church offers both light and enlightenment. Alden Mudge
Conviction and Betrayal
While individual stories about child abuse and sexual predation are, sadly, all too common, most of us would, understandably, prefer to slide by them without really looking or listening. But there is much to recommend The Sins of Brother Curtis: A Story of Betrayal, Conviction, and the Mormon Church (Scribner, 2011) by Lisa Davis. Davis is a lecturer in SCU’s Department of Communication. Here she delivers a fascinating, meticulous account of the carnage wrought by Frank Curtis, a grandfatherly Mormon elder who preyed upon young boys in a downtrodden neighborhood of Portland, Ore., known as “Felony Flats.”
But Frank Curtis is not at the center of this narrative. He is a malevolent presence of course, and a mysterious one at that. But Davis shrewdly avoids a common fault of the true-life crime genre, which is to give the devil more than his due. As her narrative unfolds, Davis provides just enough details of Curtis’ crimes to horrify us but not enough to titillate us. In fact, Curtis has been dead almost two years when the central story of The Sins of Brother Curtis begins.
That story is a David versus Goliath tale of a small-time lawyer named Tim Kosnoff hired by one of Curtis’ victims to sue the Mormon church for, as it would turn out, knowingly allowing Curtis to return again and again to work with young boys, even after his pattern of abuse had been reported to church officials. The church in turn adopted an outrageous and hugely expensive scorched-earth legal strategy to thwart or delay each and every move by an increasingly obsessed Kosnoff and his associates.
In Davis’ telling, the story of the lawsuit becomes a surprisingly compelling legal drama. Along the way, Davis manages to deftly illuminate the important constitutional issues at play in the case. And she explains some of the Mormon practices—a laudable belief in redemption that allows the faithful to repent after excommunication and be rebaptized into the faith, for example—that abetted Curtis’ long career of sexual predation. Since many Mormon practices are known only to initiates, this is an especially interesting aspect of the book.
In the end, Davis’s account offers both hope for justice arrived at through a full airing of the truth and a reminder that the devastating effects of abuse last a lifetime. Alden Mudge
TO EVERYTHING THERE IS A SEASON
What sets apart those who work with native plants from those who don’t is the ability, conscious or not, to home in on the rhythms of a real ecosystem. Even if that ecosystem is a small plot of land behind your home, implies Associate Professor of Economics Helen Popper, whose California Native Gardening (University of California Press, 2012) is an indispensible guide for starting and maintaining a garden using only flora indigenous to the Golden State.
Before coming to Santa Clara, Popper worked at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C., where she regularly briefed the board on international economic and financial developments. Here she sticks closer to home—organizing the chapters by month and covering tasks from watering to propagating to controlling pests; practical tips; and a rundown of what’s in bloom. Reasons behind many of the chores are explained in an easy, nontechnical manner, so that Popper’s experience and wisdom in the garden gently inform and guide the reader at every turn. Timely topics such as celebrating Arbor Day, harvesting berries, and solarizing a lawn are sprinkled throughout.
The book begins with October, when California’s rainy season typically begins, and traces the state’s rhythms the entire year, allowing gardeners of any experience to dip in and out as needed. In fact, the structure of the book encourages it, since Popper is keenly aware that California’s diverse geography and various microclimates might mean that it’s “May” in one area but “July” in another. While that might make for a confusing read in another book, the very approachable chapters make it easy for someone in the arid foothills to happily read concurrently with someone pruning on a misty coastline.
A short section on garden styles reveals that not all native gardens need be “wild.” Marisa Solís