By Mary Rezac
This week, TIME Magazine announced a group of women and men as their collective Person of the Year.
What do these people have in common? They are what TIME called “The Silence Breakers” – people who have blown the whistle on sexual assault and abuse within the workplace, largely in the industries of film, politics, and media.
In recent months an avalanche of abuse allegations have been brought to light against powerful figures, starting most notably with a piece in the New York Times in which several women accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. This sparked a flood of men and women coming forward with other allegations of abuse against numerous people in positions of power.
“These silence breakers have started a revolution of refusal, gathering strength by the day, and in the past two months alone, their collective anger has spurred immediate and shocking results: nearly every day, CEOs have been fired, moguls toppled, icons disgraced. In some cases, criminal charges have been brought,” TIME reported.
Not long ago, the Catholic Church in the United States was reeling from its own sex abuse crisis. In the early 2000s, reporters at the Boston Globe broke the story of a former priest who was accused of molesting more than 100 boys over 30 years, which led to a large-scale uncovering of thousands more allegations of abuse in dioceses throughout the country.
Since then, the Church has taken care to provide numerous resources to such victims, and develop robust child protection policies.
Edward Mechmann, director of public policy and the safe environment office for the Archdiocese of New York, told CNA that the “silence breakers” who came forward and continue to come forward with accusations of abuse by clergy and Church personnel are key in maintaining a safe environment in the Church.
“I think the one thing we have to make sure we understand is who the whistleblowers are, and for the most part, the whistleblowers are victims,” Mechmann said.
“As much as the outside observers like the Boston Globe and the media in general contributed to our awareness of the scope of the problem, we would really be nowhere unless we had some of these courageous victims coming forward, because without them, we would have many more men in service who are victimizers,” he added.
It is especially important that victims come forward in order to protect others from abuse, he noted, because in some cases, abusers have victimized numerous people over the span many years.
Recently, the Church has seen victims coming forward “much more willingly now, because they see that we’re serious, they see that we’re not going to victimize them again, and they see concrete results” such as accused persons being removed from ministry, he said.
“The first and most important thing we do is we listen to them, and I can’t tell you how important that is,” Mechmann said.
“So many people that come in to see us are afraid, they’ve been victimized, they’re afraid they’re going to be victimized again, and just the fact that we listen to them is just an enormously healing thing,” he said.
Besides listening to victims, Mechmann said the Church also provides support through counseling and through talking with victims about the Church’s internal processes for dealing with cases of abuse.
“And we stay in contact with them, if they want to stay in contact with us, we walk with them,” he added.
Dr. Benjamin Keyes, a Catholic psychologist and Director for the Center for Trauma and Resiliency Studies at Divine Mercy University, told CNA that supporting and encouraging victims who come forward is of the utmost importance.
“There’s a whole lot of relief that someone has finally heard the story…they’re no longer isolated with the information, and how well they fare afterwards really depends on what happens around them,” he said. “Are they supported, are there people in their network, whether it’s family, friends, or co-workers, that really understand and really support them in the courage that it takes to do this?”
Sometimes it can takes months or even years for victims of abuse to break the silence on what happened to them, Keyes said, because there is usually “a lot of embarrassment, a lot of shame involved, and most people, women in particular, don’t want to expose that to the public or to others, even to those who are close to (them),” he said.
The fear of retaliation or retribution is also something that can keep victims from coming forward, especially if the abuse came from someone who is in a position of power over the victim, Keyes noted.
For these reasons, victims need encouragement and support from the Church in order to feel comfortable coming forward.
“The Church can be supportive, especially in the parishes, (by) making it safe for (whistleblowers) to be who they are, by acknowledging the courage that it took for them to do that, and to be supportive vocally within the body of the Church so that people hear that the Church is supporting it,” he said.
Supporting victims also involves “making sure that they stay networked into not only the activities that they’ve been involved with, but that they stay networked into the body of the Church, so that they don’t walk away,” he added.
The parish priest, as well as members of the parish community, are especially key in making victims feel welcomed and supported, he noted, which can be done simply by including them and befriending them.
“We’re taught in the Bible to love and to love unconditionally, and this is part of that,” Keyes said.
“It’s embracing the broken places and binding up the suffering and reaching out to the broken-hearted, and we’re called as Christians, not just as counselors, to do that,” he added.
Since the sex abuse crisis in the Church in the United States, the bishops have put into place numerous policies and practices to protect victims, and especially children from sexual abuse, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for Child and Youth Protection, which calls for an annual audit and report of all the dioceses in the country.
The Church has also implemented safe environment trainings that call for a zero-tolerance policy of abuse in Church environments.
“I think a lot of what’s happening is really good,” Mechmann said, regarding the silence breakers in media and politics who have recently come forward.
“Maybe the world as a whole could learn a little bit from the way that we have handled this, in terms of creating a clear corporate culture of zero tolerance. Transparency is at the heart of what we’ve done, and I hope that some of these other industries can do the same.”