The Elephant in the Room: Child Sex Abuse

"Pope Francis Photo 2" by Alfredo Borba - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Pope Francis Photo 2” by Alfredo BorbaOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I would like to discuss the controversial but important subject of child sex abuse. You might want to refer to it as the “Elephant in the Room.” When you examine the history of the Catholic Church and some of the scandals that have plagued the church, I believe that nothing is sadder than those cases of reported child sex abuse within the priesthood. To further complicate this situation, it has been made worse by the cover-ups from Bishops and fellow clergy.

On Wednesday, June 10, 2015, Pope Francis moved to address this serious complaint by approving new norms that will now allow disciplinary action against bishops who fail to take action on sex-abuse complaints. This included creating a new tribunal, under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose job it will be to judge bishops who are charged with “crimes of the abuse of office” in sex abuse cases. This was recommended by a special papal commission on sexual abuse which is chaired by Cardinal Sean O’Malley. The Council of Cardinals approved this move and Pope Francis gave final approval June 10. It appears that finally “heads will roll” now for anyone covering up this serious issue.

I think it’s important to note that this is not a crime exclusive to the Catholic Church. Statistics indicate that one in every four girls and one in every six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. Most abusers are people who the victim knows, such as a family member, friend or a trusted authority figure. Many of these abusers were abused themselves. Most of them are men. Abuse by women is on the rise, however. These abusers are sometimes trusted leaders such as teachers, scout troop leaders, church ministers and priests (not just Catholic), coaches, child care workers, health care employees; even dentists and doctors.

Author Audrey Hector wrote: “Because some of my abusers were ‘upstanding’ members in the church clergy, I couldn’t trust a God who seemed indifferent to my suffering and who allowed adults to abuse me. I was afraid of that kind of love, so I rejected God and the counsel of the church. I suffered silently for more than thirty years before it became imperative that I face the issues of sexual abuse in my life. I couldn’t carry the burden and pain alone.”

Twenty-two years ago I received a jury summons in the mail. This was going to be my first time serving on jury duty. Perhaps my enthusiasm showed. Not surprisingly, I was immediately chosen to be part of a jury. The case involved a prominent business man accused of sexually molesting his five-year-old daughter and their four-year-old neighbor girl invited to their home for a sleepover. At this point, the girls were now 12 and 13 years old. After the judge presented a very detailed explanation of the case to the potential jurors, he asked if anyone would have problems serving on this jury. Thinking back, I was initially so excited to be picked to be part of a jury, but now I felt I needed to be the person who raised my hand in response to his question. After asking my name, he asked why I didn’t feel I could participate as a juror. I told him that I had a 12-year-old daughter and I did not feel I could render a fair judgment. He went further in his questions and asked why. I explained to him “Because he is guilty!”

Following my response, the judge had to quiet the courtroom. “Mrs. Baugh, don’t you realize that everyone in this country is innocent until proven guilty?”

I responded to him this way, “I do understand this, your Honor. However, I also feel pretty strongly that five-year-old children do not lie with this much detail about situations like this. Therefore, I can only conclude this man is guilty.”

His response to me after hearing my comments was, “You’re excused!”

I think that it’s likely abusers seek jobs (or vocations such as clergy) that involve working with children so they can have closer contact with them. How can we stop this problem? What steps can be taken by parents everywhere to protect children from these sexual predators?
Beginning with stricter hiring practices with any job involving children would be a start. In families, the key would be communication. If you happen to observe any behavior that is questionable, act on it. It seems to me that communication with children is the beginning and the end! Don’t hesitate to point out what is appropriate and what isn’t to your children. Stressing that the child did nothing wrong by coming to you is important as well. Making sure children have counseling at their disposal would be another important response if anything inappropriate occurs. Assurance that these children are the victims is important as well.

We live in a society where sex sells. It’s readily available as a temptation to anyone with a problem and a computer. Children need to be taught from very young ages about running from anyone that threatens to hurt them.

As for the priests who have made the choice of hurting children, they need to suffer consequences through the court system. They need to be held accountable. Recognizing that the clergy are human and will make mistakes is certainly our Christian duty. But hurting children goes beyond our forgiveness. Judgment and forgiveness rests with God alone for any action of this nature. I do think we should be aware that to date, there are 5,000 priests that have been let go, however, there are 500,000 total number of priests. This means this involves 1% of the clergy. But even 1% is not acceptable when it involves children.

I had a priest friend who was arrested and sent to prison because of the harm he invoked on children by abusing several boys. There were many articles in the local newspaper about the harm he committed. One of his responses reported in the newspaper to the criticism was this, “I wish they could switch some of the focus on how much good I had done as a Pastor and look past some of the harm.” I pray for him because he will never realize the damage inflicted on the children he hurt.

I am relieved to see an aggressive approach by Pope Francis and the Council of Cardinals on this issue. I am also glad that it’s not just Catholic priests being called to respond to this. Other institutions are responding as well.

I always think that always when there is serious issues to be faced, prayer is the answer. I pray for these victims of this horrible crime. I pray for the families that will have to deal with the repercussions for years to come. I even pray for those inflicting harm. I hope they will come to the realization that having these kinds of secrets will only hurt the Church, hurt our society and most importantly, hurt our children!

Copyright 2015 Catherine Mendenhall-Baugh
Photo by Alfredo BorbaOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


About Author

Catherine Mendenhall-Baugh (Cathy) completed her education in Special Education and English and now works as an Agent in the Insurance Industry. A mother and Grandmother, Cathy grew up in a large Catholic family and has spent the last 30 years as a caregiver for her husband, Jack. She is a cancer survivor which inspired her to begin writing six years ago.


  1. Child sex abuse is truly a tragedy, in fact, any kind of abuse against children–physical, emotional, psychological and sexual–is unthinkable. As a Catholic counselor in Houston I work with abuse victims every week. Their stories can be gut-wrenching and my heart always goes out to my clients with great compassion. They come in, typically as adults, who have kept their abuse secret for years and are now ready to confront the past in order to claim a better future. Their courage is amazing and their faith–which has usually been deeply challenged by their suffering–ultimately becomes a source of grace and healing. I like to say that every butterfly once lived in the darkness of its chrysalis…and now is the time to become a butterfly. If you are struggling with depression or other fears and heartache from some past abuse, know that there is always, always, always hope. Reach out for help. Contact a professional counselor with a Catholic faith who can journey with you to joy.

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