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Prosecutors Unearthed This Catholic Abuse Case — How Many Other Scandals Stay Buried?

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It’s been a tough month for American Catholics.

Court documents released in mid-August revealed more than 1,000 allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct by hundreds of priests in Pennsylvania over the last seven decades. Given the length of time that has passed, new criminal charges are unlikely for most of the allegations, and the alleged behavior ranges from inappropriately communicating with a minor to rape and sexual assault.

Additionally, Pope Francis has ordered an investigation into allegations of misconduct in West Virginia’s Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, upon Bishop Michael Bransfield’s resignation. Victims are also now sharing stories about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a previous archbishop of Washington, D.C., who resigned in July due to allegations against him.

Victims and their advocates say the Pennsylvania report is only the tip of the iceberg, as there are likely thousands more victims of abuse who have never come forward or whose records are lost. Sadly, my own experience tells me that they are most likely right.

I was raised Catholic in Appalachian Ohio, in a small town of 10,000 called Ironton. Church is a centerpiece of life in my small hometown, an essential aspect of one’s identity. I attended Catholic schools from kindergarten until graduation. I saw the celebrity-like status that priests often enjoy among their parishioners. If the rest of Catholic America is anything like my hometown, it’s an atmosphere ripe for abuse.

I was lucky, though. I was active in the church growing up and got to know my pastor through my childhood and teenage years fairly well. There were never any rumors or accusations against him or any evidence of inappropriate behavior, as far as I know. As an altar server from ages 10 to 18 and Eucharistic minister from ages 17 to 20, I spent a lot of time alone with him and in the presence of other young boys and girls—and he never so much as looked at us inappropriately.

But he still commanded an unhealthy position, socially. It was a very conservative town, county and region of the country. It’s what is now condescendingly referred to as “Trump country.”

Religion—almost exclusively Christianity—is the tie that binds the community together. I didn’t meet any non-Christians until I attended a college in southern West Virginia, and even then it was only a handful. Very few dared to criticize their church or its dogma. To ask questions was to risk scorn and ridicule.

Because of this, people clamored for the attention and company of our pastor. He got invited to far more parties than he had time to attend. If he did show up, his presence was almost like a status symbol, even if you didn’t know him that well. It was a really big deal for both teachers and students when he would visit a class in the schools. Everyone wanted to sit next to him at sporting events.

There were several families of which he was considered a de facto member. Parishioners would feel slighted that he seemed to prefer their company more than others. When he broke the news that he was being transferred to another parish after 30 years, many acted as if he had announced he only had a month to live.

You can see how someone with less integrity or malicious intent could exploit this kind of atmosphere. Combine this with a destructive culture of machismo where even the slightest intimate contact (wanted or unwanted) with someone of the same sex would be a source of shame for young boys, and you’re left with a set of perverse incentives that discourages speaking up about abuse or inappropriate behavior. Throughout my adolescence, calling someone gay was one of the worst insults you could throw at them. Questions about sexuality could be a source of severe shame.

My father, who attended the same high school that I did only three decades prior, tells a story of showering after gym class, when one of the parish priests, now long-dead, unexpectedly jumped in the shower with him. Though they were alone, the priest (who was also the gym teacher) did not touch him, but he made my father feel leery and uncomfortable. Dad quickly got out of the shower.

I think it’s reasonable to assume the priest was there to do more than simply wash himself off. Yet my father never raised this issue with the school’s administration, the parish, or even his parents. Given the circumstances, the likelihood of them believing him was probably low. It’s impossible to know how many other stories there are like this that no one ever talked about, or ever will.

There most certainly are other communities in the U.S. and around the world with similar dynamics to my hometown. As a result, there are likely thousands of other stories of abuse that were buried, intentionally and not. The revelations in Pennsylvania will not be the last skeletons found in the Church’s closet.

Jerrod A. Laber is a DC-based writer and journalist, and a contributor for Young Voices. He grew up in southeastern Ohio and is an alumnus of Marshall University. His work has appeared in The National Interest, the Columbus Dispatch, and the Washington Examiner, among others. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber.

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Journalism that Transcends ‘Us vs. Them’

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The author, Sara Schonhardt, on assignment this summer at the Rappahannock News. Photo: Provided

In my first week in Rappahannock I wrote a blog to introduce myself and explain what I, as a journalist, hoped to accomplish during my brief fellowship. I wasn’t sure what audience I was writing for, but I wanted to share my intentions and a bit of background. 

What brought me here, I wrote, was appreciation of an effort to cover the issues that matter to people. And I valued the mission of the Foothills Forum to inform and engage with readers through stories in the Rappahannock News. 

I spent the next 10 weeks doing what I said I would: going out and talking to people. And with each new story I learned something about Rappahannock and the people who chose to make it home. 

I learned that residents share a lot of the same challenges, concerns and love for this county. I learned a lot of judgments stem from not talking to one another. And I learned that people say they know the problems, but don’t always know the people struggling with them. 

Some things I thought I knew were driven home: that class differences matter more than we think they do, that divisions aren’t ever as simple as red versus blue, that showing up and just listening can be hugely impactful. 

Many people I met struggle to live in Rappahannock due to the lack of adequate work and high living costs. So they pick up multiple jobs or commute long hours. Yet, when I talked with them what I heard more than anything was a desire for other people to understand what they were going through.  

Rappahannock is complex, a mixture of families that have farmed this land for generations and newer ones with no farming background. Rich and poor, young and old, struggling and comfortable.  

Those characteristics don’t make Rappahannock unique. Counties across the country are changing, some in much greater ways. 

But Rappahannock does have its own mix of people and personalities, and it takes being here to understand those complexities. Sharing the stories of the people who comprise this county, I believe, is a way to confront the challenges, the divisions, the misunderstandings. Perhaps it’s also a way for people who appear to come from very different backgrounds to realize they have a few things in common. 

Not everyone wants to share their stories, of course. Doing so requires trust and it’s hard to trust a stranger – harder still, apparently, when that stranger is a reporter. 

Several people bristled when I told them I was writing stories that would appear in the newspaper. Some would talk to me, but never “on the record.” One man I finally got to open up said he avoids conversations with seemingly wealthier or close-minded residents because he doesn’t like being judged or looked down upon.  

When people did talk, I was always grateful for their openness. 

Local news remains essential in part because people want to know what’s happening in their communities. But small news organizations like the Rappahannock News are constantly seeking new ways to answer core questions like how can our reporting better connect with citizens? How can we provide solutions? What can we do to show that we’re listening and take what we’re hearing into account in our coverage? 

I come away from my fellowship with a better idea of the pieces that comprise Rappahannock, but also lingering questions about what role media plays in the county and what the role of Foothills Forum and the Rappahannock News should be. Is it merely to inform and educate? Should it take more of a part in mitigating conflict? I do believe proposing solutions to problems is important. But if our stories inform the community about an issue and people still don’t do anything, do we just shrug and walk away?

On one of my last days in Rappahannock, I met Patrick Stark on my way back from a hike near Hazel River. He commutes for work but has lived for years in a modest house off a gravel road in the country. He invited me onto his porch to escape a sudden downpour, and though we’d never met we started talking, first about small things and then about our families and where we came from. 

I learned a lot about him that day, and I was pleased to see him weeks later at a public discussion Foothills Forum was hosting to get feedback on its latest series on economic transition.  

Patrick wasn’t the type to attend such events. He had his opinions about the paper and didn’t really understand what Foothills Forum was trying to accomplish. But he stood and shared his thoughts anyway. He said that Rappahannock was just too expensive for many people living here, that residents worried about groups like Foothills coming in and changing things because they didn’t know its intentions. Rather than talk about the problems, “tell us the solutions,” he said. 

It took courage for Patrick to come to the forum, and I think he provided an important perspective. But I also think it takes those difficult conversations to bring about change that benefits a community.  

I left Rappahannock more than a month ago for a job in Washington. When I meet people, I tell them I’m from Ohio and some I tell about my time in Rappahannock. They usually ask if I’ve read Hillbilly Elegy 

And so I’ve come back a few times to Rappahannock because it’s not a place with just one story. It’s not just a place of come-heres and been-heres, or even, really, a place with people that embrace those labels. It’s a place that is dynamic and ever changing, a place with people who are fighting for its future in their own way and recognize the importance of that change. It’s a place of many stories, and I don’t feel I’ve heard enough of them. 

Sara Schonhardt wrote stories for the Rappahannock (Virginia) News this year as a Foothills Forum Fellow. Foothills Forum, which is a citizens group that combines local issue research, community forums, and journalism to help communities engage in decision making. Foothills Forum’s journalism projects are published by the Rappahannock News.

This commentary was originally published by the Rappahannock News and the Daily Yonder.

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I was Arrested for Protesting Kavanaugh. This is Why I Did It.

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Karan Ireland is escorted from Senator Joe Manchin's campaign headquarters in Charleston, West Virginia, by a Charleston police officer. Ireland and eight other women were arrested after occupying the senator's office for ten hours, demanding he pledge to vote no on Judge Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo: Roger May

It’s nearing 7 p.m. the evening after I and eight other women were arrested for trespassing in West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s campaign office. We had refused to leave until he assured us that he would vote “NO” on Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court. My daughter, who at 15-years-old had joined us earlier in the day to share her story of survival, has just gotten home from work. Her brother has had a long day at school and pops his head in to say hello; my fiancé is about to fire up the grill.

Gina Hays, one of nine women arrested for trespassing in Senator Joe Manchin’s Charleston, West Virginia campaign office, waits to be released after nearly ten hours of occupying the office. The women were protesting Senator Manchin’s immediate unwillingness to vote no on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. Photo: Roger May

It’s the end of an ordinary day, but, for me, there are hours of work yet to do: conference calls, press inquiries, updates for social media and an essay to write. The laundry, the stack of bills and my actual job will have to wait. In a world where women still do more unpaid work at home than men, I am grateful to have a flexible work schedule and a supportive partner who also happens to love structure and order. Still, the question nags at me: How will I get everything done?

How will I parent my children, do my chores, go to work, share my most personal stories, support other women, recognize my privilege, participate in democracy and– lest I forget the internet trolls’ sage advice– lose weight. All while dealing with the effects of trauma.

I’m exhausted. I think we all are.

One forgets, though, how exhausting it can be to stand up for something– to add something to our already overflowing plates, regardless of how important or meaningful. It’s like forgetting the pain of childbirth.

“Sure, let’s have another baby!” “Yes, let’s dismantle the patriarchy!”

I’d gotten a call Saturday evening from my friend, Cathy Kunkel, who asked how I would feel about participating in an action to pressure Manchin on his Kavanaugh vote. I told her that I was ready to do something, especially after spending Thursday and Friday of the week before curled up in the fetal position, glued to my computer screen.

Okay– perhaps the fetal position thing is a bit of an exaggeration. What’s not, though,  is that I couldn’t look away from the heartbreaking testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh’s stomach-turning rebuttal. By Thursday evening, all I wanted was flannel pajamas, a jigsaw puzzle and a cigarette. I was feeling the effects of cultural misogyny: the overwhelm, the exhaustion, the despair that some things would just never change. But by Saturday, after spending the day with two solid and caring men working on a project close to my heart, I was rejuvenated and ready to act.

We met Sunday evening, about twenty of us, to strategize and plan. Organizer Katey Lauer led us through exercises so that we could be as prepared as possible for one of several possible outcomes. The action, though logistically complex, was simple: we would go to Sen. Manchin’s campaign office in downtown Charleston, ask him to give us his assurance us that he would vote no on Kavanaugh and leave only once we got it. We talked about the possibility of arrest and prepared for it, but it was not our goal to get arrested.

West Virginia women rally in Senator Joe Manchin’s campaign office in Charleston, West Virginia, shortly after a late-night phone call with the senator facilitated by his staff. The group of nine women vowed to occupy the office until they secured a no vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Photo: Roger May

Later that night, as I drafted my statement to the media, I thought about the reasons I wanted to participate. Why was I willing to risk public scorn? Why risk the relationship I had with Sen. Manchin’s staff and, by extension, the Senator himself? My answers came through prayer and meditation.

I believed Dr. Ford’s compelling testimony. I witnessed Judge Kavanaugh’s partisan outbursts and poor comportment. I felt strongly that the next justice appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court should be one of impeccable character and even the possibility that he committed a sexual crime disqualifies him in my mind I wanted to share this with Sen. Manchin in a way that was impactful and meaningful and could not be ignored.

I approached my daughter about whether she would feel comfortable with me mentioning her in the statement I shared with Sen. Manchin’s staff, in a general way. She interrupted to say that she wanted to participate in the action, too. After a lengthy conversation about the emotional risks of sharing her story and logistics of her missing an afternoon of school, I made the tough parental decision to allow her to participate. She could walk in with us to share her story and her strength, and stay unless and until the police were called– and that’s just what she did.

Emily Comer (left) and Jamie Miller (right), both handcuffed, wait for their citations to be written and issued after occupying Senator Joe Manchin’s campaign office in Charleston, West Virginia. After nearly ten hours, Comer, Miller and seven other women were arrested for trespassing and later released on their own recognizance. The women have a court date of November 8, 2018. Photo: Roger May

The rest, or much of it anyway, is Facebook Live history. We sat-in. We told our stories and the stories of dozens of others spontaneously emailed to us that day. We sang, laughed and cried. We waved to our friends and allies out on the sidewalk who had come to deliver supplies and words of encouragement.

Although we were firm in our commitment to stay until we heard the words we came for from Sen. Manchin, we were nevertheless surprised by the arrival of the police in the wee hours of the morning. The staff had told us, on camera, that no woman would be arrested in their office. Clever, I thought later, to wait and to obscure their windows. As a lover of political strategy, I wish we’d seen that one coming.

All day during our sit-in, I struggled with my own internalized misogyny: “Why am I making such a big deal? I’m overreacting. Wait — could her story be true; it seems so outrageous? They won’t like you anymore. What if you cost Manchin the election — his opponent is so much worse?! Just sit down and shut up!!”

I made the mistake of reading some of the online comments, which one should never do. I feel raw and vulnerable and so, so tired. I understand why, like so much unwanted sex, it can seem easier to just let what’s going to happen, happen.

But for me the answer is clear: I just can’t do that anymore.

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Rural Lawyers’ Alliance Fills Needs, Creates Opportunities

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An urban “glut” of new lawyers hides the fact that many rural communities lack legal expertise that could help them address personal and societal issues. One lawyer who returned to her rural roots from the big city is part of an effort to change that.

Last summer, I quit my job at Harvard Law School and moved to Kentucky. Notable Kentuckian Albert “Happy” Chandler once said, “I never met a Kentuckian who wasn’t either thinking about going home or actually going home,” and I was no exception, finally fulfilling half-baked plans to return home that had formed the moment I left Kentucky for law school over a decade prior. Yet in spite of Happy’s wise observation, I had built a successful legal career in Boston, I loved my clinical teaching gig at Harvard Law, and I did not have a job waiting for me in Kentucky. Needless to say, this move seemed less than obvious to some of my colleagues. I knew I was on to something good, however, and that the time to make my move had come. Let me explain.  

By way of background, in May 2017, Lisa Pruitt and I co-authored an op-ed for the National Law Journal titled, “It’s Time to Heed the Call of Rural America.” Lisa has been writing and teaching at the intersection of law and rurality for many years, including at her blog, Legal Ruralism; my personal interest in rural people, places, and issues has become a professional pursuit in more recent years. Though I was teaching at a law school in Massachusetts and she was in California, we had both witnessed the momentous uptick in law students, lawyers, and other “coastal elite” friends who were newly tuned in to the struggles of rural people following the 2016 presidential election. Indeed no matter where any of us call home or currently live, we all now share the burdens of rural America’s disproportionate share of societal problems and corresponding critical shortage of attorneys through our collective state of political discontent. Addressing attorneys directly, Lisa and I concluded our op-ed article with a challenge:  

“A moment when lawyers are so treasured that the ACLU can raise $24 million in a single weekend is also a moment when other national institutions can step up, acknowledge the legal needs of rural America, and address them. We have heard the call. Now how will we respond?” 

As you already know, I responded to the call in my own way a few months after the op-ed went to print, by removing myself from among the oft-reported glut of lawyers in America’s cities and adding myself to the dwindling rural ranks. Certainly plenty of rural people have pressing unmet legal needs that merit lawyers’ individual and collective responses: Eric Conn’s busted social security fraud scheme  alone has left thousands of rural victims in need of legal counsel. But the truth is that I wasn’t leaving my much-loved job in clinical legal education and running home to Kentucky to save my people from the woes that had befallen them. I was running home because I recognized the potential of the moment and the exciting opportunities it presented for meaningful work. I was also running home because Kentucky is an incredible place to live.  

Too many headlines paint all of rural America with broad (and ugly) strokes that solicit a sacrificial response to the call of rural America. Yet an increasing number of us city dwellers happily choose to go – or return – to places where we want to raise our children, where we see fulfilling work that needs to be done, and where we might live a life that we can afford to live in a place we want to be. Of course I see the shortage of rural lawyers and unmet rural legal needs as challenges that must be addressed, but I also see them as compelling opportunities that are ripe for the taking. Law school education, legal practice, and the national legal market as a whole are overdue for change. Just as my sprawling Kentucky garden is leaps and bounds more productive than the leggy tomato plants I tended in pots on tiny porches in the city, I believe rural America presents fertile ground for positive growth and innovation in the practice of law. I also believe that growth and innovation bred in the rural legal markets of states like mine could one day benefit lawyers and clients in other legal markets, rural and urban, across the country. I see the pressing legal needs of today as the legal innovations of tomorrow just as clearly as I see Kentucky for its future more so than for its past.  

Just as I had expected, I’ve found more great work to do in this past year than there is daylight. I’ve been digging deep with local and statewide efforts to better train our future lawyers and better connect our practicing lawyers to waiting clients. I’ve also spent some of my working hours co-authoring an article with a rural access to justice focus through a national lens. At the invitation of Lisa Pruitt, and alongside legal academics living and working in California, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Maine, our forthcoming Legal Deserts: a Multi-State Perspective on Rural Access to Justice details the rural access to justice landscapes in those states, the lessons learned from those states, and what steps all states might take to close the rural-urban justice gap in meaningful, collaborative, and impactful ways. As the six of us drafted the manuscript across institutional walls and, indeed, across the country, it became clear that this article provided the right confluence of people and momentum to raise a national institutional home for all of the exciting work that is done (and left to be done) at the intersection of law and rurality. Though certainly unplanned, identifying a moment “when national institutions can step up, acknowledge the legal needs of rural America, and address them” ultimately led me to create the institution I had wished for all along.  

On that note, and on behalf of my co-authors turned co-founders, please let me introduce you to the Alliance for Lawyers and Rural America (AfLARA). Designed as a convening space to be shaped by its membership, AfLARA aims to serve as a means to an end for people and organizations working near the intersection of law and rurality. In other words, AfLARA is the home at which all of us – including you – can gather, learn from one another, and work together to make the most of opportunities that serve to address rural legal needs. Membership is open to lawyers and non-lawyers alike, whether you are rural, urban, or living anywhere in between, and whether your focus is access to justice, entrepreneurship, education, healthcare, or any of the other myriad points at which law meets rural places. We are non-partisan, non-exclusionary, and eager to hear your voice.  

AfLARA is one way that I have responded to the call of rural America over the past year or so, though I have yet to feel like I’ve sacrificed anything but time well spent. How have you responded? And what can we all do next?     

Amanda L. Kool is a lawyer, consultant, and author of the forthcoming Legal Needs Assessment for Kentucky Entrepreneurs. She is also a co-author of the forthcoming Legal Deserts: a Multi-State Perspective on Rural Access to Justice. 

This story was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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