Cardinal Law is dead. His legacy of trauma isn’t.
Twenty one years ago, almost to the day, a man who sexually abused me for four years died. I still remember the electric jolt of happiness, relief, and triumph I felt when I heard the news.
As I read about Cardinal Law’s death, my mind wandered back to that day. It is impossible to know how much child sexual abuse and trauma Cardinal Law condoned. The Boston Globe’s famous Spotlight investigation into clergy sexual abuse condoned by Law concluded that roughly a hundred sexually abusive priests were allowed to sexually abuse more than a thousand children.
A thousand sexual abuse victims is staggering, but that doesn’t represent all of the damage Law put into motion.
My story didn’t start with the uncle who sexually abused me. It didn’t even start with my father, my first rapist. Looking at my story through the lens of intergenerational trauma, my story started with the priest who sexually abused my mother.
Broadly, trauma is intensely bad, scary experiences that don’t stop being bad and scary with the passage of time. The Adverse Childhood Experiences studies show that ten specific traumas are so significant that when they befall children they can cause permanent impairment to the child’s future physical, mental, emotional and financial health.
Before the ACE study everyone knew things like child abuse and growing up with a drug-addicted parent were bad. But the ACE research explained how and why hurt people hurt people. It showed that a girl who grows up with sexual abuse, physical abuse, and watching her father batter her mother until her father gets arrested is at an elevated risk of being a victim of domestic violence, addiction, and depression. That isn’t too surprising. The fact that this girl, whose ACE score of now 4, is at increased risk of dying prematurely from diabetes, heart disease, cancer, COPD and three other leading causes of death was more surprising. And the fact that she is more likely to be raped as an adult, to experience difficulty with employment and serious financial hardship is, on the surface, baffling.
Our hypothetical girl may have grown up committed to never laying a hand on her child, and never letting anyone else do so. But if the consequences of her abuse cause her to suffer from depression that she self-medicates with alcohol, cause her to emotionally abuse her child because she knows no other way discipline, and the alcohol and depression cause her to struggle with employment to the point she cannot consistently provide for her child,her child now has the same ACE score she does. And that, in a nutshell, is intergenerational trauma.
Most ACEs can only be transmitted by a child’s primary caregivers, but child sexual abuse is one glaring exception. Children can be sexually abused by anyone they have any relationship with, even if it’s a very brief one. And while our knowledge of intergenerational trauma is imperfect, the work of Dr. Rahil D. Briggs shows us that if a mother has an ACE score, unless there are interventions like the mother’s enrollment in a Maternal Home Visiting program, her infant will likely have a similar ACE score, too.
This means that Cardinal Law’s tolerance of child sexual abuse affected many people besides the direct victims, spanning generations. It’s repercussions can be seen in the opiate epidemic, in the homeless shelters and in jail cells and every other place where misery is concentrated.
Boston’s child sexual abuse scandal wasn’t the Catholic church’s first, nor its last, but it is the scandal that made room for jokes like “a priest, a rapist and a pedophile walked into a bar. He sat down and had a drink”. So what has the post-Law church done to right their wrongs? They started spending millions of dollars to ensure statutes of limitation on child sexual abuse remain in place, rendering criminal prosecution impossible for most sex abuse victims. Victims of child sexual abuse rarely disclose their abuse as children, and statutes of limitation that keep victims from pressing charges against abusers and/ or suing negligent institutions ensure that most abusers, and institutions that facilitate them, remain on the streets, above the law, conducting business as normal. Most Americans thought the Republican party’s first dalliance into supporting sex offenders came with Roy Moore, but that simply isn’t true.
So what happens now that Cardinal Law is dead? My biggest hope is that everyone whose life was damaged under his watch gets to feel the same peace and comfort that my abuser’s death brought me. I hope we all keep talking about the complexities and ubiquity of child sexual abuse. I hope we come up with a more sophisticated understanding of what guilty people and those who facilitate them are responsible for. And I hope that with enough little acts of healing, and strength, and courage we can eventually fix this.