“The devil he wore such a fine, fine shirt
And it stayed so clean, While he dragged me through the dirt.”
Rocks and Water by Deb Talan.
I am not sure exactly why we’re here again, but we are. Ten years after Cardinal Bernard Law was exiled to Rome and the Boston Archdiocese left in ruins, the reputations of another American institution, this time big time college football and an iconic coach are caught doing the same thing.
Repeat after me, boys and girls: if you see a grown man forcing himself on a young boy in a shower, you do not call your boss. You call the police. I don’t care what the law says. I don’t care what your university policy says. You call the frakking police. Are we clear? OK, moving on…
Somewhere around 1996, my mom and sisters and I returned to Baltimore for a vacation to catch up with old friends. I was in my early 20s and a complete emotional disaster. The thing about abuse is how crazy you feel trying to make sense of it. Your brain can’t make sense of it, of course, because, by definition, it is senseless. But it tries, you try, and in the effort you usually end up tied in an impossible knot, your soul at the center and stuck.
Our oldest friends as a family lived in a beautiful rural area just outside the city. We stayed with them in a house my parents helped them build and one that my sisters and I ran around countless times as little kids. Mr. Jack and Miss Marian. Their names make me smile, just seeing them on the screen. Mr. Jack and I ran an errand one evening during the vacation, buying milk or something at a convenience store up the road. Earlier in the afternoon, the house lost power and BG&E came out to fix it. Because of the single lane going to their house, Mr. Jack and I were trapped in the driveway for awhile while we waited for the trucks to leave. I will never, ever forget that conversation in the darkening car.
He looked me square in my eyes and apologized. We should have done something, he said. We knew there was something wrong with your father, that there was something wrong with how he treated you and the others in that house. And we didn’t do anything. We prayed for you, but we should have done more.
What could you have done, I asked.
Something more, he said, tears in his eyes.
That conversation pushed me a huge step forward on the path to un-knotting my life and how I felt about it. It made all the difference in the world, particularly since I held nothing against them because of their inaction. It hadn’t even occurred to me at that point that what was going on may have been visible to others.
Over the years, a few others along the way have made similar statements to the women in my home. All were welcome, but none so blindingly gracious as that encounter in the driveway. Someone knew. Even when we didn’t know (or more accurately, didn’t know we knew). And yes, they should have done something. But they realized it and did the best they could years later. They owned it and took responsibility for the damage their inaction may have caused.
I am sure that we’ll be here again, as a culture, as communities, as churches, as brothers and sisters in this place gone mad. But by God, it does not have to be this way. My friends on the blog are still looking for a similar, heartfelt encounter with the POTB at ABWE. Maybe the grand jury that took at shot at Penn State just 90 miles up the road will prompt some fearful action on their part. But I ain’t holding my breath.
We, as human beings, should not concern ourselves with the legal minimum responsibility to each other. And we need to understand it’s always going to be hard. It’s always going to be the respected coach, the medical missionary, the beloved parish priest. It’s always going to be a shock, a horrible surprise. And if you fall asleep at the switch, for the love of all that is good and holy, do NOT stand there and say, well, I did the least I could do. It doesn’t matter the LEAST you can do. The LEAST of US trumps that, every time.
Taking action, being accountable, protecting them…it’s morally mandatory.
Not an option.
But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Matthew 18:6