Question: What do some Nashville-area churches have in common with Penn State University, the Boy Scouts of America and the Vatican?
Answer: Senior administrators failing to report cases of child abuse to the proper authorities, thus allowing alleged serial child abusers to continue preying on innocents.
The rapidly emerging scandal at PSU is currently grabbing headlines because it involves legendary football coach Joe Paterno. It seems Paterno — ironically known as “Joe Pa” — may have put the image of his cherished football program above the lives of children.
The Vatican’s problems with pedophilia also grabbed headlines because popes, cardinals and bishops were involved. The BSA has recently been exposed by similar revelations involving its administrators.
And all too often cases of child abuse go unreported here in Middle Tennessee. Tony Alamo was once based in Nashville and his cultish “Christian Ministries” turned out to be a vehicle for pedophilia. It turned out that Alamo had married an 8-year-old girl and was transporting children across state lines for sex.
But is child abuse headline news only when celebrities are involved? The people who love and care about the children certainly don’t think so.
The Nashville Children’s Alliance, formerly the Nashville Child Advocacy Center, reports on its website that one in five Davidson County children were abused last year. That is a truly horrifying statistic, made even worse by the fact that the administrators of schools and churches sometimes aid and abet child abusers by failing to report them to the police.
I once visited a Nashville-area church that gave me very “bad vibes.” I later learned that girls who attended the church had been raped by one of its elders. The girls’ stark revelations, made years after the fact, as adults, were front-page news here, in 2008. According to WTVF-Channel 5 News, one of the rape victims said, “His words to me were: ‘God will condemn your soul if you ever speak a word of this to anyone.’ ” Another victim said in the story, “I told my mother and I told my pastor and nobody did anything.” According to four victims who filed lawsuits against the church, child abuse was rampant and none of the adults bothered to notify the police. So it seems that at least one local church may have fostered a culture similar to those of witchdoctors who sacrificed children to the “gods” while their parents stood by and watched.
A report on the subject by Mark Clayton, a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor, reveals that although “every state has laws requiring child sexual abuse to be reported, few cases involving members of the clergy are ever turned over to police by church officials and fewer still result in anyone going to jail.” Clayton concludes, “Religious authorities rarely end up passing on suspicions to law enforcement. The reasons vary, from a desire by churches to handle such cases internally, to ignorance about mandatory-reporting laws, to a culture of forgiveness.”
And I believe there is another major factor involved: self-image. It seems likely that the higher-ups at PSU, the BSA and the Vatican put the images of their organizations above the welfare of children. Why? All three profit, as do local churches, as long as they maintain positive images. But reporting child abuse is likely to result in tarnished images and fewer "paying customers." So perhaps in the end, the bottom line is that root of all evil — money.
Michael R. Burch is a Nashville-based editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry and other “things literary” at www.thehypertexts.com.