My last column responded to the Catholic Church scandal by examining the impact of pedophiles on their victims. I reviewed a treatment model in which the perpetrator publicly apologized after understanding the harm he had done to a child. In response, Evelyn, who was abused as a child, sent the following letter:
Thanks for your article. I read with interest the part about the perpetrator of sexual abuse seeking forgiveness from his victim. Do you have any ideas about how to suggest this to one’s perpetrator? I’d like a face-to-face meeting with the man who molested me, but I don’t know if he acknowledges that he was wrong. I myself have forgiven him, but perhaps he fears further accountability and restitution for the damage done.
I wrote to Evelyn:
What you are seeking can be complicated and dangerous. So let’s be protective of you. What I wrote was that the perpetrator should apologize to the victim, not seek forgiveness. The reason for the distinction is because the perpetrator has already taken something from you, and he cannot ask for anything more – even forgiveness. That is your prerogative, not his.
To be honest, if you have really forgiven him, why do you want the meeting? You risk being reinjured if he feels no empathy, compassion or regret.
Evelyn told me the meeting was not about forgiveness; it was about courage. As a girl, she could not protect herself from the perpetrator, and now she would like to know that she could meet him without losing her dignity. She wants to see him without the distorted impressions she had as a girl, though she doubts this will happen. She was abused by a Christian brother in the Philadelphia area more than 30 years ago, and has been unable to get access to his files.
Here’s what I told Evelyn:
As I read your last two e-mails, I kept wondering what you needed to make this horrible event recede into history. And then I got an answer. You need information so you can see him as neither devil nor deity but as a broken man. I know you cannot get this information through a psychologist, and I don’t know whether a lawyer could help. So now what?
To begin with, I would recommend seeing The Woodsman with Kevin Bacon. This movie was released last year and is the most honest portrayal of pedophilia I have ever seen. It shows the seductive danger of all pedophiles and the humanity of those trying to get better. You could get sexual-abuse information from a program such as the Joseph J. Peters Institute in Philadelphia, at 215-701-1560 or www.jjp.org.
When I was 12 years old, my seventh-grade teacher molested me. As I grew, I spent many years trying to understand this man I once idolized. I never had the opportunity to learn more about who he really was because he committed suicide several years later when he was discovered. So despite what felt like a desperate need to discover his humanity, I didn’t have that option.
The healing happened when I realized that what I really needed was not to ferret out his humanity, but to find out more about mine. I feel sad for him and his family. I feel sad for all the children harmed by his illness. And I feel sad for the 12-year-old boy who couldn’t quite figure out what to do with all that shameful information.
The history will never go away. And the sadness? Even though it happened more than 40 years ago, the melancholy still visits periodically, probably to remind me of that 12-year-old boy who felt ashamed and alone.
I wish you peace.