Tonight I attended a training session designed to educate me about child abuse. I needed to go to this because I’m going to be working with kids next week and it’s required that all volunteers undergo training of this kind. Members of the Catholic Church put the training materials together (why I’m attending Catholic training of this sort is a matter for a separate entry, which I’ll hopefully have finished by tomorrow, but the long and short of it is that I’m going on a Catholic mission trip). I went in with no expectations. I came out shaken to my core.
I suppose this may be one of the many lines that separates me from the believer I used to be—or, if I’m honest with myself, might well have never been. We saw a few training videos that included commentary from actual sexual abuse victims and stories told by real, convicted child molesters. These stories were utterly devastating to listen to: children as young as two being taken advantage of; girls being touched by their pastors, priests, coaches, foster fathers; boys being touched by their teachers, uncles, friends of their parents; abusers who found themselves unable to stop despite repeated attempts to quit… the list goes on and on. One particularly horrifying story involved a boy who was already a “problem” student when the abuse began; he felt trapped by his previous behavior, because his credibility had been damaged and he no longer thought anyone would trust him. On the other side of the spectrum, one of the perpetrators told his story on screen as a bearded adult, but ended it with the revelation that he was 15 when he was caught, thereby implying that he’d been in prison or rehabilitation since that time. Every story was heart wrenching. I became simultaneously horrified and furious: what sort of world is this that we live in where these things happen?
And as these emotions hit me, so too did something familiar: doubt. I remembered the doubts I’d faced many months ago, and the fact that some of them had come about because of similar situations. I’d hear about some kind of ghastly violence or terrible disaster, and I’d gaze upward and wonder, “Would a good God let this happen?” As I sat reminiscing, the rest of the class began discussing the films. I was easily the youngest person there, and undoubtedly the only non-believer. After all, this was a Catholic event: why would anyone who didn’t believe in God be present? But, again, that’s a story for another time. I noticed that instead of any expressions of uncertainty about God, everyone seemed quite able to fit sexual abuse into their Catholic worldview.
This may all seem trivial, but allow me to make my point: these stories of child abuse did not cause the die-hard Catholics in the room to question their God in the least (as far as I was able to tell). But that same stimulus, when shown to an atheist, made me wonder how anyone could believe in a perfectly good God (and I say this with full awareness of my own past faith). I was sitting there asking myself how I could’ve ever thought God was watching out for humanity, while everyone else was perfectly fine with letting God permit such despicable evil.
What justification can there be for sexual abuse of children? What possible reason could God have for letting innocent children be abused? I’m aware of the stock answers: free will, opportunities for others to be caring, unknown purposes, and so on, but (as is likely obvious) none of these answers satisfy me.
Perhaps they never did. Perhaps my faith was never as strong as I thought it was. But I’m ok with that now, because I can stand behind one thing that I’m very proud to say: I will not make excuses for a God who does nothing to prevent the sexual abuse of children.