The arc of a moral universe

Of course we know that, behind the burnished patina of civility, behind the daily decorum we take for granted, resides a heart of darkness so bleak, so grim that our first impulse is to turn away. Theologians call it mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil. And its very presence begs the question: if we live in a world wherein man is essentially good, where the arc of a moral universe bends toward justice, then how can we explain the presence of evil?

The Catholic Church, today, struggles with that question as a once hidden narrative is tragically revealed. Children, fragile and trusting, the most vulnerable and defenseless among us, have been abused while in the care of the Church's priests. It is so counterintuitive as to be all but incomprehensible.

Of course, we know that the Church is not alone. Child abuse, in all of its heartbreaking modalities, is ever with us. In Oregon, a child is abused every eight minutes. In Jackson County one out of four children suffers from abuse or neglect and one out of four girls and one out of six boys suffer sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. It is estimated that some 25,000 residents of Jackson County were victims of child sexual abuse.

Abuse of our children covers a broad and unsettling spectrum from emotional abuse to sexual abuse to physical abuse to neglect.

Verbal abuse may be the most ubiquitous and insidious wherein children are consistently denigrated and threatened until the image of themselves begins to mirror the image of their abuser. Others are physically battered and bruised, assaults that leave emotional scars that desiccate the heart and reside in memory for a lifetime, the damage incalculable.

Some children, from the very young (mere toddlers) to teenagers, are violated sexually in ways that defy understanding. It is exploitation at its most horrific and represents a pathology that exists in a realm beyond comprehension. And there are the children who are neglected to the point of criminality, parents lost to addiction (often meth) are oblivious, or there is family dysfunction so profound that it is completely debilitating, reducing the lives of the children to a constant, unrelenting struggle to survive.

Children raise children. Strangers come and go. Infants go days without a change of clothes or diapers. Chaos frames their existence. The center doesn't hold. All is uncertainty.

Mysterium iniquitatis.

The following vignette was shared by a local agency that works with abused children in Jackson County. It is the story of Hope (not the child's real name).

"My name is Hope. I'm 3 years old. When I was a baby, I spent day and night in my car seat in the corner of the big room with the TV. I had lots of time to practice becoming invisible. Sometimes my big sisters held me for a little while when I was good. But sometimes my big brothers and sisters got mad when I did bad things like roll out of the car seat and started wiggling my way around the room or when my diaper got full of pee or poop and it started smelling. They yelled at me and shook me when I scratched the lice on my head and left sores on my scalp. My special brother shared his bottle with me when our mom remembered to give us food or something to drink and he covered me with a blanket when it was cold. Joey stayed curled up next to me every day and night that we lived and survived together."

In Jackson County there are exceptional agencies doing heroic work helping the small victims of abuse: the Family Nurturing Center, Children's Advocacy Center, the Maslow Project, CASA, DHS and United Way. Children are counseled, protected and nurtured and placed into foster care by the tireless efforts of the professionals in these agencies. But the overriding question is what can be done to prevent child abuse? How to do battle with a reality so stark and complex and often intransigent as to defy solutions?

Some weeks ago I drove to Vogel Plaza in Medford to a gathering of those who support the Don't Turn Away project, sponsored by the Medford Tribune, KOBI, and the Jackson County Child Abuse Network. Under a leaden sky, on an early spring afternoon, some 100 people listened to selected speakers reading powerful stories about victims of abuse. The hope is that through this annual event awareness regarding this abiding problem in our community can be heightened.

Should any of us become aware of child abuse taking place we should never turn away, but call DHS Child Welfare at 541-776-6120 or dial 911.

For further information visit the Don't Turn Away Web site at'tTurnAway.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland and writes opinion columns for the Daily Tidings.

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