The Covid-19 pandemic seems to be abating in some areas, increasing elsewhere, and becoming an ongoing reality everywhere. The coronavirus is here to stay, reshaping our society and our psychology. There is a universality to the pandemic in the form of grief, anger, and fear.
Yet the virus also amplifies many of the inequalities in our society. Essential workers cannot work from the safety of their homes, for example, and minority communities are hit far harder than others. The wealthy can afford to self-isolate; the vulnerable are more so than ever. This extends to far too many children — the most innocent among us.
While families stayed at home, half of the callers to the National Sexual Assault Hotline in March were minors. As Scott Berkowitz, the president of RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), put it at the time: “Sadly, it is likely that the risk of children being sexually abused will increase as shelter-in-place orders continue — one more tragic consequence of the public health crisis the country currently faces.”
This is a lesson I know all too well. Fifty years ago, a now-forgotten pandemic played a devastating role in my own life — one that I can never forget.
In 1968, my father, a nuclear armaments veteran, was suffering from acute leukemia when he contracted the virus of that time: the Hong Kong flu, a pandemic that took the lives of nearly one million people worldwide. My father was especially susceptible because of a secret he held close, one that dated from the Korean War.
When, as a young man, he was drafted into the Army, his family in Flatbush, Brooklyn, thought he had been sent to Korea to fight for his country. Instead, he was stationed at a Nevada nuclear testing site in 1951. God only knows how much ionizing radiation he was exposed to during the months he spent there.
Nearly 20 years later, he was fighting for his life on a new battlefield, struggling against the ravages of leukemia while the medical personnel worked to save him. Nothing could protect him from the Hong Kong flu. Forty years old and dying, just before his last breath, he revealed to his front-line team where he had been. He provided few details about his tour of duty back in the early days of the Cold War, but he broke his silence.
About two hours before he died, I pulled up a stool and sat next to him in his room at Mount Sinai in New York City, the same hospital where Covid-19 took so many lives recently. He lay in a full protective bubble. I had to touch him through a rubber glove that extended from a plastic sleeve. He turned his head and struggled to smile. His hollowed eyes reached mine. We were Catholic. I was an altar boy, and I felt like the women at the foot of the cross as Jesus hung dying. My father died a short time later, and my world changed forever. I was 12. My father would never know how vulnerable I became after he died. Abuse strikes the lowly in heart, especially children.
His death left our family shattered. Unlike today’s pandemic crisis, there was no stay-at-home mandate a half-century ago. Escalating physical and mental abuse by an alcoholic widow left me exceedingly vulnerable. Father figures in the community sought me out. Some were well intentioned, others were not. In my 13th year, I was raped by a male teacher.
Molestation by a Roman Catholic priest would follow. This started a journey of depression and addiction. As William Styron wrote in “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness”: “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self — to the mediating intellect — as to verge close to being beyond description.”
The toll of sexual abuse is similarly difficult to convey. Sexual abuse can lead to madness, a stripping of mind and heart. Shame consumes the soul. Reprieve, always fleeting, started early for me — drinking the same Scotch my mother used to quench her demons.
For me, the church that was an arena of my abuse also offered the faith that became my lifeline back to health. It took decades. On a profound level, I just desired to live, to be a child. Are the minors calling in to the hotline today, during this crisis, desiring the same? I have no doubt they are. Fear paralyzes the human spirit among the young being sexually abused in our midst. Most we cannot see, examine, evaluate, hold. Forced isolation leaves children easy prey. As Mr. Berkowitz of RAINN added, “Unfortunately, for many, and especially for children experiencing sexual abuse, ‘stay at home’ doesn’t mean ‘safe at home.’ ”
As Covid-19 continues to upset so many lives, I do find some comfort connecting the pandemic that transformed my life a half-century ago to today’s pandemic. In the second half of my life, my interior captivity has been freed. Time takes time. Forgiveness calms the storm. What we as a society need to do, right now, is do all we can to ensure that the abuse does not happen in the first place.
The vulnerability of children is a central aspect of this public health crisis. We don’t need testing, or a vaccine, to address this. We need to realize how much we can — and must — do now. Even while quarantined, if we observe anything that suggests that a child is being abused, we must speak up. This is the very least we can do.
I hope that all of humanity emerges from this cloud changed, emboldened with a renewed authenticity, a resurrection of mind and body. Most of all, I pray that all the children who are being sexually abused right now find the grace I found. They are locked in, suffering unbearable pain. I hope it doesn’t take them decades — as it did me — to find their voice.
Mark Joseph Williams, a parishioner and special adviser in the Archdiocese of Newark, is a forensic social worker and management consultant. A native of East Hampton, he lives in Far Hills, N.J.