It matters so much that when I was elected to my legislature, a top focus for me was initiating laws to better protect children from sexual predators. I’ve also spent multiple times on tour with Richard Dawkins.
This combination leads me to offer a distinct perspective on the experience of a woman who at age seven was sexually fondled by a priest.
In addition to this trauma, this woman, at about the same age, faced the horror of a childhood friend dying while having the “knowledge” -- drummed into her as a child -- that her friend would burn in hell. Why? Because this other child happened to be Protestant -- not Catholic. The woman said she never lost sleep based on the “yucky” (her words) fondling. She was deeply traumatized by the “knowledge” of hellfire for her friend. She recounted: “I spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would go to Hell. It gave me nightmares.” She felt “cold, immeasurable fear.” She concluded that, in her experience, the emotional abuse of threatened hellfire was worse than fondling. (While each child abuse experience is unique, her experience is no less valid).
Would you condemn this woman? Is this woman “militant”? Is she “fundamentalist?” My guess is you’d say no such thing. Yet many have described Richard Dawkins this way for daring to recount her experiences and her conclusion. A Catholic online publication called Dawkins “infamous” as it went on to say that hell was real and a “matter of choice.”
While Richard Dawkins faced a bad experience that I have not (child molestation), I have extensive experience dealing with public policy and child sex abuse. I chaired a Commission on the topic and worked on the issue for years.
To me threatened hellfire has, from my childhood, been no more real than Thor, but, as an adult, I’d see photographs of trauma after child rape. So when this woman, who was fondled, says hellfire mythology is worse, I might be inclined to differ -- but NOT after going on three speaking tours with Richard Dawkins.
Prof. Peter Higgs recently insinuated Prof. Dawkins was “fundamentalist.” I’d ask Mr. Higgs, whom I greatly respect, to listen to people -- the many people -- I meet on a Dawkins tour. Time and again – literally hundreds of times now – I’ve seen people tell Prof. Dawkins -- or tell me or tell our Executive Director Dr. Elisabeth Cornwell – how Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, freed them from trauma of hellfire, similar to the trauma that this woman described as worse than sexual abuse.
Yet somehow we witness the intellectual acrobatics that Richard Dawkins must be condemned as harsh, or fundamentalist, because he dares to have compassion for a woman in this situation. Think of it. There’s nothing in this woman’s statement that should be dismissed. Yet Richard Dawkins must be condemned for daring to recount her trauma?
The woman victim -- terrorized by her religion (a religion not typically labeled fundamentalist) – has experienced a trauma that she describes as “immeasurable fear” with “sleepless nights.”
Millions of people face this fear, the same sleepless nights – and yet they often think they are totally alone. How dare Richard Dawkins be so rude - so impolite - as to let these victims be heard!? And remember: this cruelty is imposed by organized powerful institutions. Challenge the powerful on behalf of children!? How awful.
Only if someone prominent – someone famous – allows the voice of those traumatized to be heard can others know they are not alone. As someone who has devoted much of my life to protecting children from abuse, there can be no more noble cause.
Richard Dawkins has chosen to give voice to the trauma this woman experienced. Doing so challenges accepted order, established tradition. Whenever one does the right thing for those in the shadows, the powerful rush to condemn, conformists rush to agree.
Others, including many non-religious people, including the justly-admired Peter Higgs, may choose not to give voice to these victims -- and to the trauma they suffered. These victims – millions of victims, millions terrorized – are given hope by Richard Dawkins, a hope I’ve seen by the hundreds on every tour with this decent and honorable man.
I hope Peter Higgs, also an honorable man, and the millions like him (and like me) who have never been subjected to the terror of hellfire will take a step back, step back from the inclination to avoid controversy, the inclination to not ruffle the prominent feathers -- and face the stark reality that human beings are harmed by this terror. I hope they will do the right thing for these victims, and tell the truth about dogmatic childhood indoctrination. I have seen the truth set many people free. In my first hearing as a legislator, a Harvard man was nominated for a judgeship. The insiders -- the “right people” -- were on his side, but women came forward testifying to his sexual harassment. I’m as proud now to stand by the victims of abuse -- who’s story Richard Dawkins has told -- as I was proud to stand by the women who were sexually harassed despite the discomfort it caused “the right people.” Anyone who really cares about child abuse will stand with Richard Dawkins. In another time, the fight against child sex abuse, that has been so much of my career, was considered a “private” matter. It takes courage to bravely face the form of child abuse that society has yet to face.