When the Language of Sexual Assault Protects Everyone but the Victim

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Recently, Newsweek ran a story about sexual abuse with the headline “Pennsylvania Priest Placed on Leave After Allegation of Sexual Misconduct with a Minor.” The headline protects the publication from legal ramifications, the audience from the horrors of sexual assaults on children, and the accused priest who now, linguistically, gets an accomplice. The only loser is the victim, now made complicit in the alleged abuse by an inaccurate proposition.

It would be impossible for the Newsweek story to have this headline: “Pennsylvania Priest Placed on Leave After Allegation of Sexual Abuse With a Minor.” Because that sounds as if a priest and a minor co-conspired to sexually abuse a third party, which according to the allegations here, is not the case. Substituting “misconduct” for stronger, more concrete words like “abuse,” “assault,” or “molestation,” allows for use of the word “with,” which puts the object of the preposition, the minor, engaging in the alleged misconduct alongside the priest, the subject of the sentence.

Newsweek is not alone in the way it framed this story. When the dioceses of Altoona-Johnstown announced that Rev. David R. Rizzo had been placed on leave after a parishioner came forward to say Rizzo sexually abused them, the press release called it “an accusation of sexual misconduct involving a minor.” But judging by the information we have, the minor did not want to be involved in the priest’s alleged sexual misconduct, and in any case, the law states that minors cannot legally make the decision to become sexually involved with an adult. Any involvement is abuse by the adult.

The law is partly to blame for sentences like Newsweek’s. Legally, media is required to use words like “allegedly” and “reportedly” unless the allegations are proven in a court of law. However, in situations of rape and sexual abuse, there is an additional impulse from both writer and reader to step away from the action. When I taught The Handmaid’s Tale to college freshman, nearly every research paper conference I held involved me looking at sentences that read “Offred was raped” and asking students “Who raped her? Why is he not in this sentence?” As Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her, pointed out on Twitter, our failure to include abusers in sentences about their abuse reflects the larger problem: We often fail to hold abusers in any way accountable.

It is unpleasant to talk frankly about rape and sexual abuse, especially when it involves children. So much so, that alleged abusers can sue if we forget to call them “alleged abusers.” But far more unpleasant than calling sexual assault by its proper name is the fact that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown has written many versions of this passive-voiced press release:

“The diocese has dealt with sex abuse scandals before. A grand jury report from 2018 details hundreds of cases allegedly covered up by the church. The report states that a search warrant was executed and a ‘secret archive’ obtained, along with confidential files.

‘Agents did not find a couple files in a drawer which alleged child molestation,’ the report says, ‘but rather boxes and filing cabinets filled with the details of children being sexually violated by the institution’s own members.’”

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Even in the grand jury report, the accusers are “being sexually violated.” How might things be different if that sentence, and all sentences regarding sexual violence, read “but rather boxes and filing cabinets filled with the details of the institution’s own members sexually violating children”?

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