Two years ago, the Rev. Brian Prior was walking through the Spokane Valley Mall, holding hands with his two young sons.
He wore his clerical collar, because he’d picked up the boys at school right after finishing work at Episcopal Church of the Resurrection.
A man approached Prior and said, “What are you doing with these boys?”
Prior realized the man had mistaken him for a Roman Catholic priest, because the sex scandal was fresh in the news then.
In a calm voice, Prior said, “You are misconstruing the situation. I am an Episcopal priest and these are my sons.”
One of his sons said, “Dad, what is that guy saying to you?” This defused the situation. But before he walked away, the man snarled: “They better be.”
Prior told me this story Thursday evening when I ran into him at a community event. I felt fortunate, during this sad and sordid week, to meet up with some wise community folks. We talked about the Mayor Jim West mess. And we focused on our society’s lost boys.
The lost boys. Perhaps you know some, too. These were the little guys sexually abused before our culture was better informed about the issue. These were the boys forced to swim naked in boys-club pools. These were the boys sent on camping and hiking trips with just one Scout leader. These were the altar boys groomed by pedophile priests.
These were the boys who were children in a society ignorant of this statistic: Between 3 percent and 12 percent of men say that, as young boys, they were touched in sexually inappropriate ways by adolescents and adults.
The lost boys. The culture did not change in time to save them. The mothers did not say in time: “We will no longer hand our boys over to authority figures for overnight trips.” When these lost boys began wetting their beds again – a warning sign that a young boy may have been abused – they were scolded by their parents.
If any good has surfaced from the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church – and the crimes allegedly committed by Scout leaders David Hahn and George Robey – it is this: Our little boys are no longer as vulnerable as they once were. Guidelines for adult-child contact in schools, churches, Scouts, sports and other activities are much stricter now.
And people are not shy about watching out for the children they do not know, about questioning a priest in a clerical collar in a mall holding hands with two young boys.
We are perhaps too quick to assume the worst about any suspicious-seeming man we see with young boys. But this is the price we pay now for our decades of naiveté and denial, for shushing the lost boys who dared speak out.
The lost boys. Monica Walters, executive director of the YWCA, walked with me through Riverfront Park last week. We both expressed surprise that people seemed so aware of the fact that sexually abused boys can grow into the men who drown their memories in alcohol, drugs and violence. Walters once worked in residential treatment centers for boys, and 80 percent of those boys had been sexually abused as children.
The lost boys. A sad fact remains. Home is still where boys are most likely to be sexually abused, often by relatives. Walters also worries about single moms exposing their boys to multiple boyfriends. She worries, too, about young boys home alone after school, the Internet as companion.
The lost boy. It has been said that every person has a public life, a private life and a secret life. Jim West is taking some time off. He most likely will consult with lawyers and political operatives about his next move. The wise people I spoke with this week also hope he finds a good therapist and a spiritual director.
“We are called to authenticity,” Prior says. “We can’t live in that secret, shadowed life. The healing comes when we are willing to be vulnerable and show who we are – the dark side and the light side. Otherwise, we struggle alone.”