An old idiom is cited in the bible and often used in common conversation, especially when referring to sexual abuse. The phrase “fall from grace” is defined in the dictionary (in Christian belief) as descending from a state of divine favor into sin. It literally means to sin, yet people often use it as an excuse to lessen the crime, hoping the abuser will rise back up. How about we all agree to stop using the word ‘fall’ or ‘fell’ when discussing sexual abuse? Predators don’t FALL for their victims or FALL from grace; they abuse.
Journalists should especially avoid those terms. Those words are used in two ways when discussing abuse. Both are very harmful and misleading. First, in the context of kids victimized by clergy, we often see phrases like “the accused minister’s fall from grace.” (If you go to BishopAccountability.org and enter this phrase in the search box, you’ll see that it appears more than 300 times on this site alone.)
Second, in the context – usually – of teenage girls who are victimized, as in “the middle school teacher fell for his attractive new student.” This construct says, “Something bad happened. No one’s to blame. It just happened. . .in part because this youngster is so irresistible.” In both cases, criminal actions are mischaracterized in ways that benefit abusers and harm survivors. Using the phrase “the priest’s abuse led to his fall from grace” suggests that the offending cleric isn’t really to blame. He simply ‘fell.’ We all ‘fall.’ So behavior that was often extraordinarily manipulative, shrewd, cunning, carefully planned, and blatantly criminal becomes essentially re-defined as a ‘slip up.’ In other words, it could happen to anyone, especially if one is not careful.
But, in most abuse cases, the clergy perpetrator was the opposite of ‘not careful.’ Predators are usually very careful: in choosing their victims, cautiously grooming them, gradually winning their trust and the trust of their family, and picking a time and place where their crimes would occur. Here’s a more concise and accurate way to describe a sex crime by a minister, rabbi, or priest – and avoid the old term about ‘falling from grace’ – is to simply say “a clergyman has committed crimes.” This avoids the impression that, basically, “Something bad happened. No one’s to blame. It just happened.”
In the second context, as in “the middle school teacher fell for his attractive new student,” the mischaracterization is much the same but with an added element of deception and blame-shifting. “Falling” for another person, especially one rightfully considered inappropriate, unavailable, or off-limits, implies a genuine affection or legitimate attraction that, again, couldn’t really be helped. This phrasing suggests that a well-meaning adult simply couldn’t contain his overwhelming desire to cross the line with a younger person whose attractiveness was just too compelling. It moves from the hurtful myth that ‘an accident just happened’ to an even more hurtful myth that ‘an accident happened, at least partly because this other person was so attractive.
Why bring up this problematic language now? Because of a lengthy and important new article in the Boston Globe about a well-respected (or more accurately, ‘a once well-respected’) running coach. We at Horowitz Law hope you won’t be deterred from reading this story because it’s long. There’s much to unpack in it beyond just how we describe child sexual abuse. The opening scene itself is gripping: A former Olympic official calls the police to report that an athlete was abused by her coach. The officer who answered the call, it turns out, was abused by the same coach. In fact, the two women, the victim on whose behalf the phone call was made and the female police officer taking the call, were friends and running colleagues as teenagers.
The abuser is John M. Babington, who worked for Harvard University, Wellesley College, the US Olympic Committee, and the elite Liberty Athletic Club. If you aren’t yet convinced that we should stop using the words “fall” and “fell” when discussing abuse, consider who it is that uses these words. Often, it is the perpetrator. Or his allies. Or, sadly, a less-than-careful or sensitive reporter. (In fact, the journalist – who wrote an otherwise terrific account of Babington’s crimes – writes, “Babington fell hard for Pearson, too.”) And offending clergy and their fellow clergy supporters often write and speak of “falling” from grace or their “calling” as ministers. These facts alone should give us pause before we – consciously or unconsciously – use their hurtful characterization of their crimes in our comments about their crimes.
Horowitz Law is a law firm representing victims and survivors of sexual abuse by religious authority figures and other clergy. If you need a lawyer because a member of a religious organization sexually abused you, please contact our law firm at 888-283-9922 or email sexual abuse lawyer Adam Horowitz at [email protected]. Our lawyers have decades of experience representing survivors of clergy sexual abuse nationwide. We can help.