Witnessing the Unthinkable: When Sexual Abuse Happens In Front of Others & Why

by | Feb 12, 2024 | Catholic Church, Other Sexual Abuse

Sexual Abuse in Front of Others Horowitz Law


The chilling reality that sexual abuse, a heinous act we habitually associate with secrecy, occurs out in the open, in full view of others, has once again come to the forefront. Recent allegations against a high-ranking religious figure and the reactions to this news underscore the complex nature of abuse and challenge our conventional understandings. While we will never understand the dynamics of abuse carried out “in front of” others, let us explore why predators might choose to operate in plain sight and the implications this has for our understanding of abuse.

Understanding the Unthinkable

Just last week, reports emerged about Fr. David Nicgorski, a Chicago native and previously the head of an international religious order, accused of sexually assaulting a nun and engaging in predatory behavior towards others. One accuser shockingly noted that Fr. Nicgorski, “in front of other sisters,” engaged in inappropriate physical contact. She stated that Nicgorski, “came up to me and pushed himself against me, and hugged me really tightly, front-to-front against him, and he kept me there for a minute, and then he released me.” This phrase, “in front of other sisters,” sends shivers down the spine of those who understand the intricacies of sexual violence.

For many, the idea that abuse can happen in plain view contradicts everything we’ve come to believe. We ask ourselves, isn’t abuse supposed to be a shadowy crime, happening in secrecy? The truth, as unsettling as it may be, is that there are exceptions. Whether out of a lack of control or as a calculated move, some predators do, in fact, commit acts of grooming or assault in the presence of others.

A Calculated Tactic

Predators often conduct what can be interpreted as experiments or “trial balloons” to test their limits and the reactions of those around them. This method involves several calculated steps to normalize their actions. Maybe these perpetrators just can’t control themselves. But more likely, we suspect, these predators are extremely calculating in at least three ways.

    1. Gauging potential victims’ reactions through boundary-crossing behavior to see if it prompts a protest.
    2. Observing if bystanders notice the behavior and if they dare to intervene provides insight into potential interference.
    3. Normalizing questionable actions by framing them as innocent or affectionate, especially if challenged.

This approach allows predators to assess their ability to continue their abusive behavior undetected or unchallenged. If confronted, they can excuse it or explain it away with phrases like, “Oh come on! I was just teasing. It was TOTALLY innocent. Don’t be a prude. You’re overreacting. I’m just being affectionate.” Regardless of the reasons behind it, no matter how counter-intuitive this seemingly reckless behavior may seem to us, it does indeed happen.

Case Studies: Abuse in Plain Sight

The case of Theodore McCarrick, a high-profile and well-connected Catholic cardinal, encapsulates the disturbing phenomenon of abuse occurring in full view of others. Despite his influential status, his power ended in 2018, and McCarrick was defrocked following revelations of his long-concealed abusive behavior, including instances where abuse took place as others watched.

One Catholic father stated, “Another thing I saw that I witnessed was that on a number of occasions (Cardinal McCarrick) would stand up behind my son and hold him around his chest very tight. He would wrap his arms around my son and rub his chest and his belly. It was not normal behavior.”

A Catholic mother’s son, in the same report, said: “Cardinal McCarrick used to do that a lot, and not just with my older brother. . . . We would all be standing around, and I remember he would hug one of us tight from behind, almost like a mother touching her son. . . . [H]e would do it in front of everybody else like there was nothing wrong with it. But it felt very strange.”

Fr. James Talbot’s abuse of students under his guise as a coach and Fr. Myles Patrick White’s and Fr. Wancura’s inappropriate actions in front of others exemplify this horrific behavior.

Fr. James Talbot spent time in Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Missouri, and Jamaica and is accused of molesting at least 14 boys. According to one of the lawsuits filed against him – and his church supervisors – Fr. Talbot “frequently insisted” that soccer and hockey players he coached “strip down to their jockstraps and wrestle with him in front of others – a practice that was openly whispered about among students.” Later, several of the former students said Talbot had lured them to one-on-one sessions, where he pinned them to mats and molested them.

In a lawsuit against Fr. Myles Patrick White and Joliet Catholic officials, a man said the priest “stripped” his pants in front of others. Later, Fr. White fondled his genitals.

Rev. Canon Paul Wancura, an Episcopal priest on Long Island, sexually abused a boy for years, starting when he was eight, and his mother was incapacitated due to a car accident. In addition to assaulting him in private, Rev. Wancura “performed those acts in front of others at the church.”

Beyond the Church

We at Horowitz Law have seen this happen in dozens of predator priest cases across the US. Not surprisingly, Catholic clerics don’t have a monopoly on this odd, sick behavior. Beyond the church, public figures like Larry Nassar and Harvey Weinstein also committed acts in the presence of others, further illustrating that abuse in plain view is not confined to any single institution or type of perpetrator.

    1. A former USA gymnastics champion said that her former sports doctor, Larry Nassar, sexually abused her in front of friends and coaches. Mattie Larson told the court that she was molested by Nassar, often in the presence of coaches and trainers.
    2. Ghislane Maxwell started desensitizing the girls to sex by undressing or massaging Jeffrey Epstein in front of them.
    3. In interviews, eight women described varying behavior by Harvey Weinstein appearing nearly or fully naked in front of them, requiring them to be present while he bathed or repeatedly asking for a massage or initiating one himself.

Expanding Our Understanding of Abuse

This pattern of behavior forces us to reconsider what we know about abuse and its occurrence. When survivors share experiences that seem at odds with our preconceptions, it’s crucial to resist the impulse to dismiss their stories. Abuse does not always occur in secrecy; sometimes, it happens in plain sight, under the guise of normalcy that the predator has carefully crafted. Let’s remember that not all abusers abuse in exactly the same way. We must not impulsively reject their report because some portion of it might not immediately conform to our preconceptions about how predators victimize others.

A Call to Action

Understanding that abuse can and does occur in front of others is pivotal in recognizing and confronting sexual violence. As a society, we must remain vigilant and broaden our perspective on how abuse unfolds. When a survivor comes forward with a story that challenges our preconceptions, it is our responsibility to listen to, believe in, and support them. Only by doing so can we hope to protect the vulnerable and hold perpetrators accountable, regardless of the setting in which their crimes are committed.

Abuse, in any form and any setting, is unforgivable. Let us commit to expanding our understanding and response to sexual violence, ensuring that survivors feel seen, heard, and believed. Together, we can take meaningful steps toward a world where no individual, regardless of their position, can hide behind the veil of normalcy to commit such heinous acts.

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, contact us today at 888-283-9922 or [email protected] to discuss your options today. Our lawyers have decades of experience representing survivors of clergy sexual abuse nationwide. We can help.