We must place our hope not with power or authority, but with abuse survivors
As I sit down to write, I am conscious that these are yet more words, from yet another priest, offered to a church and a world that have rightly lost trust in the words of priests or bishops addressing the terrible crimes and sins of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. I have no right to be heard on this; any credibility that I might claim has long since been squandered by the church’s catalog of failures in this tragedy.
Any credibility that I might claim has long since been squandered by the church’s catalog of failures in this tragedy.
Yet I found myself standing in the pulpit yesterday, celebrating the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and I had to say something, and whatever I said had to address the open wounds the Pennsylvania grand jury report has revealed.
Revealed—not caused. The wounds were there already, borne by the survivors of sexual abuse, whom the church had ignored and dismissed, carried through their lives and marking them, their families and their communities. The pain of this crisis is no greater today than it was last week; in fact, for the survivors of abuse, I hope and pray that having this pain finally heard and shared offers some measure of healing, however small. I wish that the church had been able to find the courage to offer it under our own initiative, and I am ashamed that we did not.
So I stood in the pulpit yesterday and confessed that I felt like a fraud to even attempt to speak on behalf of God. But this is, roughly, what I said, and after Mass more than one person asked me to write it down and make it available.
In a few minutes, as the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins, we will pray in the preface in thanksgiving for the promise of Mary’s Assumption as the “beginning and image of your church’s coming to perfection.” I cannot imagine a day on which it has been harder to believe that the church is coming to perfection.
I grew up in the Diocese of Scranton, which was investigated by the grand jury. One of the priests named in it had his first assignment at my childhood parish after ordination. I remember him but have no recollection—nor does the report contain any allegation—of any abuse during his time at my parish. Yet the record of his assignments, as detailed in the report, showed a cascade of moves, with only two of his assignments lasting more than four years and most being less than one, punctuated by leaves of absence. It was clear that something was wrong.
I discerned my vocation in Boston during the 2002 sexual abuse crisis, going to Mass across the street from the chancery; I could judge how bad the news was by the number of satellite trucks parked outside. I thought, I hoped, that the church had repented of its failures then, but standing here today, I cannot trust in that hope any longer.
And as a priest, I do not feel that you have any reason to trust what I say today or the sorrow that I express, on my own behalf or on behalf of the church. And I hesitate to try to say anything at all. Those words have been hollowed out. They have been hollowed out by too many priests and bishops who deceived themselves into believing that these vestments, that their ministry and office, is the image of the church coming to perfection.
But we also have today the words of the Gospel for this feast, in which two women prophesy. Elizabeth greets Mary in joy and amazement that “the mother of my Lord should come to me,” and Mary responds by praising God, who lifts up the poor and the humble and casts down the proud and the rich.
This is the image of the church coming to perfection.
Mary responds by praising God, who lifts up the poor and the humble and casts down the proud and the rich. This is the image of the church coming to perfection.
This young woman from Nazareth, proclaiming that God comes in power to the aid of the least and lowliest—she is God’s promise to the church, and she is the image of what God desires for our human nature.
The reason for our hope, and the beginning of any healing, cannot be what those with power in the church say or promise. Those words have been hollowed out.
Instead, we place our hope in God, who scatters the proud in their conceit and casts down the mighty from their thrones, and who remembers his promise of mercy forever. We hope in the God that Elizabeth and Mary announced, and we hope in the God who gave us Mary as the image and promise of what the church is called to be.
This is not an answer to the tragedy of sexual abuse committed at the hands of the church. We still need to hear the stories of those who have survived abuse and work for their healing. We still need to embrace transparency and seek justice for those who have suffered. We still need to find ways to hold accountable all those, especially bishops, who have failed in their ministry of governance.
But while Mary’s Magnificat does not give us an answer, it does give us a place to begin—by placing our faith not in power and authority, but in God’s will to come and save his people, lifting up the poor and lowly and casting down the proud. May God give us the courage to begin there.
Almost three years ago, after watching the movie “Spotlight,” I wrote that I prayed to be converted from the desire for the scandal of sexual abuse in the church to just be over, because it was “a desire to walk away from the very real pain of the victims, which is so far from being over.”
That prayer is being answered abundantly.
As I write today, I know that the church needs not to be defended but to be purified. And I know that the pain and grief of the last few days of tragic revelations are mere shadows of the pain and grief borne by the survivors of abuse by priests. This honest pain is better, by far, than the sickness of the church trying to pretend that this tragedy is already over and done with.
So I pray in gratitude for the courage of the survivors of abuse who came forward and for the grand jurors who have called the church to account. I pray for the conversion of the church to seek justice for those who have suffered and accountability for those who have failed to govern the church with integrity. I pray that God continues to bring the church toward the perfection of humility and courage revealed in Mary, even and especially when we resist such grace.