We must place our hope not with power or authority, but with abuse survivors

Victims of clergy sexual abuse and their family members listen as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks about a grand jury’s investigation of clergy sexual abuse. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)Victims of clergy sexual abuse and their family members listen as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks about a grand jury’s investigation of clergy sexual abuse. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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.

Advertisement

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.

[Explore America's in-depth coverage of Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church.]

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
dechardin2000@google
1 year ago

I would turn over all the offenders, to the American justice system, and demand the maximum civil penalty. no interference from the church. these men are perverted sex criminals and deserve the most severe penalties.

John Phillips
1 year ago

Thank you, Father Sam. Your words here and during yesterday’s podcast with Fr. Malone have given me perspective and hope with respect to how I feel and react to all of this. Thank you!

Lisa Weber
1 year ago

Thank you for your thoughtful comments during this difficult time.

arthur mccaffrey
1 year ago

Dear Mr Sawyer, I know you mean well, but you are naievely praying for God to repair a church that is, frankly, not repair-able. There is nothing that you say about helping victims that could not be done just as well outside the church, and I hope you will seriously consider doing this.
I think that the honest thing for you to do is to resign from this institution and continue to work for victims exactly as you describe it.
To use your words, this church is sick, but I honestly believe that the best use of your time, energy and talents is to serve the victims and not waste your time praying for conversion or purification of this corrupt institution.
My best wishes for your conversion.

A Fielder
1 year ago

Fr Sam, I very much enjoyed reading your pastoral and also practical comments. If my own experience as a victim is shared by at least some others, I can only assume that many of us have experiences characterized by conflicting desires to both destroy the church and also to build it up into being what it could be. I have wanted to leave, to just to walk away only to realize that being Catholic is something that constitutes an important part of who I am. The church could be so much more than it is. It is agonizing to watch the painfully slow process of purifying the church, especially as many people have differing opinions of what yet still needs to purified, if anything. For too long, we have trusted our leaders to do the discernment required of leadership, or maybe we have been duped into thinking that we are not allowed to participate in this moral discernment. But this job really does belong to the entire community, not just to our leaders. Hope in times of despair does push the limit on the practicality of our faith. But I do believe that Jesus embraced the cross in solidarity with those who suffer unjustly, so that we might find consolation in unjust suffering, and also to know of God's protest against it. This knowledge is not restricted to the hope of heaven, it is also meant to give meaning and purpose to our lives on earth.

Al Cannistraro
1 year ago

A wonderful example of the "art of the sermon" at its finest and most challenging. If there are sermon textbooks and anthologies, this should be considered for inclusion in future editions of same.

Sermons are designed to be heard and then mostly forgotten except for briefly leaving some fuzzy positive impressions, so it it brave to publish this and therefore make it available for analysis and criticism.

Paul Mclaughlin
1 year ago

This afternoon I penned the following email to the Chancellor of the Diocese of Charleston...

Dear Sister,
As you are the Diocese’s Canon Lawyer, I am writing you this email.
I am a lifelong Catholic and am again angry at the leadership of the Church over the depth and scope of what we see in PA and elsewhere. It is a disgrace beyond description. I am not talking about only the abusers, but the bishops, cardinals, clergy, religious and the other theocrats who responded more like organized crime bosses who protected the abusers and the institution, and treated the abused as if they were serfs.

I realize the Dallas Charter addressed the future response to reports of abuse, but the “Bosses”, aka the theocrats, failed to address how they would be investigated and dealt with. I know the Bishops Conference is not a governing body of the Church and has no Canonical Control over ordinaries. However, their failure to even raise the question with Rome: How can we work together and put in place the ways and means to investigate ordinaries and report the result to Rome for action, shows the Bosses either didn’t grasp or didn’t want to face their part in this continuing mess.

With this said and after reading the Grand Jury report from PA, I am lead to ask a simply question. Will the Diocese of Charleston and the Bishop open its files and archives and subject the all document and people involved to same rigorous review and analysis and interviews as what happened in PA by a completely independent body of lay people, only, of both Catholics and non-Catholic? Their must not be theocratic involvement in the investigation.

I am not a Canon Lawyer, but I can’t imagine a complete and thorough independent investigation of how the theocrats of the Diocese responded to the abuse crisis cannot be undertaken. If there are confidentiality agreements, releases can sought and obtained. Certainly, if there are complaints pending, they should be held in confidence until settlement.
This independent study should not only focus on the response to the sexual abuse crisis, but include the new and emerging crisis involving “the sex lives” of those who teach and were/are in formation in seminaries. This is emerging as the third wave in the crisis. This train is just leaving the station and will be at full speed before we know it. Sadly, my home, Boston is once again leading the way.

I am not interested in so-called reform. That’s about new ways to protect the institution. I prefer to focus on restoration of the Church. This about bringing back the Gospel of Jesus in how we do Church. This is very different from reform.

Let me be clear, I am not talking about compliance with the Dallas Charter. I hope dioceses ares doing everything and more to comply with it. I am talking about opening the window on what went on behind the scenes by past and the current bishops, staff and clergy to hide what was happening. I am talking about how victims were treated. I am talking about what went on and is going on in Seminary and how the Diocese dealt and deals with the sexual exploits of faculty and those in formation. I am talking about an honest and thorough independent investigation and report of the corporate sins of those who govern and manage the Church.

I am a 67 year old lifelong Catholic. I attend Sunday Mass and most First Friday’s. I say the Rosary everyday before I start my 30 mile bike ride. I am active in my church. Another words, I am a stakeholder and a believer. I am also very involved in a recovery and retreat ministry in CT. It is a Field Hospital where lives are being transformed by the healing power of God’s Grace, not by the Canons of the Church. I believe the word “faith” is not a noun, but a verb - an action word. We have been called. So, I am responding in every way possible. Even in death what I have left will to go to ministries, that change people’s lives as they did mine and will be supported in perpetuity.

So what is motivating me to write this? Today we need the message of Christ alive. We need Field Hospitals, not clerical refuges or kingdoms. The moral voice of Jesus needs to be spoken and heard in the public square. People of all walks of life need to know and see the Church is a place to go and will accompany them and will show them the love and mercy of Christ. This video by a Harvard B School Professor, not a cleric, speaks as to why we need the Church to be alive and vibrant. https://youtu.be/YjntXYDPw44 I don’t blame the so-called secularists for lessening status of the Church. I blame the Church for giving them a plate full of wrongs to use against the Church.

The Church is in crisis because those who ran and run it focused on trying to protect themselves and the man made corporate structures. The PA Report, the McCarrick Mess and the stuff in Boston and NE are just the tip of the iceberg. So, rather than bring caught on the defensive, I suggest it is better and wiser for the Diocese and Bishop to get ahead of what will be coming. Make no doubt, change is coming and it is going to bigger and more powerful than the first round of the abuse crisis was.

You may reach a different conclusion and I may be wrong, but I suggest there is more to gain by opening the windows and letting the sun shine in than waiting for things to happen.

I am willing to help and support what I have talked about. I am not a bomb thrower, but I am also not a serf beholden to the clerical state. I believe we are equal in the eyes of God and it won’t make any difference whether I wore a cassock or Bermuda shorts. God will judge us, not by Canon Law or our status, but whether we kept his commands to do justice, to love, to be merciful, to serve, and to keep the Great Commandment - to love one another as much as God loves us.
If you wish to pass this along to the Bishop or anyone else, please feel free to do so. I have nothing to hide and what I have written is what I would say to their face. I have expressed myself honestly and intend no disrespect, but respect is a gift that must be earned by actions, words and deeds to be sustained. The same holds true with authority.

Thank you for reading this. I wish you well in your work and ministry. And, thank you for your service.

Most sincerely,
Paul D. McLaughlin
Seabrook Island, S.C.

Sunny Solomon
1 year ago

You have just said what I have been thinking of relative to the future actions vs. how to deal with the past. Every single diocese in the United States should "open its files and archives and subject the all document and people involved to same rigorous review and analysis and interviews as what happened in PA by a completely independent body of lay people, only, of both Catholics and non-Catholic? There must not be theocratic involvement in the investigation." Only when this step backward is taken will the Catholic Church, at least in the US, have the right to take a step into a reformed future.

Daria Fitzgerald
1 year ago

Dear Sam (Can I call you that? After reading this you feel more like a friend than Father Sam to me ), Thank you for this! When I attended Mass on Wednesday morning not a word was said about the Pennsylvania report; instead, we were told by the deacon to be “more like Mary.” As I looked on the altar at the deacon, whose sermon was shallow, insulting to my faith and intelligence, and obviously from an article he had read that morning, my heart was filled with an incredible sadness for a multiplicity of reasons: the absence of any comment on the week’s horrific events; the banality of the sermon; and lastly the deep knowledge that if I were a deacon (or a priest), I knew exactly what I would have said on that pulpit. But I’m a woman - and that pretty much precludes me from talking about anything on the pulpit.
If the Church is really serious about radical change and regaining the trust of her followers, now’s the time more than ever, to make changes that would actually MAKE A DIFFERENCE. Putting women in positions of authentic authority would serve to 1. actually fix the systemic infrastructed that has allowed this horrific abuse to happen for the past 70 plus years; and 2. be an honest message that the Church in fact really does want to change.
Daria Fitzgerald

Katie Meg
1 year ago

It is so important to listen to the voices of the victims. Too often, victims are overlooked and minimized. I am a survivor of abuse by a priest, and even though there is no doubt about his guilt, he has repeatedly gotten away with so much. It is awful.

Joseph Costantino
1 year ago

As a former pastor of SFX, I join the applause that I heard the parishioners gave after hearing Fr. Sawyer’s hope-inspiring homily. I also join him in his prayers.

John Eise
1 year ago

Thank you for showing humility and compassion, which has been and is still in short supply in the Catholic Church.

Dennis Doyle
1 year ago

Fr. Sam ....a beautiful and poignant sermon. How sad that thousands of other clerics are not saying the same thing. But where do you go from here? You are a a Jesuit. A member of perhaps the most respected religious order. What are you and the Jesuits doing other than reading grand jury reports and news articles and saying mea culpa. You well know the problem because you exist within a Church which has corrupt leadership. The Jesuits need to be a fulcrum for purification, not another voice lamenting the state of the Church which they are part of. Can you do this? Do an article titled : “What should the Jesuits Do”. Talk about what at this time in the Church’s history the Jesuits might do to purify the Church. You see, here is the deal. The laity are excluded from leadership and influence in the Church. Al of us who write here are just venting . We have no power, no standing, no entry point into actually making change. The Society has that. I am sure some Jesuit could tell me that Canon Law and other stuff limits Jesuit activity , but we all know that is subterfuge. Is the Society going to continue to sit this one out? Tell us, what are the Jesuits going to do?

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
12 months ago

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Advertisement

The latest from america

Light streams into St. Gabriel’s Passionist Parish in Toronto. (Photo courtesy of Larkin Architect Limited)
The daily light show at St. Gabriel's in Toronto is not just aesthetically moving, writes Dean Dettloff. It is part of a church design that reminds us of human dependence on the earth.
Dean DettloffAugust 23, 2019
“The Church is a family of families,” Pope Francis writes in “Amoris Laetitia.”
Kerry WeberAugust 23, 2019
Our commitment to God is expressed through living out the gospel, but also in your fidelity to prayer. Day in and day out. “Showing up and shutting up,” as my friend likes to say about daily prayer.
James Martin, S.J.August 23, 2019
In this Aug. 20, 2019 drone photo released by the Corpo de Bombeiros de Mato Grosso, brush fires burn in Guaranta do Norte municipality, Mato Grosso state, Brazil. (Corpo de Bombeiros de Mato Grosso via AP)
A record number of wildfires and the rapid deforestation of the Amazon are prompting Latin American bishops to plead for international action, writes America’s correspondent in Brazil, Eduardo Campos Lima.
Eduardo Campos LimaAugust 23, 2019