Sex abuse panel: Young Catholics are angry—but they aren’t going anywhere

Brett and Bridget Hutchinson of St. Thomas More in St. Paul, Minn., pray with other young adults gathered on the steps of the Cathedral of St. Paul Aug. 20 during a vigil called "Evening Prayer for the Survivors of Clerical Abuse and the Healing of the Church." (CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit) Brett and Bridget Hutchinson of St. Thomas More in St. Paul, Minn., pray with other young adults gathered on the steps of the Cathedral of St. Paul Aug. 20 during a vigil called "Evening Prayer for the Survivors of Clerical Abuse and the Healing of the Church." (CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit) 

Young adults filled an auditorium on Sept. 17 for a panel titled “Crisis of Faith? Scandal, Pope Francis, the Synod, and Young People,” organized by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.

The panel, moderated by the initiative’s associate director, Kim Daniels, included speakers with four distinct perspectives, including two contributors to America, Elizabeth Bruenig and Eve Tushnet. Ms. Bruenig is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post, covering religion, culture and politics. Ms. Tushnet recently edited Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds: Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church, an anthology of essays and literary nonfiction. Rounding out the panel were Jonathan Lewis, the assistant secretary for pastoral ministry for the Archdiocese of Washington and an auditor at the upcoming Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, and Joshua McElwee, a Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

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“I think there’s a lot more that hasn’t been publicized; there’s a lot more that has to come out.”

“It’s been a pontificate of reform,” Mr. McElwee said when asked about his time reporting on the Vatican. He said the pope has made significant administrative reforms and has made efforts toward reform around sexual abuse since the beginning of his papacy. But when asked why a proposed tribunal to deal with bishops accused of negligence or cover-up never materialized, Pope Francis said the idea was not viable and that accusations would be handled on a case-by-case basis, Mr. McElwee recalled. The journalist expressed disappointment at the lack of transparency from the Vatican surrounding its investigations into allegations of sexual abuse. “We’re at the most precarious moment of his papacy,” he said.

“I’m really mad. I’m really upset,” Ms. Bruenig said of the latest wave of scandals. “I think there’s a lot more that hasn’t been publicized; there’s a lot more that has to come out.” This church was built on radical self-sacrifice, she explained, asserting that to overcome this scandal, church officials need to “sacrifice themselves” by confessing publicly to what they have done and stepping down.

“I think that is the only possibility of them rescuing the church from what they’ve done,” she said.

Church officials need to “sacrifice themselves” by confessing publicly to what they have done and stepping down.

If these officials wait, forcing investigative reporters, canonical trials and public courts to reveal their sins, Ms. Bruenig warned, there will be a “collapse of the entire American ecclesial system.” She added that the systemic abuse in seminaries must also be addressed, as it adds another layer of guilt to the church for turning out traumatized priests, some of whom went on to abuse children.

Ms. Daniels agreed that more instances of abuse will come to light, noting that several states have launched investigations into clerical sexual abuse following the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report in July. She then asked Ms. Tushnet why people choose to stay in the church.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of sexual abuse and the Catholic Church.]

Those who are harmed in the church often have a damaged understanding of who Jesus is, Ms. Tushnet explained. “One of the biggest betrayals is not necessarily the first instance of harm, but when the priests rally around the institution instead of the person harmed,” she said. But learning about the lives of certain saints who experienced sexual abuse could help some survivors see that they can have a place in the church, Ms. Tushnet added. Seeking out other people with similar experiences and finding good priests who demonstrate what a good shepherd is can also help abuse survivors feel that they belong, she said.

Lewis wants Catholics to recognize the sin of “the culture of clericalism and of protecting the brand.”

When asked how young Catholics could find examples of community in the church, Mr. Lewis suggested that the Second Vatican Council idea of “the church as the people of God” is finally coming to fruition. “We’ve seen very violently the power of witness this summer in the power of false witness,” he said of the church members who helped to cover up sexual abuse. Mr. Lewis used the example of this witness to call young people to become more involved in their church community. It is no longer okay to be an anonymous member of the church, he said. “Your role is consequential.”

“What do we need to do to help the church?” Ms. Daniels asked.

“[Offenders] accepting retirement is maybe a very low bar,” Ms. Bruenig said. “You might look for a more proactive approach to allegations of sexual abuse, especially when the accused is in a position that interacts with vulnerable people.”

“No institution can police itself, especially the church,” McElwee said.

Mr. McElwee voiced concern that waiting for the U.S. court system to deal with allegations will result in a drawn-out, painful process for church members. “My fear is that we’re going to see this every five years,” he said. Instead, he would like to see a single large-scale investigation by a reliable third party, with the results made public. “No institution can police itself, especially the church,” he said.

Mr. Lewis said he wants Catholics to recognize the sin of “the culture of clericalism and of protecting the brand,” adding that “we expect a different level of honesty [now].”

Sexual abuse cover-ups are only in part a result of clericalism, Ms. Bruenig pointed out. She also blames “a tremendous amount of decadence and weakness” among the church’s bishops. “The laity are asking for leadership; they’re asking for the bishops to do what they’re supposed to do—what they’re too weak to do.”

Ms. Daniels acknowledged the laity’s anger and frustration and asked, “If we’re the church, and we’re staying, how do we proceed?”

“I’m not unhappy to be here; I’m unhappy about what’s being done here. The one thing I can do is throw a fit.”

“Catholicism, and all religion, is rooted in contemporary culture,” Mr. Lewis said. “No one is a better culture maker than young laypeople.”

For those too discouraged to see a priest or be in community with other Catholics, Ms. Tushnet suggested attending eucharistic adoration, joking, “Angry crying in the adoration chapel is, like, the most traditional thing ever.”

Ms. Bruenig answered this question by telling a story: During the 2016 presidential primaries, her husband was fired for getting into a fight on Twitter. At the time, she was 38 weeks pregnant. When her husband told her she could leave him, she replied: “No, it’s worse than that; I’m staying married to you. And it’s going to be hell for you.” She feels similarly of her Catholic faith: “I’m not unhappy to be here; I’m unhappy about what’s being done here. The one thing I can do is throw a fit.”

Ms. Bruenig advised attendees to stay close to seminarians and priests. “Don’t give up, and don’t pipe down,” she said.

“If the question is honestly, ‘Why should I stay?’ answering that question is the wrong thing to do,” Ms. Tushnet said at the end of the event. “What people are looking for...is that they can be nowhere closer to Jesus than in the Catholic Church.”

The event will be followed by a second panel next Tuesday, titled “Confronting a Moral Catastrophe: Lay Leadership, Catholic Social Teaching, and the Sexual Abuse Crisis.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Tim O'Leary
3 months ago

Glad to see the young people want to lead holy lives as Catholics, despite the problems in the Episcopate. I hope there was a lot of discussion on how the best reform begins with fidelity to the truth, personal prayer and holiness. The story of Ms. Bruenig's husband is a lesson in online contretemps for us all (me included). Matt Bruenig's online spat with Neera Tanden, all about lining up on the left (Hillary vs. Bernie) got very heated and nasty. Here is a link to the fight. https://www.vox.com/2016/5/21/11724298/bruenighazi-matt-bruenig-neera-t…

Michael Barberi
3 months ago

It is acceptable to be angry with Church hierarchy over the sexual abuse of minors, coverup, immoral sexual behavior with adults and gross negligence of one's responsibilities in terms of ignoring or minimizing evidence of sexual abuse. It is also ok to be angry with Church hierarchy over the irresponsible and immoral way the Church has managed and dealt with sexual abuse since Vatican II. It is also ok to demand answers to how JP II could have possibly justified promoting McCarrick to Cardinal when his sexual abuse was know by US Bishops and Cardinals and Vatican officials.

Nevertheless, there is a significant difference between being angry with the governance of our Church and one's faith in Christ. The Church has weathered several crisis during its extensive history and what emerged out of the ashes was a better Church. I say this not to minimize or even to compare what we are now experiencing in the Church to other times of crisis. IMO, our current crisis is much worse because the sexual abuse scandal has involved priests, bishops, cardinals, coverup and popes. This time we have to root out a cancer that has infected the hierarchy and the highest levels of our Church. It has destroyed the lives of victims and the hierarchy has lost their credibility.

Having said this, I believe that the Holy Spirit will lead us out of this disaster. We will see a renewed Church with a new message, processes, and an independent lay-lead system to receive, investigate, report and take appropriate judicial action for accusations of sexual abuse, full stop. No one will be protected or shielded from justice.

I would say to every Catholic, especially the young, trust in your faith and in Christ. Don't jump to conclusions, be respectful, but at the same time don't sugar coat anything and shout from the rooftops for justice and reform.

Venus Majeski
3 months ago

I believe the headline is misleading- young people are angry but not going anywhere. Wake up! They left years ago! And those who remain keenly feel the pain and disillusionment that is sweeping thru the empty pews. When I read that the best a panel contributor can do is “throw a fit” I am discomfited by the truth in that statement. The laity may rail and shake their fists but in the scheme of things it means nothing at all. This has nothing g to do with my faith in Christ, but everything to do with my total broken trust (and broken heart) in the hierarchy, rules and pronouncements from Rome

Michael Barberi
3 months ago

Venus,

You are right about one thing, namely, that many young people have essentially left the Church. From various surveys, most millennials disagree with most of the moral teachings of the magisterium (e.g., contraception) and they support same-sex marriage, women ordination and a married priesthood/voluntary celibacy.

When it comes to young Catholics, the elephant in the room is how to reach the majority of them who do not attend weekly Mass or no Mass at all. This will be the major problem that the Synod on Young People will have to address, or should address. If only young Catholics who attend weekly Mass and agree with the all the teachings of the magisterium attend this Synod on Young People, they will be preaching to the "choir". If a statistical cross-section of world-wide young people attend this Synod, how will they answer the likely questions about the sexual abuse scandal? What will they say to young people about the moral teachings they disagree with? Clearly, the same old tried narrative will not work.

My point was to emphasize that being angry with the hierarchy over the sexual abuse scandal is appropriate. However, they should not lose their faith in Christ. I would argue that 'if' we get a renewed and reformed Church (my prayer), it is not naive to hope that many young Catholics who have left the Church may return through the grace and mercy of Christ.

Jose A
2 months 4 weeks ago

It is sad how my church is now "defined." We all need to change this as people of faith. The persons involved have done unspeakable acts but it now the time for the people of faith to put their "faith in action." Start with the healing power of prayer.

Mike Potter
2 months 4 weeks ago

Not sure I agree with young Catholics not going any where... too early to tell.

I believe Catholics need to give the Church a reasonable time in which to meaningfully reform in two areas: the population from which we draw clergy - celibacy greatly skews that population toward homosexuals. Second, actual authority in nonspiritual matters needs to be turned over to the laity. The Church (we the people) can follow Christ without the Roman Catholic Church - especially while it clearly has a significant degree of corrupt leadership from the Vatican down. This is a world wide problem.

I’ll give it a year.

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