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