Finding hope and healing in the face of the abuse crisis

Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash

In February of next year, Pope Francis will meet with presidents of episcopal conferences throughout the world to talk about the Catholic Church’s response to clerical abuse. The U.S. bishops met in November of this year and discussed the same topic. In many dioceses, parishes have been or will be hosting listening sessions for concerned parishioners. All these meetings are meant in some way to address the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

The current round of gatherings and news coverage strikes many people as sadly familiar—a replay of what happened in the early 2000s. But this is different. Today’s conversations have shifted. The focus now falls on bishops who were negligent, incompetent or downright devious in dealing with clergy who had perpetrated abuse against minors. This new scrutiny of abuse in the church, one earnestly hopes, will lead to necessary structural realignments. Reforms may include new paths for accountability and transparency, a more rigorous application of existing church law or its amendment if needed, and closer cooperation with civil authorities to deal with criminal activity and any related cover-up.

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Structural reform and renewal are absolutely necessary to reclaim a measure of integrity for the church and—some would even say—for her very survival.

Structural reform and renewal are absolutely necessary to reclaim a measure of integrity for the church and—some would even say—for her very survival. These changes, however, are not enough to bring healing. The abuse crisis is about more than just logic and reason. The current crisis has revealed the unreliability of church leaders in protecting the flock entrusted to their care. And that matters very much to everyone with or without a direct experience of abuse. I would argue that any effective healing must take the experience of reliability versus unreliability as a central focus.

People familiar with the work of the British psychiatrist Donald Winnicott know the centrality of reliability for the most fundamental of human relationships. As Winnicott observed the interaction of infants and their mothers, it became apparent to him that the foundation of all healthy subsequent development for a child rested in the experience of that first and all-important mother-child relationship as reliable. When that early relationship turns out to be unreliable, as Winnicott saw in his psychotherapeutic practice with adults, people have significant problems relating to others and functioning well in their lives.

If you go to any parish listening session about abuse, you will no doubt face a vast and seemingly intractable reservoir of deep anger among ordinary people.

The abuse crisis exposes an enormously frightening reality: People, even without a direct experience of abuse, may recognize that they have entrusted the care of their souls to unreliable leadership. Their reflexive reaction is rage born from a sense of deep disappointment and a feeling of having been deceived and tricked. If you go to any parish listening session about abuse, you will no doubt face a vast and seemingly intractable reservoir of deep anger among ordinary people.

Out of that rage, people voice the absolutely legitimate call to punish perpetrators and those who enabled them or covered up for them. “Heads must roll,” they say, and they mean that those who were guilty of abuse or enabling abusers must resign or be fired. Get them out and then, some might say, we can have a chance to regroup and maybe even move forward.

In fact, in some small measure, heads have begun to roll. Pope Francis, for example, has accepted the resignations of a number of bishops from Chile and recently defrocked two. Surely, more resignations and firings will follow. That may abate some of the anger, but—in my estimation—it certainly will not eliminate it. Addressing the abuse crisis will take a lot of thinking and planning for structural and institutional renewal. And programs, new structures and the imposition of sanctions—as necessary as they may be—are not the sole answers.

Another path, I believe, can address the anger at a deeper level and actually begin to facilitate some healing. As I describe this path, it may seem idealistic or unrealistic or simply out of reach. This path embraces the best of our Catholic tradition that deals with sin and failure. It is the confession of sin accompanied by a willingness to repair the breach and live with consequences that remain.

This past September, retired Auxiliary Bishop Robert Morneau of Green Bay wrote to his bishop with a request to be removed from public ministry because in 1979 he had failed to report the abuse of a minor. He explained: “As a result this priest was able to abuse several years later.... I intend to spend my time in prayer for all victims and survivors of sexual abuse and I will do corporal works of mercy in reparation for what I failed to do.” Bishop Morneau’s request was granted.

Catholics instinctively understand the dynamics of confession, forgiveness and reparation.

Those who are guilty need to come forward, admit what they have done and failed to do and then try, as best as they can, to repair and heal the damage done to the body of Christ. Catholics instinctively understand the dynamics of confession, forgiveness and reparation, even as they know how the consequences and aftermath of sin can also remain for those who are forgiven. Many will accept this kind of contrition, and their anger will be more effectively addressed than it is now.

When Pope Francis speaks to the presidents of bishops’ conferences throughout the world in February, he may feel the need to warn them, cajole them and perhaps even threaten them with sanctions if they have failed. I hope he also calls them and their brothers to something else. I hope that he summons them, if they have failed, to come forward, confess what they have done or failed to do, seek forgiveness and make reparation as best they can, even as they recognize that they will need to live with the aftermath. I hope that he uses Bishop Morneau as an example of how we can move forward. Out of our present pain, I am convinced we can find hope.

arthur mccaffrey
1 week 2 days ago

"As I describe this path, it may seem idealistic or unrealistic or simply out of reach"--that is the one thing I agree with in this silly article. All of this emphasis on sin misses the bloody point--these priests and bishops need to be tried and punished in civil courts, not because they sinned, but because they committed CRIMES!!! Guys like Cameli are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem in RCC. He ought to be in jail along with Bishop Morneau.

Molly Roach
1 week 2 days ago

Yep, we're talking about crimes that had life changing consequences for their victims, crimes of sexual aggression and crimes of obstruction of justice. I do not believe that Pope Francis is in a position to deal with this. I think grand juries, indictments and criminal trials are the path before us now.

sheila gray
1 week ago

Thank you for this article. I am a survivor. I agree with everything you say. If local Parish members open their hearts to survivors, open their doors to our reality (that even the smell of incense can trigger painful, heart-pounding flashbacks for victims and survivors) we can build a new church, a new gathering of believers in good, in forgiveness, in love. We need to prepare for the next wave of survivors to stumble forward in pain and chaos around the 20-year-after-the-Abuse victims who were wounded after 2000. It will be difficult. It will cause a great gnashing of teeth and rending of cloaks. But I believe we can heal as we prepare to help them. Love is always the answer. But it will not be pretty. We need to start praying our hearts out now. To whatever God is still listening.

Rory Connor
4 days 9 hours ago

"We need to prepare for the next wave of survivors to stumble forward in pain and chaos around the 20-year-after-the-Abuse victims who were wounded after 2000."

And HOW do we distinguish between GENUINE victims on the one hand and (A) the deluded (remember the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic?); (B) malicious anti-clerics motivated by hatred of the Church and (C) scam artists motivated by money? Because if the Church gives the impression that it will accept any and every allegation as true, then it will encourage all 3 types of false accuser.

Moreover any organisation that fails to defend its own members against obscene lies has no credibility and any apology it makes is worthless even if - accidentally - made to a REAL victim!

Judy Jones
1 week ago

Outside law enforcement needs to get involved. As long as church officials can keep their crimes and cover ups secret, nothing will change and kids are still not safe within this system. The wrongdoers need to be exposed and held accountable.
There needs to be a Grand Jury investigation with subpoena power done in every diocese in every state like was done in Pennsylvania, so that the full truth can be exposed and church officials can be held accountable for enabling and covering up child sex crimes.
Judy Jones, SNAP

Rory Connor
4 days 17 hours ago

There also needs to be a Vatican investigation of Religious Congregations - mainly nuns I must say - that refuse to defend innocent members wrongly accused of abuse AND side with the false accusers - by paying them money, apologising and then failing to withdraw the apology even when the accusers are found to have lied. (In the case of Nora Wall, one of the 2 accusers ADMITTED she had lied but no reaction at all from the very apologetic leaders of the Sisters of Mercy).

I note that in Ireland, leaders of "Victims" groups ignore false allegations even though these lies obviously tend to discredit people who make truthful allegations. Can I assume it's the same in the USA ?

Rory Connor
4 days 17 hours ago

This is how the Irish Sisters of Mercy dealt with "abuse".
(1) They denounced Nora Wall a FORMER nun convicted of rape and then said nothing when she was cleared in 1999, won a libel case against the Sunday World newspaper in 2002 , got a Certificate of Miscarriage of Justice from the Court of Criminal Appeal in 2005 and successfully sued the State in 2016. Wikipedia article is here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nora_Wall
and see in particular the section "Reaction of Sisters of Mercy

(2) Another nun Sister Xavieria did NOT leave the Congregation and therefore was prevented from suing when newspaper accused her of child murder. The headline in the Mirror newspaper ran
HOT POKER WAS USED ON LITTLE MARION.. NO CASH WILL GET HER BACK; I THINK MY BABY WAS MURDERED AT THE ORPHANAGE, SAYS PAYOUT MUM.
The tabloid has highly paid lawyers to prevent them being sued but the editors understood that they were dealing with fools who would not fight!

This is a problem that BEGAN with Irish nuns but has long since spread to the Bishops who are no longer prepared to speak out in defense of the innocent!

"To reclaim a measure of integrity for the Church" and "to ensure its survival" it is vital that Church authorities do NOT pay money and apologise to fake victims as the Sisters of Mercy did. I have a blog article on this subject called "The Apologies of the Sisters of Mercy..."
http://irishsalem.blogspot.com/2018/08/the-apologies-of-sisters-of-merc…
NO organisation that thrashes its own innocent members can survive!

Ann Hodges
4 days 13 hours ago

A couple of Jesuit Provinces last week released names of those judged guilty by the Society of abusing minors. However, absent are the names of those pastors, teachers, spiritual directors and retreat masters guilty of sexually abusing those over age 18. Until the names of ALL predators are released, the People of God cannot heal.

THOMAS E BRANDLIN, MNA
4 days 12 hours ago

These are crimes! Fr. Cameli, the bishops, the Pope, and anyone connected to the hierarchy are NOT qualified to address these criminal issues - it is a CONFLICT OF INTEREST perpetuated by the Old Boys Club. Law enforcement needs to quit treating the bishops with kid gloves and get real. Do what the Pennsylvania authorities did in every state and territory. Then prosecute, prosecute, and prosecute some more. Then, look at what previous law enforcement authorities did and did not do and prosecute the offenders who let the bishops off the hook. (Start with Los Angeles, California.)
Further, the Pope needs to resign or be removed. He is at best incompetent and at worst a criminal himself who has protected abusers: episcopal, sacerdotal, diaconal, religious, lay employees and volunteers, by not going after every bishop who abused or shielded abusers. The evidence is overwhelming: Cormac Connor-Murphy, McCarrick, the Chilean bishop(s), Grassi, and how many more. (By the way, I'd heard rumors about McCarrick at least a decade prior to the Pope's efforts to ignore the information and evidence presented to him.)

Jim Spangler
4 days 9 hours ago

Healing is a word that is going to be very difficult to "spell"! Until there is total disclosure and transparency, as well as prosecution, no healing can take place. No matter what is transpired from the February meeting we cannot trust what the outcome is to be. The trust factor within the hierarchy is destroyed. There are still some good bishops of the hierarchy, but they need to step forward and be identified. If the meeting in February comes under the guise of secrecy as this scandal has transformed so far, nothing will be done. The windows of authority in the Church need to be opened wide, and those that are guilty removed and punished. The fact that homosexuality has been allowed to become a standard within the hierarchy is diabolical. Until this is address, in real action, publically, nothing will change. McCarrick needs to be put on trial and punished, not just sent away until he dies, so that they do not have to have a church trial. If they did have a trial, more would be disclosed and the secrets would be exposed. Secrecy within the Church has got to become transparent. Then there are no more secrets! This article is a great pipe dream, but far from beginning any process of healing. The laity are mad as hell, and blood needs to flow in order to satisfy the deed or otherwise the Catholic church will be empty and broke. Do I hear BANKRUPTCY?????

Paula Dail
3 days 15 hours ago

One of the things that concerns me tremendously in all this is that no one talks about the collateral damage this abuse causes. Every abuse victim has a family - wives, children, siblings, parents, etc. who also suffer, especially when the victim becomes so dysfunctional as a result of their abuse he/she can no longer function normally in society or in a family. This leads to divorce, and the victim's spouse is then unable to remarry and remain in the church; the children are ostracized b/c their parents are divorced, and so on. And, the the faithful who love the church have been emotionally shattered. Simply paying out money to victims, and civil prosecution, are both vital parts of the solution, but not the entire answer. The church needs to institutionalize it's response to everyone touched by priest abuse in an inclusive manner that doesn't repeatedly victimize them. My own view is that the church is a VERY LONG way from acknowledging its own wrongdoing. Instead, its' response has consistently been to protect the institution at all costs...which expands the suffering.

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