How are grassroots Catholics responding to the sex abuse crisis?

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Betrayal. Disgust. Outrage. Disbelief.

These are among the words we are hearing over and over as we facilitate “four courageous conversations” with parishioners, priests, diocesan leaders and parish staff on their reactions to the recent revelations in the Catholic clergy sex abuse crisis.

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When the Pennsylvania grand-jury report was published, we knew we had to fashion a way for Catholics to speak their truth aloud and to one another, in the context of reflection, community and prayer. Further, we knew we needed to find a way for these voices to reach the ears of church leaders. We developed these “courageous conversations” to provide safe forums where Catholics could come together to speak freely about the Catholic clergy sex abuse crisis and to have their thoughts recorded and available for church leaders. Reflection, listening and conversation about the crisis aim to turn experience into insight, and insight into discerned, compassionate action.

Scores of lay parish and diocesan leaders have shared that their faith in the church and her leadership has been shaken to its roots.

In the 90-to-120 minute conversations framework we use in our work at Mustard Seed Consultants, participants first express their feelings about the crisis; then their thoughts on its roots and causes; then what they wish to see church leaders do about it; and finally, their conclusions based on what they heard in the conversations. Notes from these conversations are recorded anonymously to guarantee candor and relieve any fear of reprisal when they are shared with church leadership.

Scores of lay parish and diocesan leaders have shared that their faith in the church and her leadership has been shaken to its roots. Hundreds have described how profoundly their relationship with their church has been damaged. Those who have family and friends who were abused have talked about their shock and outrage, often with tears. Occasionally there are first-person stories from those who themselves have been abused, always received in anguished silence. A familiar refrain is heard over and over in every session: “Should I stay, or should I go?”

After conducting conversation sessions in more than 20 parishes and dioceses, with pastors, priests, deacons, diocesan and parish staff members and hundreds of laypeople, we can offer some initial findings, even as more sessions are taking place. Drawing on the work of George Wilson, S.J., we have organized our findings into the “levels of doubt” that we are hearing in the sessions.

Operational Doubt: People are saying, “Things would be better if only our leaders did…”

Ideological Doubt: People are saying, “Things would be better if only our leaders thought differently…”

Ethical Doubt: People are saying, “Things aren’t likely to get better because our leaders are dishonest or untrustworthy…”

Absolute Doubt: People are saying, “I can no longer tolerate what’s going on here, so I’m leaving…”

These are the predictable downward stages of mistrust, discouragement and disenfranchisement that happen when leaders ignore what their people are experiencing. Wise and effective leaders listen for levels of doubt in their organizations in order to discern appropriate leadership decisions and actions. In facilitating these conversations, we regularly hear voices that reveal all four levels of doubt.

Operational Doubt

“I keep asking myself: What can I do in my role moving forward to help the Church decide what to do and then to implement it together? We need to name and focus on the things that we need to do to move forward.”

“This is a watershed moment where the church is being reimagined, reworked, stifled or killed. We have to get this right.”

“The two most important places of my childhood were going to church and going to school. Now it feels like neither of these places are safe for my children. I feel sad and don’t know what to do about that.”

Ideological Doubt

“Priests have life-long employment without supervision.”

“The clerical system projects that the clergy are holier and better than everyone else. That harms accountability since they operate in an unrestricted manner. Many lay people have bought into this too, and it is bad for everyone.”

“The boys-only club has done great harm and must end. Men having all the key roles and doing much of the decision-making is so common that they don’t realize how much we are lacking the role and voice of gifted women who want to and are ready to contribute.”

Ethical Doubt

“As a woman, parent and grandparent—this breaks my heart. It makes it very difficult to trust leadership. If they hid something this big, what else are they hiding?”

“I wonder how long I can keep working for the Catholic Church. I feel like I am compromising myself to work for a church that harms people as ours has. It eats me up on the inside.”

“Friends ask me why I stay and why I work for the church when it is so broken. This is so viscerally present and visible to so many people. My church abused children and covered it up at a systemic level. Who covers up or thinks it is okay to cover up these heinous crimes? The moving of priests around many times and priests taking a leave of absence are revealing and troubling. I can’t ignore facts and data. How can I explain why I am still here? That answer is slipping from my grasp, and I don’t want it to.”

Absolute Doubt

We understandably have no record of comments representing Absolute Doubt, because no one in that frame of mind would likely care enough to come to a church-run conversation about the crisis. However, we have met them in grocery store aisles and on the sidelines of athletic events. They have left and have written off the institutional church as hopelessly corrupt and deserving of nothing more than indifference. Whereas operational, ideological and ethical doubt evidence increasing levels of emotional heat, comments revealing absolute doubt are cool, disconnected, disinterested. Their comments may even often express surprise that anyone still cares: “Oh, you still go there? Really?”

Unless leaders develop responses that go at least one level deeper than what they are hearing, their responses could well do more harm than good. The disease of operational doubt will not be resolved by operational fixes, because the roots of operational doubt are inevitably ideological. The roots of ideological doubt are at least one level deeper, in ethical doubt. And those who are expressing ethical doubt actually have one foot out the door. The slightest nudge could move them from the hot outrage of ethical doubt to the cool disconnect of absolute doubt.

Reversing the trajectory

Church leaders should take careful and prayerful heed: The levels of doubt that we are hearing and recording in our sessions make us painfully aware that superficial fixes or mere words will only serve to drive Catholics more deeply into ethical and absolute doubt. We need powerful and symbolic actions undertaken in exquisite humility and utter transparency to have a chance of reversing the trajectory of descent and exit.

If bishops who were complicit in covering up the criminal actions of priests began to step down or turn themselves in of their own volition, that would help. Perhaps we need the ecclesial equivalent of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

A consistent theme at the ideological and ethical levels of doubt is the clerical system. Father George Wilson’s book, Clericalism: The Death of the Priesthood, should be required reading for church leaders, since so many of the comments we are hearing attribute the clerical sex abuse crisis and cover-ups with the system of clericalism itself. Since sexual abuse is always a crime of power and clericalism is a system of power, the two go hand-in-hand in the view of many Catholics, especially priests and parish and diocesan staff who have first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of the institutional church.

In his Aug. 20, 2018, letter on the clergy sex abuse crisis, Pope Francis wrote, “To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.” We have heard that same sentiment over and over in our grassroots conversations with laity and clergy: that the Catholic clerical culture of privilege, power, secrecy and self-protection—and the ecclesial institutions that perpetuate that culture—are at the root of the crisis.

That said, the voices of ordained clergy are welcome in our sessions, and their anguish and outrage are recorded along with the comments of laypersons. For instance, at one session a pastor in his 60s told the story of how he was abused by a priest as a child and how the trauma of that experience continues to play out in his ministry. In another, a young priest who was ordained during the first wave of the scandals back in the early 2000s explained how the scandal that overshadowed his entire priesthood has now evolved into a pervasive sense of betrayal by the hierarchy.

These findings are early and still tentative. That said, we see two clear trends: First, what we are hearing is remarkably consistent from parishioners to priests to parish staffs to diocesan leaders. Second, unless our bishops effectively address the cascading levels of Catholic doubt provoked by this latest crisis, many more Catholics will proceed down the path towards absolute doubt and immediate or eventual departure from the Catholic Church. We will be the lesser for it. We must get this right.

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Ed Heilbron
3 months 2 weeks ago

12 years of Catholic elementary and high school. Fond memories of primary schooling teachers and years. Weekly Mass attendance through childhood, all 4 years during college, and then throughout parenthood raising 6 children.

The combined effect of the scandal and coverup has pushed me out. Formerly, I was proud of our heritage of works and deeds over professed “faith”. Now I am ashamed by works of Church hierarchy in conflict with professed mores and beliefs.

I believe the Catholic Church is dead and doesn’t know it yet, much like a tree with blight... still a few green leaves come each spring but the tree needs to be cut down and new seeds planted. The stain is too permanent. The youth have been driven away. There are other ways to find God and the knowledge that the Catholic Church is a corrupt organization is devastating to well meaning clergy and members.

Some will try hard and devote years to course correction. The momentum is too great. The die has been cast.

DENNIS GLEASON MR
3 months 2 weeks ago

I too am the product of 12 years of Catholic education, 4 in a Jesuit prep school. Married 43 years and raised 2 children into adulthood. I still consider myself Catholic but my receipt of the Sacraments is random at best. I don't claim to speak for anyone other than myself in regard to this article. I believe the problem the has infected the Catholic church is the same one that has infected our political culture. It has been predicted in the Three Prophecies of Fatima, none of which have absolutely taken place yet. Let me stress 'YET', because I believe all of them are in various stages of completion. Since the days of the industrial revolution and the rise of many anti-traditional 'isms', we have seen the march of these ideologies to attach the foundational traditions of our society. The only hope to counteract this is for good people to redirect the commitment to their Faith and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Devotion to the Blessed Mother will make this possible and will allow us to remain committed to each other. If we can't do that, if we won't do that, then we shall perish and the institutions and culture we have so admired along with us. The Reserection of these institutions and culture will be at the hands of good, faithful Christians with a keen commitment to the Mother of Christ, NOT our church leaders and especially NOT our political leaders!!!

Dennis Doyle
3 months 2 weeks ago

Focus Group comments on what is wrong and how to fix it are good for the cathartic benefit they offer the betrayed but nothing else. The whole system is rigged to keep the laity out of governance or oversight. . It is irrelevant what I or any one else thinks . The guys that call the shots think they are untouchable. They think that because the followers are taught, and some still believe, that the rites that only the untouchables can administer are indispensable to personal salvation. The young Catholics have rejected the correlation between a sacramental life and salvation. They see salvation as more dependent on leading a good life. The Church has no hold on them. The only ones who even care to spend time talking about the issue are best represented by the picture accompanying the article.: Weathered Hands holding a rosary. Absent a Pope who is willing to shake up the old boy network that elects him, the Church will simply be an historical marker.

William McGovern
3 months 2 weeks ago

I don’t share the pessimism expressed in the comments so far. I believe there is hope but the “fix” requires a fundamental shift in the attitudes of the church hierarchy from the top down. There has to be a willingness to share the management and administration of the Church among the ordained, religious, and laity. Only then will trust begin to be restored. That is also the only way needed change such as inviting women to be full partners (including ordination) in church affairs be possible

James Schwarzwalder
3 months 2 weeks ago

Tough topic. There may be as many opinions and proposed solutions as there are Catholics and those who have left the faith. Perhaps a lesson from nature is relevant. Winter is followed by Spring. The Hebrews wandered around the desert for a generation because Yahweh was displeased with their lack of faith under duress. So Moses never entered the Promised Land. Living in 2019 AD we want solutions to the crisis in the Church and we want solutions now. But that may not be in the cards. While I may have some thoughts of my own what "fixes" would be helpful. really am I any more clairvoyant or prophetic than the next person? It is always darkest before the dawn. I will propose however than the Cardinal McCarrick case needs to be fully investigated and reported. The Cardinal Pell case seems to me quite a bit more uncertain and may be turned over on appeal. I guess we should be thankful that there is not a Martin Luther presently to further rock the boat than it already is being rocked.

Cynthia Yoshitomi
3 months 2 weeks ago

I think the Advertising Department needs to be more careful about what this magazine is Advertising
Really a Red Hat that says “Make Rome Great again”. Very Sad and Truth issues.

CAROL LEONARD MRS
3 months 2 weeks ago

Who would be a member of an institution that has turned a blind eye to the abuse of thousands of vulnerable members and protected the abusers which probably number of the thousands when all counted? I feel a deep sense of betrayal and this church is indefensible to my five children whom I raised in the church. I have sixteen years of Catholic education, taught religious education and in Catholic schools but I feel no loyalty whatsoever. I am still a lector at my local parish although getting myself to go is difficult. But I do go to Mass because the Eucharist is at the heart of my faith, not the Catholic Church. I think we do need another Martin Luther and even further, until women have equality in the governance and ministry of the Church, nothing will change. I probably won't live to see it but when it does happen I want a front row seat.

Jim Byrum
3 months 2 weeks ago

After all the abuse, after all the cover-ups, after all the arrogance, after all the refusal to reform - really reform, we’re talking several decades and generations now, there is only one logical conclusion. Christ’s church is governed by a leadership culture that simply does not believe His message. They don’t believe it.

Susan Wilson
3 months 2 weeks ago

Thank you for an excellent article. Some symbolic changes that may demonstrate to devastated, faithful Catholic people that the hierarchical church's response to this crisis is not "sorry about that," or "let us all repent" and then get on with church as usual:
widen the potential candidates for ministerial priesthood beyond celibate men. This would have the added advantage of helping with the priest shortage in many countries.
As the hierarchical church is too insular, as yet, to include women in sacramental ministry, at least admit women to the college of cardinals and bishops conferences with the same voting and speaking rights, and in the same number as cardinals and bishops. The historical precedent for this is Mary Magdalene - apostle to the apostles.
Discontinue the use of 'princely' trappings of office for those in leadership - palaces, cappa magna, titles, etc.
This crisis is at least as significant as the Reformation(s); and needs to be treated with a great deal more urgency than has been exhibited by those in leadership.

stephen crittenden
3 months 2 weeks ago

Sean, Dobie - I don't always find America's contributions about the abuse crisis to be all that helpful (e.g. when Australia's Royal Commission handed down its final report in Dec 2017, an instantaneous rejection of the voluntary celibacy recommendation without having read the report). But this is really excellent. The operational / ideological / ethical / absolute doubt model is really helpful.

Dr Robert Dyson
3 months 2 weeks ago

What I hear more than anything else is, 'How can an institution pervaded from top to bottom by such dreadful things seriously claim to be under the guidance of the Holy Spirit or to be (Ephesians 5:27) "a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but ... holy and without blemish"?' In my experience, the people who say this report feelings of hurt and violation similar to those that one would feel if one had been robbed or swindled or lied to; and surely those feelings are entirely understandable. People of my age grew up at a time when if such accusations were made against the Church or clergy they would simply have been officially denied, and that would have been that. Now, in a less deferential, less credulous and more 'transparent' age, finding ourselves confronted with evidence too weighty to be denied, we old timers who once believed in simple trust what we were so often told - that the Church is without blemish and that all aspersions against her are wicked falsehoods - can only feel anger, grief and a profound sense of betrayal and disgust.

Alan Hommerding
3 months 2 weeks ago

As others have noted, it's the system. There maybe should have been a "systemic doubt" among the categories. As long as the power within the ecclesial governance system flows only upward, with no true/concrete horizontal accountability at any level, this issue (or this issue in another guise) will continue to occur.

PAUL LIMBURG
3 months 2 weeks ago

OK, than you, this is a very enlightening framework for organizing your findings. How about some data that characterize how present and strong are each of these categories?

Carol Abercrombie Alston
3 months 2 weeks ago

Mustard Seed Consultants; Where are you located? Did you come to New York City to ask these questions? If so, what churches? I have stories too that I would like to unload, grieve, share. The Archdiocese of NY has done nothing to pastor its 2.5 million while it struggles to save its institution, image and money. https://archny.org/pastoral Note, not one “pastoral” letter or word to the faithful.

Finally in March I emailed a priest for whom I used to work 30 years ago for some guidance. I tell you the truth, he called and the first 15 minutes he talked and talked and talked about what he has been going through and how he can’t guide me because the priests aren’t getting any guidance from the hierarchy above; there is no support from the Archdiocese for the priests either. I couldn’t get a word in and I thought, what an irony. I wrote him for pastoral care and ended up giving it. This is what therapists must feel.

The sexual abuse victims are the true victims. We mustn’t forget that. What we are, are sheep. Grieving sheep, yearning to hear our Shepherd and follow Him.

I’m a 62 year old married mother (my 23 year old daughter is revolted and will never return to the Catholic Church), professional singer who was a cantor for almost 40 years in 4 churches in Massachusetts and in NYC. If everything I’ve read, watched or heard in since the Pittsburgh report is true, then every single priest, Monsignor, Bishop and Cardinal that I personally worked for or met as a cantor “knew something but didn’t say something,” either hearing of a coverup or actually covering up, heard a rumor or actually knowing a predator. This is shocking and devastating. Now I question the real reason why some of the priests I worked for became Bishops. And it’s no wonder that three Popes since I was born have been quickly made saints; you can’t “uncanonize” a Saint for being “knowingly or unknowingly complicit to pedophilia” as that’s how all of this is going to go down over the next generation.

“Lord, to whom would we go?” John 6:68
In early Christianity, men and women went out to the desert because of the corruption they saw happening in the early church. That’s the real reason we have “Desert Fathers and Mothers.” I’ve joined them. I am praying in the desert of NYC. According to your Levels of Doubt, I am in Ethical Doubt teetering close to the edge into Absolute. However, my faith in God, my reliance on the Saints especially Our Holy Mother, my daily prayer and goal of living the Gospel values and the social justice of Jesus is as strong as ever. My consolation is the Holy Spirit within.

Jose A
3 months 2 weeks ago

Some of our clergy is still not getting the message. They are in denial. We need more humility from the clergy on all levels.
Rather than our priest trying to get in front of the controversy. He had our Decon address the congregation about the crisis. A missed opportunity.

Mike Macrie
3 months 2 weeks ago

I’am a Catholic and I go to Church every Sunday and make it a point to attend daily Mass once a week. But here is my list of things that really bother me about the Catholic Church.
- I don’t trust the Bishops. I didn’t trust them before the sexual abuse scandal and I still don’t trust them today. Their lack of financial transparency is appalling. They don’t set an example for the Priests in their Parishes by living a frugal lifestyle. Maybe if they lived with the Priests in their Parishes and become more visible to Parishioners, trust could be gained back.
- Bishops are too busy raising money then working on ideas of keeping young people from leaving the Church after their Confirmation. Bishops favor the Catholic School kids at the expense of the Catholic Public School kids. Public School Catholic kids after receiving the Sacrament of the Eucharist begin their slide from the Faith. After Confirmation they are on their own, it’s too late. There Is no reason why Catholic Public School kids who attend CCD classes could not attend once a month a daily Mass before School with the Catholic School kids. The best Faith Lessons are given when a Priest gives his Homily directly to the kids in dealing with today’s culture and temptations.
- the infighting among the Catholic Bishops and Cardinals among themselves while attacking Pope Francis is appalling.
- The Shortage of Priests is not being addressed with any kind of solution. This is only going to increase the numbers of Catholics leaving the Church. Women must be allowed into the Priesthood to solve this problem.
- Archaic Church Rules like mandating your Wedding Vows be done inside a Catholic Church are driving Catholics away, Especially if their Spouce happens to be a Non-Catholic.

J Jones
3 months 2 weeks ago

Excellent framework.

The article (link below) encompasses everything that is wrong with the RCC. Every single diocese in the worldwide Church needs to be turned inside out by the local prosecutor's office.
https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2019/04/09/indian-bishop-charged-repeatedly-raping-nun

And then, as they say, thrown the bums out. Every. Last. One. Who. Had. Any. Role. Any. Role. Any. Role. Any. Role. In. The. Crime. Throw them out. Today.

Lach Satsuma
3 months 1 week ago

Betrayal. Disgust. Outrage. Disbelief.... And I'm sure that all what Vatican, US and other episcopal conferences are doing is a horrible misapprehension of situation or mischief. They are exchanging a wheel of the car which hit some trees along the road, while forgetting that they are running out of gasoline.

Mark M
3 months 1 week ago

No mention of the very evident homosexual undercurrent in all of this.
To be expected of the Jesuits. No mention by the consultants...who knows why? Depends on who paid them.
Nevertheless, the pew sitters know and understand very clearly and they will have no more of it. No more money to the bishops, bet on it. No more of our sons to the seminary until the filth is driven away.
Something else we know and understand...the homosexual predator, McCarrick, is still living on the faithful’s dime at the friary in Victoria, KS.
McCarrick is not poor or helpless and he has powerful friends.
How’s that for a kick in the groin to the working faithful?

arthur mccaffrey
3 months 1 week ago

"We will be the lesser for it"--really? when the faithful leave a criminal institution, we are somehow worse off? Seems that these authors need another category for their analyses = naieve, wishful thinking.
And the reference to Pope Francis's views on "clericalism" make it sound like some foreign disease like Aids that we need immunization against.
It is the SYSTEM, from the Vatican , on down, that has created this clericalism, and it needs to be rooted out from the top down--from the Pope down to the local parish level. Francis will never solve this problem until he clearly sees that the crime of abuse is happening "in here" , not "out there".

Andrew Di Liddo
3 months 1 week ago

Here is a report from my Diocesan newspaper:
THE CHURCH HALF FULL
There are 234 Massess celebrated each weekend throughout the diocese. The building is less than half full in 77% of these.

Since the year 2000 Mass attendance has decreased over 50% in the diocese.
Over half of our priests are age 61 years and above.

Some data from the grassroots

Phil Lawless
3 months 1 week ago

I am beginning to think we need a Catholic Luther, one bent on reform but insisting on being faithful to the Church. Yet, where would he or she stand? Inside or outside, subject to ecclessial authority or not? Inside the church, he/she would have to address the hierarchy as a prophet proclaiming a cure for the church's ills. If outside, he/she would have to give the laity a vision of what the church should be so powerful that they would demand it be implemented.

John Barbieri
3 months 1 week ago

Lord Acton was correct in observing: "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." A system that has clergy with absolute power ruling over powerless laity was bound to cause disaster. With the exception of Henry VIII, every church disaster has been caused by the clergy. While it will not happen in our lifetimes, a future iteration of Catholic Christianity will be one without clergy. Their days are numbered. Only the clergy need the clergy.

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

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