How are grassroots Catholics responding to the sex abuse crisis?
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.