The church wants my son to consider the priesthood. After the abuse scandal, how can I trust he’d be safe in seminary?
Every summer, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, where I reside and attend church, offers a Quo Vadis (“Where are you going?” in Latin) discernment retreat. High school boys gather at a local Catholic college with seminarians, priests and others for fellowship, prayer and guided discussions to help young men explore God’s potential call to the priesthood. The four days are filled with opportunities for Mass, adoration, Liturgy of the Hours and confession. During recreational time, the boys along with the seminarians and priests play sports, hike, talk and eat good food.
I have six children, three of them boys, and after much prayer and discernment, my husband and I decided not to send our 15-year-old son, who has already said he would consider the beautiful vocation of priesthood, to Quo Vadis this year. My husband and I desire to support and encourage vocations. I come from a family that has produced several, including a Dominican Sister of St. Cecilia in Nashville and a diocesan priest. We daily pray for the good clergy who have served our family, and we ask God to send more workers into the vineyard. I recognize the great need in dioceses across the United States for an increase in vocations, especially within my own, where priests are retiring at a faster rate than men are being ordained.
My husband and I are saddened my son missed this unique experience for Catholic high school boys. But after last summer’s revelations of systemic sexual abuse and its cover-up within the highest levels of the church—the McCarrick scandal, followed by the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the resignation of Bishop Michael J. Bransfield in West Virginia—I do not feel confident that the bishops can answer the same question they want my son to consider: Quo vadis? Where are you going? And why should we, why should my son, follow you?
I do not feel confident that the bishops can answer the same question they want my son to consider: Quo vadis? Where are you going?
Archbishop William E. Lori has written about the measures he has taken to ensure accountability for abusers and to foster greater lay involvement in the archdiocese following the first round of the sexual abuse crisis in 2002. Some of his reforms include establishing rigorous vetting systems for seminarians, clergy and lay employees who interact with minors; overseeing the development of programs to help children recognize inappropriate adult advances; ensuring the immediate referral of accusations to the police; implementing a lay review board; and establishing protocol to notify affected parishes of credibly accused clergy. The number of abuse cases has reduced drastically since the diocese implemented these safety measures, a fact that cannot be overlooked in our current church climate.
Still, the average lay Catholic, myself included, knew nothing of the depth of the scandal before last summer. We are still, even one year later, reeling from the revelations. Efforts to reform the clerical culture within the seminaries and the church at large that directly or indirectly enabled sexual predators have been incremental and slow going at best. Much of what I have heard from the church over the course of the last year in letters, newspaper columns and online articles amounts to: “Yes, but here is what we have done to protect people since 2002, and here is how these measures have worked.”
My trust in the institutional church has been broken and will take a great deal of time to rebuild.
While I am glad safety measures exist and are indeed effective, the fact is my trust in the institutional church has been broken and will take a great deal of time to rebuild. I believe, however, there are some basic things the hierarchy can do to help parents like me. It would have helped, for instance, if before returning to business as usual—and Quo Vadis definitely falls into that category as a business as usual—the bishops had met with parents to address concerns about safety and faith formation, especially if the bishops want parents to entrust their children into the church’s hands for four days. To be fair, the vocations director did hold a meeting with parents after the revelations last summer, but that is not enough, at least not for me. The bishops need to show up, to build rapport and to repeatedly engage in difficult conversations.
Trust is not built on policy and paperwork.
What is required of the bishops at this point in time is one-on-one connection and ongoing discussion with parents in the pews. The shepherds must be with their sheep, listening and tending to the concerns of their people, especially if the they are asking families to encourage vocations. This perhaps will require a shift in how they understand their role as the head of the diocese, but it is what is needed if the hierarchy wants to gain a modicum of trust with parents like me.
The bishops need to show up, to build rapport and to repeatedly engage in difficult conversations. Trust is not built on policy and paperwork.
I believe the laity, too, are called to a new way of behaving and thinking. In families where generations of abuse have existed, at least one family member must change their behavior in order to stop the cycle of abuse. This requires them to do something different—move out, cut ties or report abuse to the authorities. A survivor cannot simply do what the family has always done.
In the same way, if lay Catholics want to end the cycle of abuse, the power plays and the toleration for illicit lifestyles among some of the clergy, as well as ensure proper spiritual formation for all Catholics, we need to do something different this time. We must start asking tough questions of the bishops, and we must not stop asking questions until we are satisfied with answers.
Why should we consider Quo Vadis for our boys, especially given the egregious history of sexual abuse in the church? How are the bishops regularly communicating the measures they have taken to protect children and to offer the best spiritual formation possible to the parents? How can the bishops ensure the spiritual formation the boys receive at Quo Vadis is orthodox and rightly ordered? What is different between last summer and now that should persuade us to entrust our sons to an institution that has failed us in its handling of sexual abuse from the top down?
If we want the scandals in the church to stop, the laity must refuse to be content with the status quo.
If we want the scandals in the church to stop, the laity must refuse to be content with the status quo. I fear, however, there exists among some parents a level of unquestioning trust in the church that no human institution deserves. If we do not engage in regular dialogues with those in charge about what is different going forward, we enable the longstanding pattern of abuse to hold. If we entrust our sons to the church without demanding more direct communication from the hierarchy, we allow the clerical culture to remain entrenched.
“But what about vocations?” a good friend asked me when I expressed my concerns about the Quo Vadis retreat. To which I say: We must not fear losing priests because we ask the right questions of our bishops. The Scriptures remind us that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. I believe there will always be a holy remnant—good men and women willing to live and die serving Jesus Christ’s Catholic Church. I believe Jesus Christ himself will provide the priests we need.
But I also believe he needs participation from laypeople. In this moment, he asks for our help; he asks us to refuse to participate in potential abuse by allowing things to be done as they have always been done. To end the history of abuse in the Catholic Church, the laity must continue to ask—over and over again—the same question the diocese asks our sons: Quo vadis? Where are you going?
And we must demand they give a satisfactory answer.