The church wants my son to consider the priesthood. After the abuse scandal, how can I trust he’d be safe in seminary?

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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John Barbieri
1 month 2 weeks ago

The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. How right you are to keep your son away from clerics. Some future iteration of Catholic Christianity will be one without clergy. The clergy and hierarchy have brought on this evil scandal by their own actions. It may well be impossible to repair the clerical culture.

L Hoover
1 month 2 weeks ago

No matter how the powers-that-be respond to questions like yours, you won't know what the future will hold. I'm guessing there's a far less likelihood of assaults happening now than before all of this became public. That said, if a son feels called to the priesthood, a parent might insist that he educate himself on the nature of the problem and different strategies for dealing with inappropriate behavior, should it occur.

We have no guarantees that if our children go in different directions, outside the church, that they will not suffer abuse from predators. They must learn how to handle themselves no matter where it happens. They have voices. They are not powerless.

Michael Bindner
1 month 2 weeks ago

No one is going to be groomed for abuse in just a weekend. Major seminary is a long way off and young men are urged to try dating in minor seminary (aka Catholic College). By Major Seminary, a young man (and eventually a young woman) should be fairly well settled in their sexual orientation. Some are gay. Others are asexual or willing to live as one. The danger comes from pretending to be something you are not for the sake of bribing God.

Being self-aware is the key to not be abused or an abuser. If a young man is not gay, being a seminarians will make him that way. If he is gay, progress may let him be openly so and married as a priest (or married to a woman as a priest if he is heterosexual). If he is asexual, then being aware of it will make him a better priest, with the humility to not assume that what is natural For him is not universal truth. For the priesthood to survive, it must face these issues and face them soon. The old false piety was always an illusion. The truth will set us free.

A Fielder
1 month 2 weeks ago

"No one is going to be groomed for abuse in just a weekend." Agreed.

My best advice to anyone preparing for a career in ministry is to make sure you keep other career options open. Problems grow when young people are dependent on their institution to the exclusions of other possibilities. When vicious people in positions of authority know that you are vulnerable (because you can not leave) and are completely dependent on that person in authority for continued employment and financial security, then you have a problem. This does not happen on a discernment retreat.

J Jones
1 month 2 weeks ago

Grooming is an aspect of only SOME incidents of abuse. Some victims are abused the first and/or only time they have contact with the predator.

Nora Bolcon
1 month 2 weeks ago

An excellent question but not at all deep or honest enough.

First off this writer needs to ask herself the hardest question of all, and she clearly hasn't based on this article. That question is the following:

Given the facts that out of all the possible causes of pedophilia, teen sex abuse and nun and seminarian sex abuse by priests, in our church, ONLY Sexism has been proven to directly lead to these issues, and to clericalism, how can she support any of her sons seeking ordination to priesthood when their sisters in Christ are being rejected that same sacrament and against Gospel teachings?

Christ tells us the way to respect and love others is to treat them same as self. Our Pope and our hierarchy are acting directly against this command of Christ's, which is designed to support all human dignity, when they tell the woman, who comes to them, that they cannot be ordained a priest no matter if they believe God has called them to this vocation but their brother can.

Another note, we do not know if the crisis has slowed because most children wait until they are in their twenties and thirties to report priest abuse. On top of this our church is still fighting and hiding transparency on these issues.

We do know that whether we offer married male priests or/and celibate priests, that if we don't offer female priests and bishops and cardinals and popes, we are already set up for ongoing and covert sexual abuse of girls, boys, seminarians and nuns and even lay women.

Clericalism is dependent upon sexism and its bias, in order to remain strong. It can exist in smaller forms when sexism is truly taken out of Church leadership but it can't grow to a tenth of what it is today in our church, It has already been proven that patriarchy, not hierarchy, creates clericalism and all of its worst ills. especially non-purposeful patriarchy such as our Church has (in other words there is no lineage or heritage rights rooted in the cause for patriarchy in our Church).

Our church upholds patriarchy against the example and teachings of both Christ, the original 12 apostles teachings, and all the first followers of Jesus Christ and originators of his first churches, many of them women.

Sexual discrimination is sexual abuse and it damages women in very real ways. It causes depression and self-loathing, creates low self-esteem and it cripples the talents of women by creating the beliefs in women that women are not capable of the same things as men and are not as intelligent as men so women strive to do less in society and become trapped in singular vocations of mothers and wives only. All sexual discrimination and bias in religion becomes an example to secular society promoting the oppression of women in the world. This has caused enormous poverty in our world and an over-population issue that has become perhaps the largest root supporting global warming and the current climate change crisis.

But will this writer sacrifice her self-loathing misogyny, no doubt brain-washed into her mind and soul, by her upbringing in Catholicism, to create a true and just priesthood so that all who are called can join and be ordained within? If not, she is one of the most responsible lay member's for our church's current abusive hierarchy remaining as it is. And yes, if her son(s) join priesthood now, or anyone else's sons, they are still at risk of sexual abuse and even worse of becoming supporters of that abuse by others.

Rhett Segall
1 month 2 weeks ago

When you say "The Church wants my son to be a priest" I suspect you mean "the Hierarchy and clergy of the Church". I do think they want parents to remember the importance of priestly and religious vocations. And I agree that factored into this has to be an upfront presentation of the sexual abuse crisis. Parents should apprise their children of this. But the parental Church should also teach their children the importance of Christian marriage and the challenges it faces i. e. cohabitation and trial marriages and other dangers in our promiscuous society. It's a jungle out there!

Stanley Kopacz
1 month 2 weeks ago

Physicists, engineers, English teachers, business majors, etc., develop their skills without being cloistered from society and their friends and relatives for long periods of time. I think this cultic separation is a large part of the problem. When did this seminary system develop? It wasn't always this way.

Antony P.
1 month 2 weeks ago

According to available current statistics, in US public schools, 8-9% (depending on different sources) of all children will experience sexual abuse by staff, prior to their age 18. And these are current numbers, based on current cases, and not on 50-60 year old cases. All this, while in the US Catholic Church, the number of new abuse cases (especially, given the size of the US Church, is almost nonexistent. Yes, one case is way to many. But when over the top questions are being asked that have very little to do with reality and much more to do with political sentiment, one has to pause and ask some rational questions too.

Dennis Doyle
1 month 2 weeks ago

I find the number to be 8-9% regarding sexual harassment of some type in US public schools. I do not find similar numbers regarding sexual abuse. If you have a source that says otherwise, please cite it.

J Jones
1 month 2 weeks ago

This mom is right on.

Yue Wang
1 month 2 weeks ago

I had thought that Bill Lori was one of the best bishops out there. Then I read that he accepts $135,000 per year to be the Knights of Columbus' chaplain. I cannot fathom how a person in his position could do this. How many other salaries does he accept? How many other envelopes? Certainly he needs a salary, but how much does a single man, committed to simplicity, who receives room and board, need in terms of money? I can't help thinking of the school teachers, police officers, nurses, janitors, etc. saving every last penny, foregoing creature comforts, to send their children to Catholic school. I don't know why, but reading this was the last straw for me. It really seems that Lori and all bishops have no care or thought for following the counter-cultural ways of Jesus. They simply want power and money. Hopefully their cuff links will bring them happiness.

L Hoover
1 month 2 weeks ago

Yue Wang, my albeit un-asked for advice it this: don't let the bishop's acceptance of income be your last straw. One, there is still God and all the depth to Catholocism that helps us draw closer to Him who is holy and perfect and everything that is good in this world. What some bishops do need not be your concern. It is our relationship with God that matters. Two, and this is the heart of my argument, you don't know the circumstances behind the bishop's acceptance of the money to be the Knights of Columbus's chaplain. It is possible that the bishop gives a large percentage of this to good causes such as his parish. It is possible that he forgoes a salary from his parish in lieu of this money. Or, perhaps there is an overriding need in his extended family, such as a relative who needs expensive medical care. We don't know....so perhaps we should not fill in the blanks.

David Werning
1 month 2 weeks ago

Thank you. Perhaps you're right. I mean, you are right about God's ever-presence and the faith of the Church. I remain without hope for the episcopacy, however, at least in the U.S. I would also say that what bishops and priests do is very much the Church's (people's) concern, and they should have some kind of lay-led peer review and/or checks and balances in their administration. It is precisely the class system within the Church that has led to all the various scandals. We have forgotten that we are one in Christ. I have no doubt about God's fidelity, but I think the corrections and healings that are needed will take generations. Long after I'm dead. If you don't mind metaphors, we're on the cross and every pain seems like it takes hours to fade. Nevertheless, as you have reminded me, it is God who deserves our faith.

J Jones
1 month 2 weeks ago

Yue, in one of the stories about Bransfield was a mention of payment to Cardinal Burke in Rome who met with young seminarians or clerics who travelled to the Vatican with Bransfield. It came up when accounting for all the hierarchs who received money from Bransfield. I can hear the shouting and hollering about my use of the word "payment". "It was an honorarium!" "That Cardinal might have had a sick great-aunt in Peoria!" Nonsense. Burke was PAID to talk to fellow priests. (The next question is where are the tax write-offs for the expensive dinner, the alcohol, the cab?)

There was also a news report about a five or six thousand dollar trip Lori took from Baltimore to Bransfield's diocese (300 miles away) for a single Mass/event.

These guys are grifters. Yeah, I bet they all have aunts in nursing homes.

The nexus of power and money in the relationships that make up the institutional Roman Catholic Church need to be scrutinized and laid out brick by brick with all the hardened and still-soft mortar cementing this corrupt system scraped free and spread thin until every bit of that cementing mortar is translucent. Even here, at America, when a Catholic priest who runs a wealthy healthcare ministry recently underwrote a project for the Magazine, Fr Matt referred in his statement of gratitude on these pages to that priest as "Sir ____".

That one word provided one more glimpse of a systemwide narrative that needs unpacking ASAP in every corner of the Church.

Again, this devoted Catholic woman and mother is 100% right to say "the institutional Church won't get its hands on my son until the institutional Catholic Church proves itself worthy of his innocence, trust and life's work". And she deserves our support, not our lectures.

L Hoover
1 month 2 weeks ago

J. Jones, I hadn't realized that you might be always right. Fortunately, most issues can be looked at as through a prism and turn up different truths, some complementary, some that clash to reveal even greater truths.

J Jones
1 month 2 weeks ago

L, I agree with you that most issues can be looked at through at as through a prism and turn up different truths, and I love your language for describing it.

Sometimes, that reality serves the intended (or, as I imagine was the case with your reminder) unintended purpose of preventing others from asking questions of and demanding answers from human beings in positions in power and/or the systems and institutions which grant those powerful human beings their privileges and powers.

That a Bishop, Archbishop or Cardinal might have a family member in need is utterly beside the point in a discussion like this. It is a red herring in discussions like these.

It has (again, in your case, I trust, an unintentional) potential to shame good and/or Christian people into saying "this really looks problematic but there MUST be a good reason or this man would never just keep accepting more and more and more money for being a laborer in Christ's fields. So I am going to place it in God's hands".

It is utterly immaterial whether Lori or any other hierarch has a family member in need.

There is a point where the hierarchs of the Church have been compensated and privileged enough.

$135,000 (and fringe benefits like expenses, etc) a year for what can ----- in objective reality ------ only be an *****exceptionally***** part-time job is utterly utterly utterly utterly utterly absurd when the guy is already being supported in extraordinary style by everyday Catholics committing 10% of their household to the RCC and then trying to figure out to keep their own households and sick aunts provided for.

The fear of asking rational questions lest they be accused of being judgmental is what kept many rationally suspicious Catholics from asking "why does Father want to take my kid on so many car rides?" In some (if not many or most) cases, another well-meaning Catholic or priest or sister said "Shame on you! Maybe Father is just generous! Maybe Father misses his family! Maybe Father knows Jimmy is interested in maps! Shame on you for assuming the worst!"

And we know how that worked out.

Moral goods like "don't judge another until you have walked in his/her shoes" are not appropriate when looking at systemic or institutional problems of power and privilege and how both can be exploited. That is what Yue is addressing.

PS Like every other human being in human history and future, I am often wrong. What none of usis wrong about is refusing these guys the benefit of our doubt

L Hoover
1 month 2 weeks ago

J. Jones, I can see what you are getting at here and I agree. Our job as Catholics is to insist on seeing through the glass clearly, bring the truth to light, and push for change. Some attempts to explain away intent, to paper over transgressions by portraying them in a more positive light than is warranted, results too often in the perpetration of evil.

However, in the face of systemic problems, there are often legitimate mitigating factors and it can be helpful to bring these factors to light. Every bad thing is not usually equally awful. There can be many shades between good, marginal and evil.

I believe that the majority of priests today serve with honor. God, I believe, wants us to be grateful for them. Among those who went round the bend, most especially those who went after young people, they deserved to be ousted. However, there are some who have done a few things that don’t look so good----accepting Knights of Columbus money could be one of them. Most are worth saving. Some are so overworked that trouble just ran right past them, I think. In sum, there are reasons that some good and holy men did not perform as well as we wish they had. (Here I refer not to perpetrators but to those who assisted in covering up).

When I mentioned possible mitigating factors, my intent was and still is to help a Catholic who has just about had it with the church. I know how she feels. I’ve been there. Chances are she could find, as I did, more joy and a closer relationship with God if she remains in the church and doesn’t bother herself too much with the foibles, frailties, sins and felonies, of a relatively small number of priests and higher-ups.

I could write a term paper on changes I believe the church would have to make to survive and thrive in America….but will leave off here. We Catholics, for our part, should not be giving adulation to priests. We should be assessing them on the basis of the content of their characters and creating a climate that makes it very hard for them to lead anyone astray. We can prepare ourselves to thwart any efforts by a minority to corrupt. It's gotten much easier to shout from the rooftops now that the law is involved.

J Jones
1 month 2 weeks ago

Hi L,

Thanks for helping me understand. For a lot of us, a motivation to stay is the strengthening rejection of clericalism, the root cause of all this corruption from rampant abuse of children/seminarians/sisters (see how little continued coverage and outrage there is about the abuse and rape of sisters and nuns? I am genuinely shocked and sickebed by how little these priests seem to care about their vowed sisters), the cover up, financial fraud (legal and ethical) and misconduct, things like the 2009
investigation of women religious and, with regard to Lori: the guy actually redacted from his own Vatican report of a Bishop's financial misconduct that he, the investigator, received thousands of dollars from the guy he was investigating. And now we know he has a side salary of $135,000 a year? Both speak of a culture in which power begets privilege AND money; privilege begets power AND money; and money begets power and privilege.

Lori's ommission in the Vatican report on Bransfield report needed to open the door to his retirement. The failure of judgment was profound -------------- and much more important ------ it was standard-setting. The message is same as it ever was: cover your own a$$ and those of your pals, don't get caught, thump your chest with a few televised mea culpas if you do and all is well.

Forgive him and fire his a$$ yesterday. He is, like all of us, a frail human being so forgive him. He is also a dishonest, conflicted, ethically challenged leader. Fire his a$$ today. Let the Knights keep him. $135,000 and whatever his fringe benefits are is PLENTY. In fact, that Knights' salary for what can only be exceptionally part-time work is TEN TIMES the poverty level income for a single adult and FOUR TIMES the poverty level income for a FAMILY OF EIGHT. For one lavishly compensated Archbishop. It is nothing but greed.

The ommission should have been self-inflicted fatal poison but, nope, he is safely ensconsed and the rational question is where else and for whom else is he omitting critical and damning information and lining his pockets? I would not work for or be ministered to by that guy to save my life.

Here at America, a priest who directs corporate funds to the magazine is "Sir _____".

In THIS church, the RCC, it is just business as usual. It is appalling.

When that ceases to be the case, I am guessing lots of Catholics will come back. Until then, Catholics will continue to leave and decline to expose their children to role models/ spiritual leaders who consistently show us that they are morally, ethically, spiritually, legally corrupted by their participation in the RCC.

L Hoover
1 month 2 weeks ago

J. Jones, you have so much to say that is good and true. I agree that much of the wrongdoing relates to clericalism as depicted by you. However, I think there’s another dimension that calls to us for attention:

Some bishops and cardinals involved in covering-up (the marginally guilty) did so partially to protect Catholics like you and me from feeling as we do now: Hoodwinked, vulnerable to abuse, our faith in the Church, and sometimes God, shaken. As such, I don’t believe they all engaged in covering up solely to protect themselves or the institution of the church. Some, I don’t know how many, were just extremely overworked (due to the priest shortage, for which the church is changing nothing to resolve). They let some things slide that seemed to warrant more immediate attention, they worried for the church and probably their power base-----but they also did not want to cause Catholics such as us to lose faith. On some level, the ones who erred but tip the scales on the side of good and God, were also trying to protect US. Some of the more responsible leaders also did not understand how patterns of abuse persist. They hoped the tools of their "trade" (reconciliation/confession, the Eucharist, God's interventions) would make some problems go away. They are likely very sorry now for some of their choices back then.

It can be helpful to remember that the higher-ups are also victims of clericalism and it's going to be awfully hard to get them off a pedestal they feel is central to their and our faith. It has to do with their, and our, belief in church doctrine. As such, the problems of the church are so complex and can't be sorted out just through dialogue aimed at putting them back on their pedestals.

C Gregory Jones
1 month 2 weeks ago

Interesting. My thanks to the author for a well written, thought provoking article. My heart goes out to her and every parent who worries about their child’s wellbeing.

It’s my belief that if a young person has been raised/taught to value themselves and to be able to say “no” in uncomfortable situations, chances are good that they won’t be a target for any type of abuse. Age 15 seems young to be exploring career choices, but in the understanding that priesthood isn’t a career choice, but rather is a vocation to which one is called, 15 isn’t too young. As a teen’s world gets larger he is less likely to take the time to discern....to do the time consuming work... of coming to know and understand a call.

To the author I would say, if my 15 year old wanted to attend, I would speak with him in blunt terms about boundaries, sexuality, sex, attraction, abuse and the means of steering clear of potential abuse. And then I would let him attend.

Abuse: spiritual, emotional, physical, and sexual, has happened in every religious denomination. It happens at Jewish summer camps, Baptist Bible studies, evangelical mission trips, even Buddhist monasteries! Abuse is no more prevalent in the Catholic Church. We hear more about abuse in the US church because there are more Catholics, it’s North America’s largest Christian denomination. Priesthood, monestaries, and celibacy have a public mystique because they are not well understood. Abuse isn’t limited to action by adults, it’s not unusual for abuse to occur among peers.
Finally, if parents don’t encourage their children to consider religious life, priesthood and ministry, our future as a sacramental community is doomed.

J Jones
1 month 2 weeks ago

All excellent reasons for the Bishops to step up to the plate.

Mister Mckee
1 month 1 week ago

Colleen,
When THE CHURCH asks your DAUGHTER to consider the priesthood, you will know that the SEMINARY is safe for your SON!

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