Cardinal Cupich: How can we end clerical sex abuse and purify the church?
Editor’s note: This article is based on a talk delivered by Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, at the Latin American Congress on the Prevention of Child Abuse in the Catholic Church, held at the Pontifical University of Mexico in Mexico City on Nov. 8, 2019. Originally published online in America on Nov. 29, it has been updated since for print production.
One day, a man in his mid-50s came to my office and shared the painful story of being sexually abused by his pastor. He started serving Mass when he was 9 years old, and the pastor always asked him to stay afterward to tidy up the sacristy. One day the priest took him to the basement and sexually abused him. He did this every Sunday over four years. After abusing him, the priest would walk the boy home and have dinner with the boy’s family. Adding another demonic layer of pain to the sexual abuse itself, each Saturday the priest would drive the boy to another town and force him to confess his supposed sins to another priest. Finally, the boy had the courage to tell his father, and the abuse stopped. Seeing the suffering in this victim-survivor’s eyes, witnessing his courage in sharing this horrible experience with me, I knew I had to act.
The road to ecclesial purification begins at the level of solidarity with victims.
He wanted to meet his abuser, so I arranged a meeting, which I also attended. The priest did not deny the allegations. I also notified local law enforcement, removed his faculties for ministry and reported it to the Holy See, which eventually resulted in his removal from the clerical state. I also traveled with the victim that next weekend to the parish where the abuse took place and told the congregation about the abuse. After Mass, I invited the congregation to join me in the church vestibule, and we removed the photo of their former pastor.
Everything I want to say about ecclesial purification is in this story of my encounter with this victim. It puts into focus many elements of the purification I have tried to pursue since visiting with this victim.
It is at the level of profound vulnerability that we must connect with those who have been harmed. If we do not, then we will be tempted to relate to victims at worst defensively or at best dispassionately, as an inconvenience to be endured.
The first element is solidarity. As I listened to this victim, I realized that I was listening to a 9-year-old boy, speaking to me with all of the vulnerability that belongs to that tender age. It is at this level of profound vulnerability that we must connect with those who have been harmed. If we do not, then we will be tempted to relate to victims at worst defensively or at best dispassionately, as an inconvenience to be endured.
Months after the sex abuse scandals in Boston came to light in 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gathered in Dallas, knowing we first had to listen. We heard from victim-survivors, a historian and a psychologist. The last speaker was the journalist Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, who was at the time the editor in chief of Commonweal, a lay-edited Catholic magazine. Among other things, she called on the insights of the great French theologian Henri de Lubac, S.J., in his book The Splendor of the Church:
“We are all human,” de Lubac wrote, “and none of us is unaware of our own wretchedness and incapacity; for after all, we keep on having our noses rubbed in our own limitations. We have all, at some time or other, caught ourselves red-handed...trying to serve a holy cause by dubious means.”
De Lubac goes on to say that when self-deception comes in the form of a “criticism that is always directed outward, it may be nothing more than a search for an alibi designed to enable us to dodge the examination of our consciences.” The only antidote to such self-deception, he concludes, is “a humble acceptance of Catholic solidarity that will perhaps be more profitable to us by shaking us out of some of our illusions.”
The road to ecclesial purification begins at the level of solidarity with victims, embracing our connection with them at the profound level of our common vulnerability. This means, Steinfels told the bishops, recognizing that “These are the church’s victims, our victims, and the church’s victimizers, our victimizers. Solidarity has seldom been so painful or so difficult to sustain or so humbling or, in the end, so important.”
It was for this reason that Pope Francis, in preparation for the February meeting on child protection, asked participants to meet with victims in their own countries. He understood that purification begins with solidarity.
There should never be any suggestion that victims should “get over it” or that it is time to move on and leave everything in the past.
But the purification that begins in solidarity must deepen through synodality. Traveling with the victim to his childhood parish where the abuse took place and asking the community to process with me after Mass into the church lobby has become for me a symbol of the approach Pope Francis has called us to in addressing this scandal. The entire church must walk together toward healing for victim-survivors, protection of the vulnerable and accountability for those who harmed and failed them.
Just as solidarity allows us to connect with those who have been harmed at a profound human level, so, too, synodality inspires us to stay close to them and journey with them. There should never be any suggestion that victims should “get over it” or that it is time to move on and leave everything in the past. What has happened is part of our history. Yes, we must walk ahead into the future, but we must do so arm and arm with those who have been wounded. Is that not the invitation of the risen Lord, who appeared to the disciples not in a glorified perfect state but with his deep wounds fully exposed?
Only when Thomas accepted his Lord and touched his wounds could he and the other disciples understand what it means to follow the risen Lord. It means walking with the wounded in our midst. Victim-survivors are a manifestation of the risen Lord, reminding us what it means to be his disciple. The pope has provided a powerful example to all bishops by regularly meeting with victims and keeping in contact with them. He reminds us that the first demand for an apostle is to witness to the risen and wounded Lord.
Only when Thomas accepted his Lord and touched his wounds could he and the other disciples understand what it means to follow the risen Lord.
Repentance and Conversion
Just as synodality gives sustainability to the purification needed, conversion keeps it authentic. In 2002, our episcopal conference and each diocese established procedures to deal with priests who have abused. Yet, as is now clear, we failed to hold ourselves accountable as bishops. That has exposed the flaw in our approach to purifying the church of this scourge. We lost sight of the truth in our tradition that purification comes through a conversion that costs us something and makes demands—not just in one area but in all aspects of our lives.
The late German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about two kinds of grace, cheap and costly. “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate,” he wrote.
The late German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about two kinds of grace, cheap and costly. So, too, there are two kinds of purification, cheap and costly.
So, too, there are two kinds of purification, cheap and costly. Cheap purification gives priority to saving face, thinking that procedures alone are enough. Cheap purification fails to correct the distorted view that protecting the church from scandal means protecting the people of God from the truth. Cheap purification turns a blind eye to a culture that believes bishops are beyond accountability or that being a member of the clergy provides privileges to lord over the weak. This kind of purification costs nothing and makes no demands on the church or on me as a bishop.
Again, let us turn to Bonhoeffer to understand the meaning of costly purification as he writes about costly grace: “Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’”
We naturally hesitate to pay the price of this conversion and prefer to make easy compromises. Remember the words of de Lubac: “We have all, at some time or other, caught ourselves red-handed...trying to serve a holy cause by dubious means.”
Was this not the cheap purification of cover-up? Was this not looking the other way when warning signs demanded attention? Was this not failing to hold one another accountable as bishops? Was this not the moral laziness of believing that policies on a piece of paper alone would be enough?
Remember the words of de Lubac: “We have all, at some time or other, caught ourselves red-handed...trying to serve a holy cause by dubious means.”
A costly purification does not content itself with strong policies in a way that hardens into proceduralism. This way of thinking leads to complacency. Urgency in our conversion is the hallmark of true purification.
This is not to say that dioceses and all institutions that care for children should not maintain strict procedures to keep young people safe, to reach out to victim-survivors and to hold leaders accountable. Across all sectors of society, this is foundational. In the church, it means barring from ministry anyone who is a danger to children and holding accountable those who fail in their sacred duty to protect the vulnerable.
But this is just where the conversation begins. The deeper need is for us to accept and pay the price of our personal call to conversion.
Finally, as I reflect on that first encounter I had with a victim-survivor, it occurs to me that a sign of the authentic purification we are called to is transparency. Transparency opens new possibilities for healing for those wounded by abuse and the entire church. Is this not the way in which Jesus presents purification? He approaches it as an opening to the new creation made possible by God’s mercy.
A sign of the authentic purification we are called to is transparency. Transparency opens new possibilities for healing for those wounded by abuse and the entire church.
Being open, honest and transparent with people whenever abuse happens and as we discover past failures, has a liberating effect. By being open with our people we treat them with respect, and at the same time admit our limitations and our need for their help. This is also true in the cases when we discover the cover-ups of the past. We no longer have to pretend that church leaders were not capable of making bad decisions. When we confront the past with clarity, we discover the profound sense of atonement and the humility that recognizes that sin has invaded the core of our ecclesial life. Transparency gives us the freedom we need for authentic purification.
Blindness to institutional sin always prevents us from recognizing the presence of evil in our midst. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the case of the sexual abuse of minors, when demons of the human heart and soul crippled our ability to respond as we should have and to truly reform our lives in Christ. Much is at stake for us if we fail to seek this kind of purification in our ministry. Not only will we continue to damage our credibility, but as the journalist Steinfels warned the bishops in 2002, we risk our ministry before the Lord.
Affirming our Christian belief that the gates of hell will not prevail, Steinfels said that we have to acknowledge the ways in which the gates of hell have made advances in subtle ways. “The gates of hell,” she said, “could also be more modest, undramatic, everyday passages, through which we as easily slip by a furtive act of accommodation, cowardice, silence or sloth, as by some bold act of rebellion.” Steinfels then urged the bishops to guard against self-deception at this moment and to choose another pathway forward, the pathway of purification that comes in transparency.
Blindness to institutional sin always prevents us from recognizing the presence of evil in our midst. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the case of the sexual abuse of minors.
I want to close with two images that bring together these reflections on the authentic purification needed now. The first comes in a short story titled “Revelation,” by the American novelist Flannery O’Connor. The story ends with a scene in which a supposedly righteous Christian is shocked by a vision of the afterlife in which all the people she thought unworthy were marching to heaven ahead of her. She recognizes that the purity she cultivated was not the purity God wanted for his people. In a profound way, she came to see that the people she had reviled were the ones God favored. The difference was that she pursued a kind of purity on her own terms. The others took up the journey together. So, too, we must pursue a path forward in solidarity with those harmed, knowing that we do so in answer to the purifying call of the Holy Spirit.
The second image comes to mind as I reflect on the word “sincere,” and its derivation from the Latin words sine ("without") and cera ("wax"). Some have said that this is a reference to the way wax was used to cover flaws or shine marble sculptures. This allowed the sculptor to make his work less demanding and less costly. Some etymologists dispute this claim, but the idea holds power in this context. Just as sunlight melts the wax and exposes the flaws beneath, so does this moment of the abuse of God’s little ones reveal our need to acknowledge own our failures. It is a reminder that authentic purity costs something. But it also reminds us that just as the sun rises each day, the truth will always come out. We are foolish to think we can play the game of hiding the flaws in our midst.
The purification to which we are called as a church and particularly as successors of the apostles constitutes a strong source of hope, not despondency. We should be fearless in making clear that tolerating clergy sexual abuse stands in total contradiction to the core of the Gospel message. By recognizing that truth, we begin to answer the call to move forward on the path of ecclesial purification with solidarity, synodality, conversion and transparency. In this way, we become ever more strongly the sacrament of Jesus Christ that the church embodies.
And so it is up to us to answer this call. Let us be bold in doing so.