What More Can You Do in the Face of the Church’s Sexual Abuse Crisis?

What More Can You Do in the Face of the Church’s Sexual Abuse Crisis?

large part of what God has asked of me as a priest is to accompany hurting people, and particularly hurting Catholics. And much of my life as a priest has been spent dealing with the fallout of an institutional Church that became a haven for sexual predators, and whose shepherds cultivated a decades-long culture of denial, unfathomable inaction, and cover-up.

If the Church today finds itself in a perilously unstable condition—the doctrinal tribalism of the self-consciously Catholic, the gradual attrition of “none”–leaning nominal Catholics, the lack of vocations, the financial bankruptcy of dioceses, and so on—the Church’s crisis of clergy sexual abuse has largely contributed to our current sorry state. While there is some hard data out there to support this contention,[1] I say this simply because I have seen it in the lives of the Catholics I serve, as have hundreds of my brother priests. Although certain that every day we are not untouched by that “river of the water of Life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev 22:1), we nonetheless struggle humanly in the midst of the chaos to hold this ship—and ourselves—together.

Of course, the Church finds herself in the midst of a broader chaos that sadly characterizes our times. If the Church is a field hospital, then much of the world at large is a sewer of abusive and destructive human beings. Traumas of all kinds shape the lives of those we serve today. And trauma—as in “trauma-informed pastoral care”—gives name and shape to how we learn and teach others to help heal wounds.

I have spent over a decade as a seminary formator trying to help form future priests to be healers, to prepare them for a life generously spent in the field hospital of the Church. In the past decade, our best seminaries have urgently tried to address what were historically at the roots of the abuse crisis: woefully inadequate screening of candidates for the priesthood, cluelessness about a candidate’s need to address his own life-wounds during formation, ordaining men who failed to attain psycho-sexual maturity, and so on. We have come a long way, but there is still more to accomplish.

Among the most hurting in the Church today are survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Since I began working seven years ago on my first book, Hurting in the Church, our Lord has directed my path and the paths of several survivors to an encounter. Some of those encounters eventually blossomed into lasting friendships. Yet, I am still learning how to accompany survivors of abuse, and asking—as I believe we should all be: what more can the Mystical Body do in response to their ongoing suffering and to help heal their wounds?

Crisis Fatigue, Church Bureaucracy, and the Re-traumatization of Survivors

Before I attempt at least one answer to that question, we have to acknowledge that most Catholics are tired of this talk. We are tired of the bad news. We have crisis fatigue, and that is understandable. But as we have grown numb, and perhaps cynical, over time with every damning headline, a sense has settled in that the abuse crisis and its aftermath are a problem for someone else to solve. But “not my monkeys, not my circus” can hardly be an acceptable response if we truly believe we are all members of the Mystical Body. We are not spiritual monads. “For God has so constructed the body . . . so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it” (1 Cor 12: 24–26).

Fortunately, many Catholics seem to understand that this is not somebody else’s problem to fix. In the national synthesis document recently published by the USCCB summarizing the input from the diocesan synod phase of the upcoming Synod on Synodality, the reality of “enduring wounds” appears to be at the forefront of their concerns about the current state of the Church in the United States. At the top of the list of lingering wounds is the ongoing fallout of the abuse crisis.[2]

To be sure, survivors of clergy sexual abuse are not a “chapter” we just have to “get past.” They are not a “problem” to be solved. They are hurting members of our own body. They are our brothers and sisters. If, in the ordinary circumstances of life, we spontaneously feel sorry for and often ask pardon for harms we did not intend or perhaps never even caused—how much more should we not feel compelled to respond personally and responsibly, contributing our share, somehow to help heal the wounds left in the aftermath of the abuse crisis?  

Yet, the Church’s institutional response to victims has largely failed to meet the deeper needs of victim-survivors. Not that there has not been real compassion toward them—especially from often heroic men and women who serve in the roles of Victim Assistance Coordinators for their dioceses. Yet, such compassion has too often been the exception to the norm. Ask just about any survivor who has been on the receiving end of a diocesan response to their plight, and they will tell you of bitter disappointments. Monetary settlements mean little. Most of our current best practices at the diocesan level have yet to even come close to addressing the actual magnitude of the harm done to victims.

Too often, in fact, rather than healing, Church leadership has caused further harm. I have heard many survivors insist that they have suffered less from their actual abuse than from how they have been re-traumatized by Church authorities. Again and again, victims of abuse have recounted how they once turned to the Church, expecting her to be a loving Mother, and found themselves treated as the enemy, reduced to the status of mere litigants. They have been treated over and over again to hurts, humiliations, deflections, and indifference at the hands of a bureaucratized system that fails to perceive, deliver, and respond to their deeper needs. Survivors of abuse remind us over and over again: it is not about compensation, but compassion.[3]

That does not mean that we cannot openly acknowledge and applaud what Church leadership has accomplished in terms of prevention of abuse to minors and creating safe environments for them in our parishes and schools. Yet, those of us who have listened to survivors tell their stories and accompanied them in their pain find ourselves still perplexed at the inadequacy of the response to other dimensions of this crisis—not least of which is the growing recognition of the reality of adult victims of abuse, and of the inertia and seeming indifference of bishops in the face of sexually active clergy.[4]

What remains severely under-responded to is the carnage in people’s lives that still remains decades into this crisis. And we remain baffled at how the response by Church leadership remains largely driven by denial, deflection—and the directives of diocesan attorneys. We need a better approach.

The Restorative Justice Model

We urgently need to adopt much more broadly across dioceses a series of pastoral practices in response to victims of abuse that transcend the granting of monetary awards to victims and the punishment of perpetrators. We need practices that restore dignity and agency to victims. Many of us find hope in applying practices of restorative justice to the abuse crisis.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has pioneered the application of these practices in their own response to victims. Those practices emphasize truth-telling, and acknowledging the suffering of survivors, and listening to their stories. While retributive justice focuses primarily on punishing the offender, restorative justice focuses first on victims and the pursuit of restoring them to wholeness. It then pursues a process whereby all stakeholders in the offense come together to seek a resolution and to deal with the aftermath of the offense and the future implications for all the stakeholders involved.

I have been involved in two national gatherings exploring how these practices could be applied more broadly in the Church’s response to the crisis. A first national consultation was held at the University of Notre Dame in September of 2021, and a second at the University of St. Thomas in September of 2022. Each convoked survivor advocates, lawyers, theologians, priests, victim-survivors of clergy sexual abuse, psychologists and scholars from diverse fields. At the second consultation, we were blessed by the participation of several bishops. The days were largely dedicated to honest dialogue, to thinking and praying together, and to candidly engaging one another in a spirit of openness to the working of the Holy Spirit.

They instilled encouragement in the participants and reinforced a shared sense of urgency that more needs to be done. Though the complexity of the Church’s current situation is daunting, the second consultation in particular has begun to bear fruit in the form of specific initiatives that we are confident can ignite broad national and international interest for those concerned about healing the wounds that remain.

A Christ-Centered, Eucharistic Way Forward

Evident in both consultations was our need to be Christ-centered as we move forward, to plunge ourselves with confidence into the abyss of mercy and healing power that is the Eucharist. We must seek solutions in the Heart of the One who hates abuse and yearns to heal survivors.

 Notre Dame professor of political science Daniel Philpott was an organizer of both consultations. In a keynote address he delivered at the second meeting, he recalled how Pope Benedict had once likened the Eucharist to nuclear fission. Benedict describes Jesus’s self-giving love as “an intimate explosion of good conquering evil [that] can then trigger off the series of transformations that little by little will change the world.”

As Philpott has wonderfully highlighted, the Eucharist is keenly related to the reality of restorative justice—especially when understood in the biblical sense of justice as the restoration of right relationship. At Calvary, Jesus, in the fullest and most ultimately comprehensive sense of the word, accomplishes the restoration of right relationship between fallen humanity and the Triune God. In this light, we understand the Eucharist as the ongoing re-presentation of that unfathomable fulness and realization of that Biblical justice—sedeq, dikaiosune—the complete restoration of right relationship which so superabundantly surpasses the possibilities of legalism of mere retribution and seeks to give more:

The Bible’s justice . . . involves generosity mercy, solicitude for the poor and the stranger, hospitality, and sacrificial love, and, towards past wrongs, love for enemies and reconciliation, all of which involve giving to others in excess of what they are owed, have a right to, or had coming to them.

The justice demanded by the crisis of clergy sexual abuse can be no other than Eucharistic justice. The practices of restorative justice afford us a workable pathway toward genuine instantiation of that justice in the lives of those most devastated by this crisis.[5]

Bearing Our Share of the Burden: Spiritual Accompaniment, Reparation, and Redemptive Suffering

Survivors are wont to tell us that the Church’s response to the crisis over the past two decades has often left them “drowning in words.” What they have wanted and needed is action—more action, meaningful action—in response to the crisis and to their plight. Bishops and other Church leaders are wont to respond in frustration: What more are we supposed to do? Have we not done enough already?

Yet, in the face of such evil, such injustice that has been perpetrated on our brothers and sisters, it is only just for the entire Body of Christ to be forced to come up with more meaningful responses. The action required here can be corporate, and visible, at the level of the institutional Church, at the diocesan and parish levels. But it can also be interior to each one of us. “What more can I do in the face of the Church’s crisis of clergy sexual abuse?” This is a question every Catholic needs to ask.

The Pauline exhortation to suffer with the suffering members of the Body invites us to take upon ourselves a share of the burden borne by our hurting brothers and sisters. It impels us to embrace our responsibility and to adopt an inner disposition to bear a portion of that burden. This is something we can all do.

As Erik Varden, bishop of Trondheim, Norway has beautifully observed, “There is an immense work of bearing to be done in the Church today. I think this bearing, consciously and freely assumed, is a precondition for healing.” And we should accustom ourselves to shouldering that burden of victims as a healing, reparative, and we might say purgative practice. As Brett Salkeld has insightfully observed, we might take insight into this corporate responsibility of penitentially bearing the consequences of the clergy sexual abuse crisis from the Church’s doctrine of purgatory. He specifically addresses the Church’s profoundly mistaken collaboration with Canadian residential schools for Native American children. But his insight into the Church’s understanding of corporate responsibility for the sins of our forebears certainly has a bearing on the broader issue of the Church’s sexual abuse crisis. Salkeld writes:

Here, I suggest, is where some good traditional Catholic theology can help us. Catholics believe in Original Sin. That is to say, we know something about being implicated in a broken and sinful system through no fault of our own. And Catholics believe in the communion of saints. That is to say, we know something about shared responsibility and bearing one another’s burdens. Most particularly, Catholics believe in purgatory and prayer for the dead. That is to say, we know something about making reparations for sins that are not personally ours.

To pray for those still undergoing a time of interior purification after death is a form of spiritual solidarity and mercy. In the context of the abuse crisis, it also entails that we—as members of the Mystical Body, sharing a common link with men and women who historically failed to protect children and vulnerable adults, who could have known better—have a responsibility now to engage in reparative and, indeed, penitential acts. It is a question of accompanying victims spiritually, bearing their pain, and making reparation for the sins and malfeasant omissions of Church leaders.

What is needed is for Catholics—in the face of this ongoing crisis—to tap far more robustly and generously into our traditions of penitential practices: prayer, fasting, and the offering of interior acts of self-denial in reparation for sin. Bishops can still do far more in their own dioceses in this direction, for example, requiring that a petition for the healing of survivors be included regularly in the prayer of the faithful at parish Masses, or organizing periodic public penitential liturgies and other liturgical acts in reparation for the harms of the sexual abuse crisis. Individual bishops could seek to learn from the experiences of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, replicating in their own dioceses the most appropriate practices of the restorative justice model, including the practice of the healing circle.

Yet, it has to go deeper than all that. It requires Catholics including many shepherds and Church leaders to recover, foster, and nurture in their own spiritual lives and in the spiritual life of their local Churches a spirituality of redemptive suffering—redemptive and penitential self-sacrifice united to Jesus. And in this context, that all begins with empathy: to weep because others weep. Indeed, to weep because others do not weep enough. It means, in the end, a readiness to bear the wounds of our brothers and sisters. Ultimately, only Christ can save his Church from the sexual abuse crisis. We are called to be collaborators with him in this work of salvation. Ours is to be sharers in what is surely already a lifetime struggle, one encompassing this and the next generation—to achieve in some measure the justice that this tragedy demands.

[1] For example, a Pew Research study found a few years ago that one in four Catholics reported going to Mass less frequently because of the 2018 revelations surrounding Theodore McCarrick and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s report.

[2] Notably, as the document states, this has spiraled into a universalized crisis of trust in the hierarchy and of relationships between Catholics:

Chief among the enduring wounds that afflict the People of God in the United States is the still unfolding effects of the sexual abuse crisis. “Trust in the hierarchy of the Church is weak and needs to be strengthened. The sex abuse scandals and the way the Church leadership handled the situation are seen as one of the strongest causes of a lack of trust and credibility on the part of the faithful. Feedback revealed the strong, lingering wound caused by the abuse of power and the physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse of the most innocent in our community. There was a recognition that this pain has had a compounding effect on priests and lay ministers’ willingness to develop closer relationships with the people they serve due to a fear of being misinterpreted or falsely accused.” The sin and crime of sexual abuse has eroded not only trust in the hierarchy and the moral integrity of the Church, but also created a culture of fear that keeps people from entering into relationship with one another and thus from experiencing the sense of belonging and connectedness for which they yearn.

[3] See Stephen J. Pope, “The Promise of Restorative Justice,” America Magazine, December 24, 2018. Our call as a community of disciples is to be, for victims of abuse, “a community of compassion and not just compensation.”

[4] It is plain to me that many bishops are inclined to interpret as a “boundary violation” what was—upon careful and honest analysis—if not sexual assault by a priest, at very least a grave violation of the sixth commandment and of his promise of celibacy, and the cause of grave scandal to the faithful, and then to send him off for counseling, and eventually to reassign him to ministry. Canon 1395.2 of the Code of Canon Law states that “a cleric who in another way has committed an offense against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, if the delict was committed by force or threats or publicly or with a minor below the age of sixteen years, is to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants.” Admittedly, such cases are seldom brought to light with overwhelming evidence, and even if a bishop were to pursue a penal process, it could understandably be hard to prove the exact nature of the delict.