Catholic Young Adults Discuss: Cardinal McCarrick

As with most issues in the Church (and society), conversation concerning Cardinal McCarrick has largely happened on blogs, online journals, and social media. We do talking in almost all settings except for face-to-face. But I believe that when we dig into hard issues, it’s important for us to be able to look into one another’s eyes as we say things that are hard to say and hear things that are hard to hear. We have conversation in every forum except for the most intimate location of the (domestic) Church: a living room.

So last week I hosted a group of Catholic young adults in my home to discuss Cardinal McCarrick, the clergy abuse crisis, and related topics.

The diverse group included a professional working with the local Department of Corrections, a therapist, a seminarian, a diocesan employee, a graduate student, and others. We didn’t hold all the same views, so I tried to moderate in a way that everyone could articulate their positions. Here’s some of what we covered…

We opened by going around the room, and each person gave thought or perspective or question that they thought was important in discussing these issues. I brought up a recent blog post by Bishop Barron, in which he warned against trying to look at this issue to find the problem or the solution. This is a complex issue with many facets. No single person, perspective, or context carries all the blame. And no single change of person, perspective, or context will “fix” these issues.

I also brought up how talking through these issues can be hard, because people of the greatest power and influence in the Church tend to be those on the far right and the far left. Views that are nuanced, complex, and searching are much harder to present to popular audiences than punchy one-liners. But punchy one-liners are part of the problem. So the right and the left may be making things worse by their unwillingness to talk to one another.

Also, we are all the Church. We all share these issues. We’re stuck in this together. And we have to find a way to speak, to sit together in one living room. If we can’t do that, then we won’t be able to really respond to these issues. They implicate all of us, so we need to have a conversation. I hoped that this conversation can lead to more.

“How do I forgive people I don’t trust?”

We spoke a bit about how to forgive those we feel have betrayed us: clergy committing abuse, clergy and Church administrators covering it up, and bishops who have lied to or deceived us. As Catholics, we want to be able to forgive, but forgiveness is hard when we don’t know whether to believe that anyone is sorry, and when many fail to admit wrongdoing.

And while we need to exercise mercy, we also need justice. Abusers shouldn’t be permitted to work with vulnerable populations again. They should face their wrongdoing. Victims must be heard and faced. We can’t just “forgive and forget.”

“It’s not faith-shaking, because it wasn’t very surprising to me.”

We had a variety of reactions, in terms of how this affected our personal faith lives. Speaking personally, this most recent uncovering of scandals shook me pretty hard when I found out about it. It’s extremely difficult to believe in a magisterium that abuses its disciples, and to believe that God dwells in a Church whose leaders stand by silently while other leaders prey on the vulnerable. I’ve asked myself over the last few weeks, “How could such a God exist?” One participant brought up Ignatian Spirituality, where you are supposed to see God in all things. He asked, “How am I supposed to see God in this?”

For others, these recent scandals haven’t much affected their faith lives. One participant mentioned how we often think of crime as something that happens “out there.” She said, “It’s surprising when it happens to you, but not to someone else???” She warned against a hubristic view of our Church, where we believe that we are immune from criminal activity just because we are Catholic or because clergy or clergy.

Some of us mentioned how some of the reactions seem generational. Many of our parents haven’t followed the news of these scandals like we have, and much of the world seems less interested than when the Boston Globe first broke the scandals in the early 2000’s. Many have moved on from being surprised by these things, and are less interested, partly probably because the clergy and bishops are simply less relevant and less influential in America than they once were.

“We’ve been told before that things would change.”

Many were frustrated by a “circling the wagons” mentality in the Church. The responses have been predictable and similar to those that came out in 2002: “This is bad. We can’t let this happen again. We will make changes. This is evil. The Church is not evil.” We’ve heard these things before, and the more we hear them, the harder it is to believe them. One participant said, “I just feel tired that this keeps happening.”

But some things do feel different. “McCarrick feels different from before.” Never has the abuse and the cover-up been so high up in the Church, and implicated so many in positions of power. It may simply be that now we are all adults and take in this information more seriously, but we are hearing of more and more people affected personally by these scandals.

“Saying this is because of gay priests is a form of victim blaming.”

We also discussed the implications that this scandal could have for various parts of the Church. Certainly young priests and seminarians need significant support during a time when a system they will be committing their lives to is subject to such intense scrutiny and critique. Certainly these scandals can create prejudice and skepticism towards the clergy.

Another group that may end up indirect longer-term victim to this scandal is gay people. Certainly, “gay priests” and not “gay priests who abuse” are being put on the chopping block by many parts of the Church. Because most (though not all) of the abuse involves men as the victim, many claim that this has to do with gay persons as such. And so now many wonder whether a ban on gay seminarians generally would help. This strikes me as something that would actually worsen the problem, but for those looking for easy answers and easy solutions, gay persons are an easy scapegoat. Participants expressed a concern that this could lead to further alienation of, discrimination against, and abuse of gay people by Catholics.

“No means no. Yes is not an option.”

One participant mentioned how the prison system has a saying: “No means no. Yes is not an option.” This means that when someone says “No” to a sexual advance, you must respect that “No” absolutely, and also that “Yes” is not a possible response to such an advance. In the prison system, true consent to sexual relations is not actually possible. We should view a host of other relationships under this paradigm, such as relationships between priests and parishioners, formators and seminarians, and higher-ranking clergy and lower-ranking clergy. In these situations, consent doesn’t matter. No sexual relations are acceptable, and the person in the position of authority should understand that.

Many participants were also very upset at the lack of visibility of victim resources. One participant noted that our diocese has an ombudsperson, an independent individual that victims can go to to report abuse or harassment. While I was aware of this, most of the participants were not. The participant who pointed this out said you could find this information, and other information for victims, on your parish website. However, participants wanted visible signs and announcements made about this, since victims of abuse by clergy would probably not want to wander their parish website.

“This feels different from the #metoo movement. We’re not creating space for victims, and affected priests and seminarians, to come forward and speak and be heard.”

I have a friend who knows of hypocrisy by a bishop in the area of sexuality and seminary formation, based on a conversation between the two. The friend wanted to speak publicly but asked me to talk through what might happen if the bishop tried to sue him for defamation (I thought the chances of the bishop winning such a suit were slim). Many others have stories but are afraid to come forward. Many have already approached priests and bishops in the past and been dismissed with a smile. They don’t want to go through that again.

In contrast, we discussed how those who have come forward in the #metoo movement have been seen as heroes, and celebrated by society. Those who have survived and overcome harassment and abuse have brought their stories forward in a display of courage, and #metoo has become a sort of badge of honor, in showing that you are unwilling to tolerate harassment and abuse and that you will not be silenced by those in power.

In the clergy scandal, the relationship between abusers, clergy, victims, and the Church more generally has had a very different dynamic. Again, one participant noted “circling the wagons.” Certainly, bishops have less credibility than in the past, and Catholics don’t instinctively trust the parish priest simply by virtue of his position. But while victims are spread across the Church, those wiling to come forward are few and far between, and we have no way to seriously celebrate their courage.

Still, we do see some making big steps. I noted one diocese in Pennsylvania that recently announced they will be waiving all the confidentiality agreements from their former victim settlements. To me, this showed a big change, in that it opened the diocese to huge exposure and vulnerability, while creating almost no benefit for itself other than honesty. The diocese has decided that it wants the truth to come out, regardless of the consequences, and this is a huge source of healing. We want to see that our dioceses are willing to look bad, to be sued, and to be slung through the press, for the sake of truth.

But the participants in our conversation were in the diocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. So we contrasted that with what happened after the investigation into our former bishop. After a time, the investigation was shut down by the papal nuncio and the documents from it destroyed. The refusal to share the results not only left us in a place of conjecture and speculation but also prevented much healing. Right now, we want a Church that is willing to face the truth, to bring things to the light. The truth is supposed to set you free, and many of us feel victims to the darkness.

But still, the light comes from those who break the silence. In these scandals, the light hasn’t originated from our pastors. It’s come from their victims. And so if we find the truth and its accompanying freedom, we owe all that to them.

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