“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” -Spotlight
Let me be very clear: it seems obvious to me that the clergy and the magisterium are the primary agents of the crises that have been unfolding in the Church. Those in positions of authority must continue to take responsibility, and we must hold them to account. But at the same time, we the laity must also be different. We can’t perpetuate clericalism by saying that the abuse crisis is the sole responsibility of the clergy. It should be obvious by now that most of the clergy are poorly equipped to deal with this situation. So we, too, are called to stand up. This is our Church.
And we need to take an accounting of ourselves. Here are some of my shortcomings.
Reacting to whistleblowers
When Jennifer Haselberger first began sharing the secrets of the Archdiocese in 2013, my first inclination was to criticize her for a breach of duty to her local Church and employer. I was a zealous young Catholic and a law student committed to ethical obligations of confidentiality and obedience to the bishop. At the time, I saw Haselberger as a woman with whom I could empathize, but with whom I ultimately disagreed. Though the Church should have made public the information she brought to light, I thought that she still had an obligation to follow the directives of the diocesan leadership.
I was wrong.
To the extent that she brought to light failures to conduct mandatory reporting, Haselberger was following up on violations of canon law (which would have required the disclosure of many of the documents to civil authorities). But regardless of canon law, she saw that my Archdiocese was allowing priests with credible accusations of child sexual abuse to continue working with children. She left her extremely prestigious job over these problems. She was vilified by many, but she followed her conscience. And for that she should be praised. Instead, she was treated as an enemy of the Archdiocese, and I allowed her to be cast in that role through complicity in those narratives and a failure to speak against them.
Reactions to survivors
I know a priest who has had accusations raised against him. When I first heard about this, I doubted the allegations because I knew him personally and considered him a good priest (which, for me at the time, meant largely that he held the right views). I looked for reasons to believe that the allegations weren’t true. I didn’t want them to be true.
What I didn’t realize is that, as detailed in the John Jay report, clergy abusers were often charming men who inserted themselves easily into the families of their victims. They often gained trust and established relationships in ways that prevented those related to the victims to question whether they were the types of persons who could really abuse. Studies of child sexual abusers show that the stereotypical creepy old man doesn’t actually match the profiles of real abusers. And we should be hesitant to trust what seems most obvious in identifying a potential abuser.
In addition, false allegations of sexual violence are extremely low, and going public about the most shameful and secret parts of your life is a grueling experience. Certainly, we need fairness in evaluating claims, but the potential victims should be prioritized and cared for first and foremost. If only about 4% of these sorts of cases are found or suspected to be false, why would my first question be, “Is she telling the truth?” Raising doubts from the start about the credibility of the victim only contributes to a culture where victims don’t come forward because they assume they won’t be believed and that nothing will be done. In evaluating claims of abuse against clergy, in the past I’ve erred on the side of the priest in question, while all statistical data says I should err on the other side. I now realize that reason demands I err on the side of the accusers, even if I should offer private support to the priest when appropriate.
Spreading bad information
After the McCarrick scandal broke in the news, I considered the incidents and made conclusions based on the information. I said that “the problem is gay priests, insofar as there are gay priests abusing.” I assumed that because the victims were males, that the abusers must be gay. After some constructive criticism from friends in the mental health professions and reviewing some of the most recent research on abuse, I now recognize that I was wrong to assume orientation based on abuse. I learned that sexual abusers tend to target the most available victims, regardless of gender and that most abusers are “generalists,” meaning that they don’t specialize in any type of victim. By making assumptions of orientation based on the selected victims, I was contributing to one of the most common misconceptions concerning sexual abuse and spreading false information based on what I now recognize to be very limited knowledge. And insofar as I inferred sexuality from violence and exploitation, I was contributing to the domineering and reductive views of sexuality opposed by John Paul II and others.
Contributing to a Catholic culture of secrets and posturing
Finally, between 2013 and 2016 I was a writer and speaker on Catholicism and homosexuality, promoting Church teaching and the call to chastity, all the while maintaining a long term sexual-romantic relationship and occasionally hooking up. I now realize that this work contributed to a pretty and sanitized false world of Christianity, where one can live a secret personal life as long as you put out the “right” message, presenting a sort of verbal Instagram account as a Catholic life.
I now realize that Catholicism isn’t so much about promoting certain views as it is living a certain way. Like many leaders in the Church, I was presenting an image and maintaining a message, rather than conveying a life with all its complexities. By keeping my personal life and my writing life sharply divided, I contributed to the sort of culture that keeps the truth hidden away from the public. I’m sorry. The abuse crises in our Church don’t exist as some isolated incidents, but as part of a culture of death that can manifest itself in any life.
If we want a Church that brings about a culture of life, we need to be vigilant first and foremost with ourselves. And we need to change.