I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of survivors of abuse, cover-ups, and dismissals at the hands of Church leaders over the last couple of years. Many Catholics have come to recognize that continued active participation in the Church requires us to take up the clergy abuse crises as our own personal crises. I’m still trying to work through what this means for me.
Recently, this meant working with a friend as she grapples with what abuse, cover-ups, and dismissals mean in the context of her former parish, where the parishioners greatly admire the pastor and want to work with him in minimizing scandal and disruption. As she considers how to respond to her pastor’s insistence that she not go to the police and to “let sleeping dogs lie” with regards to her childhood abuse, she has to struggle with what it means to be a good Catholic. Would it be better to just quietly move on? Would making a legal report just be a selfish pursuit of vengeance, and an unnecessary disruption of the parish community?
Her parish, like many others, places a high value on deference to the pastor and “protection of the flock” (understood as protecting the reputations and livelihoods of parish members who may be implicated in abuse and cover-up). Certainly, a respect for the priestly office is not new to Catholicism. St. Francis of Assisi once wrote in a letter to the faithful: “We must… venerate and show respect for the clergy, not so much for them personally if they are sinners, but by reason of their office and their administration of the most holy Body and Blood of Christ.” If we are to truly follow in Francis’ footsteps, we are called upon to respect the office of the clergy.
But priests are not free from flaws or above criticism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church takes into account the limitations of the priest as actor “in persona Christi“:
“The presence of Christ in the minister is not to be understood as if the latter were preserved from all human weakness, the spirit of domination, error, even sin. The power of the Holy Spirit does not guarantee all acts of ministers in the same way. While this guarantee extends to the sacraments, so that even the minister’s sin cannot impede the fruit of grace, in many other acts the minister leaves human traces that are not always signs of fidelity to the Gospel and consequently can harm the apostolic fruitfulness of the Church.”CCC, paragraph 1550
Priests can fall into the same sins and failings as any lay person, just as they can all rise up to holiness. The clergy and the laity are of one Church. Indeed, the responsibilities of all the faithful are bound together. For example, among the key roles of the bishop is that of teacher (CCC 1558). Bishops are obligated and bound by the truth, including the truths of Christian doctrine. They are called to teach it. Priests are then called to be “co-workers of the episcopal order” (CCC 1562), assisting the bishops in this work. Similarly, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici speaks of the complementarity between the clergy, men and women religious, and the lay faithful. We are all “the goal and subjects of Church communion as well as of participation in the mission of salvation.” We are all together “labourers in the vineyard.”
One of the more difficult roles of clergy who assist in the teaching office of the bishops is to articulate the Church’s vision for the human person, especially in the contexts of our embodied and sexual lives. Many pastors have taken up this role loudly, proclaiming from the pulpit the “hard truths” of, for example, the Church’s teaching on birth control and homosexuality. Their perspective is that, it is better to speak the truth loudly to those who would rather not hear it, than to cover it up in order to make them feel more comfortable. Salvation requires the truth; it must be looked upon, no matter how difficult such a vision may be. As one local pastor has put it:
“We try to speak the truth in all things, but it’s easy to put off speaking on certain truths because they seem so private, so delicate, so unpopular. To put it another way, we like to be liked. We like smooth sailing, no fights, no troubles. But we might speak the hard messages only rarely, and then only with a glancing blow, rather than with both feet planted and firmness in our voice. We sometimes count more on our human ability to manage the conflict than the power of the cross to convince the minds and win the hearts of our people. Yet, the power of the cross is revealed most majestically in those parts of the faith hardest to live.”
According to this pastor, priests and other Catholics who proclaim the “hard truths” of Catholicism exercise courage in taking up the cross of Christ. They are willing to say the private, delicate, and unpopular things that many would prefer be left unsaid. In doing so, they reveal the power of the cross.
For similar reasons, victims of abuse, dismissals, and cover-ups in the Church do a great service by bringing historical truths to the light, by sharing their stories and experiences with the ecclesial community and even with law enforcement. This is even the case when priests and Church leaders may be implicated. St. Francis and other Catholics throughout history call us to respect priests in their priestly office, but we do not have to condone or be silenced when faced with their human failings. When speaking with my friend about whether to report to the police, my advice to her was:
Your job in speaking to the police is one thing and one thing only: to tell the truth. If you speak the truth to the police, then the only fault people can find with you is your honesty. If you speak the truth and they do not like it, then their problem is not with you. Their problem is with history. Their problem is with honesty. Their problem is with the truth. If they do not like the legal consequences, then they can take issue with the law. But they cannot take issue with you, because the truth is on your side.
My friend finds herself in a situation amenable to irony. Her abuse arose in a parish where both the pastor and the laity affirm and pronounce the “hard truths” of Catholicism. They believe one must proclaim “hard truths” boldly. If they do not support and assist her in her honesty, they are hypocrites.
To report abuse in Minnesota, visit the Minnesota Department of Human Services website here. For information on reporting provided by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, visit the Archdiocesan safe environment website here. According to the Archdiocesan website:
“Many people working or volunteering in a parish or Catholic school, including clergy, are mandated reporters under state law (Minnesota Statute 626.556) and must report abuse or neglect of a child to proper civil authorities within 24 hours or face criminal charges. Under the law, mandated reporters must also follow up with a written report to civil authorities within 72 hours.”
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.