How can we, the church, respond to clerical sex abuse?

As someone who has worked for all of his adult life for more than four decades and seen the ministries of the church up close at two dioceses, this archdiocese, at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and two national organizations, I have found the priest sexual-abuse crisis shocking and inexplicable, and I have been troubled trying to understand how best as a Catholic to respond.

This is especially true now, after the release this month of the grand jury report from Pennsylvania and allegations by the former papal nuncio  on the covering up of clergy sex abuse at the highest levels of the church. If anyone thought this was an issue that the church had dealt with – when initial waves of sex-abuse charges hit years ago – and then moved forward, the reaction the last several weeks across the country, around the world and within the church itself puts lie to that.

As a married father with two adult male children and three grandchildren, I experience this crisis in our faith with uncertainty and fear that any family member – mine or anyone else’s – could find themselves having to face a predator or has to live the rest of their life with such a violation to their personhood.

I had the opportunity to come face-to-face with the reality of clergy sex abuse back in the late 1980s, representing the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, at a national conference on the subject. I attended initially thinking that this issue, while monstrous, was a rarity, only to find myself confronted by the reality that engulfed dioceses across the country and a growing sense, back more than 30 years ago, that the church was not prepared for nor was dealing effectively or sufficiently with the issue.

Whether it was that the science surrounding the abuse and/or the appalling recidivism rate among sex abusers was not known, understood or appreciated; whether it was a misguided sense of forgiveness among too many bishops seeking to be supportive – as a father would to a son – to those priests who faced accusations; or whether it was an issue so awful to consider happening to those most vulnerable in the church’s care that made it unbelievable, the church was deplorably slow to take action and worried more about liability than the protection of young people, the future of our church.

I worked with a number of priests in northeastern U.S. dioceses in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, who were removed from ministry, and rightfully so, for actions of which I was, at the time, completely unaware and which were abhorrent.

The report from Pennsylvania affirms what we already knew: the vast majority of the cases date back decades. And since in early 2000s, the U.S. church’s comprehensive safe environment effort has had a positive effect, forcing dioceses and archdioceses, including New Orleans, to keep the protection of young people from predatory church ministers – priests and laity alike – uppermost in its mind. But, as cases have occurred since that effort began, more needs to be done.

Transparency, accountability

Much of the uproar surrounding the Pennsylvania report and then the charges from the former apostolic nuncio have to do with the inadequate accountability on the part of bishops. That reality has varied widely across the country from diocese to diocese. And even as the U.S. church and the Vatican seek to strengthen its resolve, processes, accountability and transparency, all of which needs to happen, it is likely that cases, though hopefully many fewer, will continue to occur.

So how best for us to respond to the latest revelations of an evil so heinous that it shakes the foundations of our Catholic faith?

First, as parents and those of us who care for children as aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends and community members working with children, we must talk about and remind our children of what are and what are not appropriate behaviors, including touching, and that we are always there to talk to and make children feel safe and protected, and at the ready to do what is absolutely necessary if the unimaginable happens.

Second, remember, as we all were taught growing up, to “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” Yet, in doing so, we have to demand of our church leaders that action to protect our children from the sin and evil of sex abuse be decisive and permanent, and that just punishment of the sinner, as an act of consequence and an elimination of the predator from our children’s midst, be expected.

Third, acknowledge that we are a pilgrim people, continually searching how best to live out the faith, mercy, joy, truth and love of God in our community. And yet, I believe, we should question a rejection of the great gift of our Catholic faith, a gift that we should be careful not to be viewed as tarnished by the actions of those ministers who have acted in ways totally at odds with and opposed to the church and its teachings. The evil of sex abuse only expands if we allow it to impact our belief in the church founded by Jesus Christ.

Fourth, share what we are feeling about the sex-abuse crisis. The horror and shock of this evil is something we should talk about in our homes, with neighbors and friends – Catholic and non-Catholic – and should hear discussed honestly, with full contrition and empathy for those who have faced abuse, from the pulpits of our churches on an ongoing basis.

Fifth, join with others to ensure we are doing what we can to help provide the kind of supportive network and programming within our churches to uplift young people.

Mother asked the question

As someone who has been connected in service to the Catholic Church beginning as a 10-year-old altar boy and involved in activities all through my youth and adult life, I was asked by my mother several years ago whether I was ever abused by someone in the clergy and just never told her. After feeling shocked by the question, I was able to respond that I was fortunate to have always found a great deal of support from priests, teachers and others charged with my welfare in churches and schools. I then shared with her that I appreciated her question, as it forced me to acknowledge the gift of my Catholic faith that I was able to celebrate without having to work through abuse at the hands of one of its ministers. I now regularly remember to thank God for the gift of that untainted presence in my life, a gift that, unfortunately, too many Catholics cannot celebrate.

This may be the moment  when we as Catholics – and the church as an institution – discover we must be more present to young people and  work more tirelessly toward their safety, their cherishing and their ennobling.

Mark Lombard is the business manager and is a contributing writer of the Clarion Herald. He can be reached at mlombard@clarionherald.org.

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