Maintaining Our Sense of Urgency

Maintaining Our Sense of Urgency

I worry that we will lose the urgency of the current moment.

It has been six weeks to the day since the Pennsylvania grand jury released its report on clerical sex abuse and the Church’s cover up. It has been roughly ten weeks since revelations about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians and lay people emerged.

Since then, numerous other stories detailing clerical sex abuse and institutional cover-up have rocked the Catholic Church. In early August, the U.K.’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse released a report detailing monks’ sexual and physical abuse of children at two Benedictine Abbey schools over the course of 40 years. The report highlighted the culture of acceptance that enabled the abuse, and the prioritization of monks’ reputations over the wellbeing of their schoolchildren. On September 12, the National Catholic Reporter relayed the findings of a report leaked to German media detailing 3,700 cases of abuse of minors in the German Catholic Church over a period of 68 years. Three days later, a Dutch newspaper announced that 20 of the country’s 39 cardinals, bishops, and auxiliary bishops were involved in half of the abuse cases in the Netherlands between 1945 and 2010. Four of these high-ranking clergymen abused children themselves and 16 of them moved predatory priests to different parishes to avoid accountability—much like Church officials in Boston and Pennsylvania have done. On September 21, the Global Sisters Report noted that Indian authorities arrested Bishop Franco Mulakkal on charges that he raped a nun on multiple occasions between 2014 and 2016.

The rot in the Catholic Church is global. The stories I mention above are but a small sampling of the evidence that points to this rot. More stories are coming. The New York attorney general has subpoenaed every diocese in the state for information related to the sex crimes committed by Catholic priests and covered up by the Church hierarchy. New Jersey’s attorney general has followed suit, as has Michigan’s. Investigations into clerical abuse in Missouri, Nebraska, and New Mexico are already underway.

For those of us who remain in the Church, these news stories and reports have imbued in us a fierce urgency to address the crisis before us. We talk with special intensity about reform—from breaking the culture of clericalism which silences both victims and dissent, to increasing lay oversight of the Church, to reconsidering the traditional requirements that priests be both male and celibate. We discuss how to hold the Church, a decidedly undemocratic institution, to account for the crimes some of her clergy committed and some of their fellows enabled.

Some Catholics have begun to mobilize. The University of Scranton scrubbed the names of three bishops accused of covering up sex abuse in Pennsylvania from the names of buildings on campus. More than 3,000 Catholics, myself included, signed a letter calling on the U.S. bishops to resign over their gross mishandling of the abuse crisis. Pope Francis has called the bishops to Rome for a meeting on the abuse crisis, which will take place from February 21-24, 2019.

However, as the reports from the Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York attorneys general come in, and as other stories emerge, the abuse crisis will only worsen. In the face of these coming stories—of years of new revelations and reports—I worry that the urgency of the present moment will leave us. I worry that we will become overwhelmed, or else feel too small to push for changes that might actually affect the rot at the heart of the Church.

I can feel myself starting to tire. I see the fatigue in the eyes of others when I discuss the abuse crisis with them. I don’t want to think about the crisis anymore. They don’t either.

But we cannot tire so soon. We cannot afford to tire months from now, or even years from now. The victims bore the burden of their abuse in silence for years, some for decades. They raised their voices before 2002; they raised them in 2002 and during the years after. The victims raise their voices again now. For those of us who keep the faith, however sundered it may be, what was the victims’ solitary struggle is now and must hereafter be our collective struggle.

So the question becomes how we sustain the urgency that motivates us to discuss reforms amongst ourselves, to demand change from our Church, and to act to realize the changes we want to effect. I submit that we must read as many stories about clerical abuse and cover-up as we can, for it is only in our assiduous reading that we will truly begin to comprehend the terrible scope of the crisis. Moreover, only in this reading will we discover amongst the current darkness some pockets of hope, derived from the witness of our fellow Catholics and their service.

Take, for instance, the story of Fr. Brendan McGuire. In order to be a better advocate for victims of clerical sex abuse, during five weekend masses from September 8-9, Fr. McGuire told his congregation about the abuse he experienced at the hands of a priest when he was 18 years old. McGuire’s homilies marked the first time he had shared the secret of his abuse in the 35 years since it occurred. In the days following his homilies, McGuire heard from 45 men who opened up to him about their own experiences of clerical sex abuse. Five of the men who came forward were priests themselves, and four were seminarians when they were abused. One of the priests who came forward was 95 years old. He shared with his story after holding it in for 60 or 70 years.

Take, too, the example of Fr. James Martin, S.J., who has defended gay priests from the slander that some ultra-conservative priests and Catholics would levy against them.

Women religious have responded to the crisis with similar courage and esteemed leadership, many creating opportunities for victims and parishioners to raise their voices and others calling for fundamental changes to Church structures. In India, it was the vocal protest of a group of Catholic nuns that ultimately secured the arrest of the aforementioned Bishop Mulakkal.

Lay people, too, give us cause for hope. Survivors of clerical sex abuse and Catholic schoolchildren in Pennsylvania have filed a class-action lawsuit against all eight Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, demanding that the dioceses submit proof that they provided the names of all suspected predatory priests. Parishes are holding listening sessions so parishioners will be heard. ACI’s editors are working now to put together two panels on the abuse crisis—one involving clergy and faculty and a follow-up panel involving students. Through the panels, we hope to determine what we can do to move the Church forward.

It is from the sense of urgency we derive from reading the stories detailing years of abuse and cover-up, and from the hope we derive from stories highlighting the service, witness, and brave testimony of our fellow Catholics, that we will remain energized to reform our Church, to prevent further abuse and cover-ups. But assiduous engagement with the crisis alone, through reading and through mobilizing, will not fend off the fatigue and smallness of spirit that imperil the work of holding the Church to account and pushing it to reform. Nor will this approach protect us from developing a perverse obsession with the crisis if we delve too deeply and constantly into stories about sexual abuse and institutional cover-up. So how do we avoid developing such a grim obsession, and how can we re-energize in moments when reading alone will not stoke within us the fire to act?

While I have no perfect answer, I do have an initial inclination: we fall back on our friends. We rely on our fellow Catholics who struggle with this crisis alongside us and may see, with their eyes and in ours, when perhaps we need a break from it all. In these individuals we should find our refuge, and perhaps in non-Catholics oases from the crisis when total separation is what we momentarily need.

It is my hope that these friends in whom we find refuge, especially our fellow Catholics, will also bring us back into the arena after those moments when we feel small and exhausted and all-too-ready to give up. After a brief respite, with an outstretched hand and a solemn smile, they’ll suggest that, perhaps we have more work to do. They’ll suggest that we can do it. That we must, for this crisis will last for years, and the task of reforming our Church to prevent further abuse and cover-ups will last a lifetime. Maybe several.

So maintaining the urgency of the present moment—sustaining the energy that calls us to solidarity with the victims; to demand reform from our Church; to hold to account those who committed unconscionable abuse and those who shielded them from our vicious reproach and the bite of the law—this task becomes as much a matter of reading assiduously to inform ourselves and fuel our action as it becomes a matter of surrounding ourselves with people who lift us up, people who call forth more from us in those moments when we would prefer to give less or nothing at all.  

I do not claim to know if this method of sustaining our energy to discuss, demand, and pursue reform will work. But it is the only route I presently see, and it is the route to which I call my fellow Catholics. The task before us requires all the tenacity and fortitude we can together muster.


(Overhead picture: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, New York. Source: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

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