Recently I attended the 50th anniversary of my high school graduation. While I have kept in touch with some of my classmates, this certainly has not been the case with all of them. Given this, it was good to see my classmates again and catch up on what has gone on in their lives these many years. At one point in the evening, in a private conversation with one of my classmates, he revealed that he had been sexually abused by his pastor when he was in grade school. I thanked him for his courage, and for trusting that he could share this information with me. I asked if he would be open to getting together for lunch so we could talk about it. He said yes, and we exchanged email addresses so we could set a date for lunch.
When we got together for lunch, my classmate shared his experience with me. Not only had his pastor abused him, but he was also a serial abuser, who had victimized others. My heart went out to my classmate as I listened to the pain and hurt he had suffered. I knew there was nothing I could say that would be helpful, so I just listened, apologized and offered my prayers—knowing all the while that this was too little, too late, and probably more for my sake than for his.
Several years ago I had a similar experience, when one of my grade school classmates told me he had been abused by one of the associate pastors at our home parish. Unlike my high school classmate, however, his abuse had taken place over a period of years. Now, in both these cases, I would by lying if I said that I handled them with grace and composure. In these and other instances when I’ve talked with victims of sexual abuse, I have prayed swiftly and mightily that God would give me the right words to say, or at least help me not say something terribly wrong, inappropriate or hurtful. Listening to someone talk about the pain and hurt they have experienced at the hands of the church is a grim experience. In these instances, though, while I didn’t think I said anything particularly profound or helpful, I did come away with the awareness that I had been “standing on holy ground.”
(As part of my conversation with both of my classmates, I asked if I could write about the experience in our parish bulletin. I also promised to get their permission before publishing anything. Both agreed to this. I am grateful for their willingness to allow me to share their experience.)
Now with the above as background, it needs to be said that it is vitally important that those in leadership positions in our church listen to the pain and hurt of people who have been victims of sexual abuse. Their/our work, however, doesn’t and shouldn’t end there. We need to acknowledge our failings and the harm they have caused. Further, we need to ask for forgiveness over and over and over and over again. We also need to seek ways to promote healing and reconciliation, and finally and perhaps most importantly the leaders of our church need to commit to making changes so that these things can never happen again. Unfortunately at this point, most of the changes that have been made to date have not arisen out of care and concern, but rather as a result of lawsuits or changes in the law. And even more unfortunately, I think there is an unspoken attitude among many leaders in our church that once this crisis blows over they can go back to the way things used to be. This cannot happen. We can and must do better. And while our Archdiocese has made some progress in this regard, much more needs to be done.
The words openness, transparency, and honesty are much in vogue these days. Their high fashion status, though, doesn’t diminish their importance or necessity. Specifically in regard to our church, they call our bishops to a high standard of accountability. Certainly for some time now our leaders have failed to meet this standard. For this they need to confess their failings, apologize, repent, and establish clear standards of openness, transparency, honesty, and accountability. And they need to work with others—most especially those who have been the victims of sexual abuse—to establish these standards. If the bishops across the United States can’t do this or if they are unwilling to do this, they shouldn’t be surprised if people stop paying attention to them or simply leave our church.