The Ongoing Challenge to the Men who Lead the Catholic Church.
By Peter Pollard
Courage has never been a word that springs to mind when I think of Catholic Bishops’ response to decades of sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults by Catholic clergy.
In my world, “courage” requires taking personal risk.
It was 28 years ago, in 1987, that I first reported to the Archdiocese of Boston that my parish priest had abused me two decades earlier. I asked that the priest be removed and given help to address his abusive behavior; and that the church make a public effort to find other victims. They told me then they didn’t believe me, and left him functioning as a priest in his parish.
Many other men and women I’ve known who were similarly victimized, have made similar requests of bishops around the country and the world, with similar results.
So it would be an understatement to say I was surprised and shocked when, during his first full day in Washington last week, Pope Francis praised the U.S. Bishops’ “courage” for their handling of the crisis of sexually abusive priests.
“I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you,” he told the gathered bishops. “And I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims — in the knowledge that in healing we too are healed — and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated.”
Still, being by nature, a “glass-half-full” kinda guy, I doggedly try to focus on the great potential Pope Francis has to initiate policies that could, even now, make the Catholic Church a role model for organizations and families working to keep children safe.
In the more than 25 years I’ve spent working as a social worker and advocate to prevent child abuse, and to help people heal, one of my main takeaways is this: whether sexual abuse occurs in a faith community, a school, a youth organization or a family, accountability is the key to establishing an environment of safety.
Indeed, after meeting with a group of survivors of clergy abuse on the final day of his U.S. trip, Pope Francis, promised to hold accountable all those responsible for allowing the abuse to occur.
A revelation of sexual abuse sends shock waves through any community, as it did through the Catholic congregations. How could well-respected holy men be guilty of such offenses?
The widespread misconception that the people who sexually abuse children are like the stereotype image of the monster predators we see on TV works against us. Ironically, it’s actually easier to challenge the harmful behavior of a person we see as “good” if we don’t have to first shift them into the “monster” category.
It is possible, in my mind, even preferable, to hold wrongdoers accountable for their harmful actions without demonizing them. But being accountable has to involve more than receiving forgiveness after a simple apology.
Thanks to the real courage of thousands of men and women, boys and girls, who have spoken up about their experience of being sexually abused by members of the clergy, public conversation about sexual abuse is common and prominent now. Groups like SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) have repeatedly offered prescriptions that would change the Church’s culture of secrecy around abusive clergy. Many of those prescriptions are not so different from the requests for accountability and transparency that thousands of others have made for decades. .
In the nearly 15 years since awareness about sexual abuse in the Church exploded in the headlines, not a single bishop has been held to account by the Church for protecting abusive clergy (although two U.S. bishops have recently resigned amidst intense public pressure over their failure to remove abusive priests.)
Pope Francis’ recent promise of accountability and his previous commitment to create a tribunal to consider consequences for those Bishops who failed to protect children and vulnerable adults is a positive step. But until the tribunal is up and running, many of those same bishops remain in charge of overseeing the safety of millions of children served by Catholic parishes across the world.
Those of us who experienced abuse by clergy have waited for years to see significant progress by the Church in initiating a degree of accountability that would effectively protect children and help adult survivors heal. Feeling repeatedly betrayed, most of my friends warn me, “don’t hold your breath.”
Even after the Pope Francis’ astonishing distortion of the concept of courage, I’m still inclined to take a deep breath and wait, hoping that unlike his predecessors, he will find the inspiration to follow through on his promises in meaningful ways. And I continue to dream of the day when, rather than another long, slow, sigh of disappointment, my exhaled breath can take the form of a shout of praise for a show of real courage.
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