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A Symposium on Responding to the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis ~ From St. Mary’s Church in Hamilton, NY. 

Speakers include:

  • 0:00   Fr. Jason Hage
  • 1:54   Professor Raymond Douglas
  • 13:37 Professor Rebecca Shiner
  • 25:00 Dr Jennifer Meyers
  • 33:33 Dr Bud Ballinger
  • 46:48 Professor Margaret Wehrer

On Sunday, December 16th at 2:00 p.m , five parishioners of St. Mary’s in Hamilton gathered in the church and offered their unique perspectives as to how a Catholic parish could respond to the sexual abuse scandal occurring in the Church at large.  Below you will find the introduction provided by the Pastor of St. Mary’s that was given at the beginning of this solemn occasion.  You will also find below the names of and the information on each panelist as well as their individual talks delivered on this day.

Introduction:  My name is Fr Jason Hage and I would like to give all present a warm welcome to St. Mary’s Church in Hamilton.  I would also like to acknowledge that some here have traveled from distant places to join us for this special day. I would especially like to welcome the editor of the Catholic Sun, Katherine Long. Today marks a solemn and sacred occasion upon which we will have the opportunity to engage in a formal dialogue about what we, as a Catholic parish, can do on the parish level in response to the scandal in the Church at large. We will begin with a colloquium of different speakers from the parish who will offer brief statements on concrete steps they think can be taken in response to the scandal. Following the colloquium, we will then engage in a panel discussion with the speakers. Following the panel discussion, we will conclude with a prayer service for victims of clergy sexual assault. Today’s event is being audio recorded and will be made available online. We ask that all participants remain respectful to the sensitivity of what is being spoken to today. I am humbled that God has brought us together in this way at this time. To all of the victims of clergy sexual assault in our midst, we organized this event to demonstrate that we feel called as a Catholic parish to stand with you. We pray that today will be only a source of healing and strength as you continue to take steps toward greater healing and wholeness. May the Lord be with us all.

R.M. Douglas, a parishioner at St Mary’s for the past twenty-three years, is the Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor of History at Colgate, and executive director of the Foundation for the Study of Male Rape and Sexual Assault. His most recent book, On Being Raped, published by Beacon Press in 2016, deals with his own experience of sexual violence as a young man at the hands of a Catholic priest. In addition to his academic work, Dr Douglas has served as a consultant to colleges and universities seeking to reduce the level of sexual offending on campus.  He will be speaking on the theme of “An Examination of Conscience.”

I’m speaking here today first and foremost as a member of this parish, and as a Catholic who is committed to the Church and to the spread of the gospel. Secondly, I speak, as the Reverend Hage said, as someone who, as a young man, experienced sexual violence at the hands of a Catholic priest, a serial offender who was eventually convicted for some of his crimes. I don’t intend to say much about that at this moment, though I’ll be happy to address it in the panel discussion if anyone wishes. Thirdly, I speak as a scholar who researches and publishes on these matters in the course of my professional career, and again I can elaborate on that if required.

I’d like to take a second to summarise where we stand at this point in the clerical sexual assault crisis. We are now in the fourth decade since it became a matter of public concern in the mid-1980s. Long before the Boston Globe published its first article on the subject, it had already caused the government of my home country, Ireland, to collapse. Revelations in Canada, especially in the provinces of Newfoundland and Ontario, have done immense damage to the Church there from the late 1980s onward. In Australia, a Royal Commission found that 7% of priests in that country between 1950 and 2010 had accusations of child sexual assault against them, a figure that’s likely considerably to understate the true scale of sexual offending because, among other things, it doesn’t include perpetrators who targeted adult victims. Things have become so out of control in Chile that earlier this year all 33 of the country’s bishops offered their resignation. The story is in no significant respect different in Germany, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Poland, and many other places around the world.

The same uniform pattern is seen in the Catholic response to these crimes. Worldwide, there are around 5,300 Catholic bishops, each of whom has the same level of authority within his own diocese as the Pope exercises over the Church as a whole. In not a single one of those dioceses, to my knowledge, did the bishop take the initiative to address sexual offending until forced to do so by the civil authorities. In fact, even down to the level of parish priest and curate, we struggle mightily to find those who did anything to protect their flocks before the police officers and the lawsuits started showing up. In most countries, one can almost count on one’s fingers and toes those who spontaneously did the right thing, and still have plenty of digits left over.

This tells us something worth knowing. What has gone so catastrophically wrong in our Church is not confined to just a few countries. It is not confined to the pre- or post-Vatican II cohort. It’s not confined to theological conservatives or liberals. It is not confined to religious orders or the secular priesthood. It’s not confined to one papacy or another. In short, it is not a failure of individual bishops or priests who fouled up because of their own personal shortcomings. It is a structural failure.

It has also become, with a good degree of justification, what our Church today is chiefly known for. It has done our reputation so much damage because it has exposed not something false about the Catholic Church, but something true. Our deeds have not lived up to our words, in a matter that secular society, rightly, considers of great importance. In this matter non-Christians and non-believers have been a considerable distance ahead of us, both ethically and intellectually. Our collective response to these revelations has been by turns defensive, antagonistic, obtuse, tone-deaf and, far too often, deliberately and calculatedly untruthful. We find ourselves as a result in the paradoxical and completely unsustainable position of claiming moral leadership while having forfeited our moral authority in the eyes of society as a whole. To put the matter in a nutshell, nobody who is not a Catholic is prepared to believe, while we insist on being wrong on this matter, that we are right about anything else.

I suggest to you that this is not a short-term difficulty that we can afford to forget about as memories of the Pennsylvania report fade into the background. That won’t work for two reasons. The first is practical. There will be many more reports like Pennsylvania’s, and worse ones, coming out for many years to come. The second reason, from a Catholic perspective, is far more important. What this crisis has flagged up is a disastrous failure on our part, both individually and institutionally, to live out the message of the Gospel. We are not entitled to treat it as a mere public-relations problem. Nor are we entitled to avoid asking ourselves the most serious and searching of questions as to how we placed ourselves in this situation, and what the God we serve now requires of us by way of addressing it.

Catholics especially should be familiar with this process, and how to go about doing it. We call it an examination of conscience. To this point, nearly forty years into the public phase of this crisis, it is something that as a community we have not yet done, or even recognised the necessity of doing. But whenever we are confronted with our own sinfulness—and I’m sorry to say that the evidence of those sins, both of commission and of omission, is all around us—we are called upon to reflect, as the Confiteor we all recited just a couple of hours ago puts it, on “what we have done and what we have failed to do,” and, having done that, to make a firm purpose of amendment.

This is not a responsibility that we can, or are entitled to, hand off to those in Holy Orders. In Catholicism, the call to act in justice and charity is made to each one of us personally. The failure of Church leaders to discharge their duty as Christians toward victims of sexual violence does not dispense lay Catholics from the performance of their own duty as Christians. The global clerical sexual assault scandal is the most serious and damaging crisis to affect the Church in the lifetime of the current generation. Initiatives to address it, to trace its causes and to bind up the wounds of those hurt by it constitute a vital and indispensable component of Christian renewal. If the hierarchy or the clergy fail to act, it is the duty of the laity to see to it that the task is carried out just the same.

It is, in fact, our duty as a community of believers here in Hamilton, NY. We don’t have the ability to fix the Church as a whole; that will be the work of a generation at least, if not several. But we’re not called upon to fix the Church as a whole. We’re called upon to respond as Jesus Christ would, and as He wants us to do on His behalf, to the victims of sexual violence who are all around us. Most of them do not, as I did, have clerical perpetrators. That doesn’t matter. Their suffering, their isolation and their grief are every bit as great.

For too long—in fact, for our entire ecclesiastical history—we’ve behaved as though they didn’t exist, and as though we had no obligations as Christians toward them: not even to pray for them out loud. That has to end. So too must our reluctance both to listen—especially to women, who are disproportionately affected by this problem—and to speak. Above all we are bound to educate ourselves, so that we can effectively bear one another’s burdens as we are instructed to do. In light not just of what has happened, but of what we profess to be and Who we claim to serve, we are morally bound to become the best-informed, not the most ignorant; the most- supportive, not the most insensitive; and the most-active, not the most indifferent, institution engaged in addressing sexual violence. Finding ways of doing that in our own individual spheres is a responsibility of every one of us.

Copyright © 2018 R.M. Douglas. All rights reserved. Posted to, with permission.

Jen Meyers is a pediatrician at Community Memorial Hospital, caring for children from birth to college. She trained in New York City and Ann Arbor, Michigan (go Blue!). She started her career caring for hospitalized children, as well as working on the Palliative Care team with seriously ill children.  For the last decade she has been in primary care, providing mostly outpatient care to healthy and ill children.  She is an adult convert to Catholicism, having grown up in the Congregational tradition. She will be speaking about what steps we can take to support children who have been abused, as well as how we can teach children appropriate boundaries.

I am speaking today in three capacities: I was asked to share my perspectives as a pediatrician who cares for children. However, I also speak as a member of St Mary’s and St Joan’s parishes, and as a mother to three children. I have four main points that I would like to share today:

1. Sexual abuse is more prevalent than you might think, both inside and outside of the church.

It is very difficult to get accurate data on how many children and adults have been victimized. The ways the questions are asked and how the samples are selected affects the quality of the data. When we look at children who have brought forward accusations that have led to investigations and convictions, the number is less than 1%. However, when adults are asked on anonymous surveys about sexual victimization when they were children, reports can be as high as 27%. Regardless of the actual number, I can assure you that each and every one of you knows someone who has been subjected to sexual abuse. You may have no idea of the hurt that your friend or acquaintance is bearing. In my practice I have had the experience numerous times of a child I have known for years eventually bringing forward a revelation of abuse from years earlier. Often the child has been suffering in silence before eventually finding a safe ear to share their pain. With children, a revelation of abuse occurs on average 3-5 years after the abuse took place. Often the child will only feel comfortable revealing the abuse after the abuser is no longer in their life. Even with substantiated abuse, a child will on average deny the abuse six times before being willing to share it. Typically a child will offer a small amount of information to a trusted adult, then wait to see their reaction prior to telling all of the details. If the reaction is seen as threatening or unhelpful, it is not unusual for a child to recant the accusation. This does not mean that the abuse did not occur. This brings us to a second point:-

2. Rape and sexual abuse are an issue of power more than sex.

In its response to revelations of clergy sexual abuse, the Church hierarchy has often focused on the sexuality or repression of sexuality in the perpetrator. Much less attention has been paid to the power differential between the perpetrator and the victim. Most crimes of sexual exploitation involve an older, stronger, or more powerful perpetrator. As a hierarchical Church, there are inherent power differentials between clergy and laity, and between church leadership and individual clergy. Children are inherently less powerful than adults. A heavy-handed, top-down reaction to allegations of abuse can exacerbate the power differential that made the abuse possible in the first place. For every person willing to take on this enormously powerful institution by revealing abuses of power, there are many suffering silently, unable or unwilling to subject themselves to public scrutiny of their most intimate selves. This leads me to my third point:-

3. Our reaction to clergy sexual abuse needs to start with care for the victims as a top priority.

Calling abusers to justice is important. However, since most victims wait years, if not decades, to reveal the abuse, the approach of naming abusers and removing them from positions of power is too little, too late. Changing how we approach sex education, both for children and for seminarians, is important. As part of my work as a pediatrician, I have the opportunity to talk about sex with children and their parents during well-child visits. I am frequently alarmed when parents say they have not talked to their kids at all about sex and that they expect the schools to do it. The Catholic Church has often gotten a bad rap as seeing sex as evil or dirty. This could not be further from the truth. In Catholic theology, the body is the physical representation of the soul, and the appropriate use of our sexual expression is a spiritual act. This is precisely what makes sexual abuse so damaging—it takes what should be a beautiful act and turns it into an aggressive and violent act. When the perpetrator is supposed to be a representative of Christ, the damage to healthy sexuality is so much more acute. A true sexual education does not occur in one uncomfortable discussion in school or even at the table with one’s parents. It starts with a healthy understanding of one’s body, what it is for, and what healthy relationships look like. This can start with very young children, adding more information gradually as it is needed. This promotes an environment where children understand what is right and healthy. In this environment, children may be more likely to recognize when something is awry, and will have the language to reveal to their parents or a trusted adult when something has not gone well. But even addressing our education of our children is not the most important first step in addressing this scandal. Which leads to my last point:

4. There is a long history in the Church of leaders erring, and lay leaders bringing us back.

Many who spoke out against the church establishment were subsequently declared saints. We need the outcry and leadership of the laity to take this crisis and bring the Church to a healthy place. Rape and abuse interferes with the victim’s sense of integrity of body and soul—we as a church can help put that back together. Some of that will come in the form of concrete programs. The laity needs to stand up and offer our love, our compassion, and our funding for healing victims of clergy sex abuse. In particular, those programs should be designed not by the church leadership, which is concerned with the public image of the Church, but by lay experts with experience in victim support. But some of the help we can provide is more subtle and does not need to be left to experts. We live in a distracted world. We all multi-task in everything we do. That has begun to interfere with our ability to listen without interruption. I ask that you all take time to truly listen to your loved ones. If someone in your life was trying to test the waters and determine whether it was safe to reveal a history of abuse, would you truly hear them? Or would you be so distracted by your phone or the tasks on your to-do list that you would half-listen, causing that victim to clam up and hold onto their pain? Over the past few decades there has been significant research into how Adverse Childhood Experiences affect adult health. These experiences affect not only mental health, but also physical health, with increased rates of cancer and heart disease in adults with a history of childhood maltreatment. One of the few factors known to improve outcomes is the presence of a consistent, supportive adult figure in a child’s life. Are you willing to be that person?

Copyright © 2018 Jennifer Meyers. All rights reserved. Posted to, with permission.

Bud Ballinger is a clinical and forensic psychologist who has specialized in the assessment, treatment, and risk management of individuals who engage in sexually abusive behavior. He currently serves as the Director of Treatment Services for Institutional Sex Offender Treatment with the New York State Office of Mental Health. In 2017 he was recognized as a Fellow by the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers and is president of the NYS Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. He serves on the Board of Directors for the NYS Alliance for the Prevention of Sexual Abuse. He and his wife, Dr Deborah Sharp, have three children. He will be focusing on how accurate information and effective responses to sexual abuse perpetration can support people who have suffered abuse and contribute to efforts to prevent future abuse. 

I would like to preface my remarks by mentioning that the first thing we as a faith community can do to support people who have been victimized is listen. While all of us have something to say to contribute to healing, any efforts we make should be firmly rooted in responding to the needs expressed by those who have been harmed. That means listening, validating their experiences and their feelings, and providing support in the same manner that Jesus would have done. We should make conscious efforts individually and collectively through our worship to remind them that we know they exist; we know they are continuing to suffer; and we want to help. The research about the harm suffered by victims suggests that a supportive and affirming response to a disclosure of abuse can reduce the suffering of a person who was victimized. Similarly, a response of disbelief, blaming the victim, or minimizing their experiences of trauma can increase their suffering and the long-term effects of trauma. We know very well that the response of the Church has been anything but supportive and affirming and continues to be so. True repentance involves accepting sole responsibility for one’s behavior and the harm it has caused and turning away from past harmful behaviors. It is hard for the Church to say that we have turned away from past harmful behaviors when acknowledgment of the wrong behavior is forced by courts, comes through planned statements, and is filtered through lawyers. Part of moving forward and supporting people who were victimized is holding our leadership accountable for responding according to Christ’s example and clearly communicating to them that we expect better and we must do better.

As someone who has worked primarily with perpetrators of abuse, I have had the opportunity to speak with people who have suffered abuse and they have asked me questions about perpetrators in the hope that knowing the answers would help them in the process of healing. I thought I would share some of those questions and answers in the hopes that it would be helpful in this situation.

1. Why did they do this to me?

This is the most common question. The best answer I can provide is that the perpetrator chose to prioritize his or her wants, needs, or desires over the well-being of the person they victimized. The perpetrator used distorted thinking to rationalize, justify, or blame the circumstances or the person they hurt, often working to convince the victim that it was their fault. The most important thing that we can say to people who were victimized is that what the perpetrator did to you is NOT your fault. None of it. Zero. The responsibility resides with the person who had the power in the situation and who chose to use the power to get what they wanted without regard for the safety of the person they were hurting.

In the case of clergy abuse, I believe that the popular narrative in trying to understand it has been to view clergy abuse as somehow different from sexual abuse perpetrated by other abusers. One example of this is to blame vows of celibacy. This narrative is distorted and presents the abusive priest as a person who could not control his behavior because of circumstances. It takes the responsibility away from the abuser and blames his circumstances. It is important to move away from this blame-shifting and return to the idea that the person who perpetrated the abuse chose the behavior and is responsible for it.

2. Will they do it again? Will they always do it?

One thing that is surprising to many people is to find out that the majority of sexual offenders are not rearrested or convicted for new sexual offenses after they are held accountable and face consequences for their behavior. This holds true even for many offenders who perpetrated multiple acts of abuse prior to being detected. While data from arrests and convictions are an imperfect measure and an underestimate of the actual prevalence of sexual abuse, the finding that offenders who face consequences for their behaviors are less likely to reoffend suggests that in protecting abusive clergy from exposure to consequences, the Church hierarchy caused more people to be victimized and allowed the abusive priests to become more prolific offenders. Compounding the effects of this was that abusive priests were moved to new parishes where the parishioners were unaware of their abusive behaviors and provided with a fresh start without increased supervision, accountability, or oversight. So rather than being provided with consequences to motivate a change of behavior, the abuser was provided with a new group of unsuspecting potential victims

I would like to focus the remainder of what I have to say on the idea of prevention as a response to past abuse, but would like to reiterate that moving forward must involve looking back and never forgetting the past.

Here are four ways that we can work to prevent future victimization:

First: Talking to children. Historically, prevention programs have focused on telling children to avoid strangers. Newer programs have improved upon this by encouraging children to take ownership of their own bodies and to set boundaries; to be vocal about concerns they have; to talk about times they feel uncomfortable or unsafe; and to identify multiple trustworthy adults within their lives to whom they can openly talk. While this approach is valuable, it can send a subtle message that if someone is or was victimized, it was because they did not do all of the things they were supposed to do to stay safe. So, while these efforts are worthwhile, care must be taken to have them be a part of a comprehensive approach.

Second: Adults should take responsibility for educating ourselves. Having accurate information about sexual abuse and having open conversations can allow us to prevent future abuse and identify risk. We are aware that there are adults in ANY situation where children are present who might be at risk to offend—abuse occurs in schools, Scouts, etc. This knowledge is uncomfortable but helps us confront a misguided belief that we can tell who might be an abuser by looking. Abuse thrives in secrecy and as adults we must hold ourselves responsible for having uncomfortable conversations with each other if something does not seem right. Historically, we have avoided such conversations out of fear of offending people or saying the wrong thing. Being open and direct with each other makes it harder for secrecy to develop and communicates with potential offenders that our community will not help them keep their secrets. While getting into the details is beyond the scope of this forum, there is an organization called the Enough Abuse Campaign which encourages shifting the focus for abuse prevention efforts to adults and communities.

Third: Prevention efforts should include responding effectively to perpetrators of abuse. Effective treatment for abusers reduces the likelihood that they will offend in the future. Abusers who commit to turning away from their harmful behaviors, change their thinking about their abusive behavior, work with others to manage their risk (for instance, not ever being in a position of authority over children or other vulnerable persons and never being in the presence of children without a person who understands their risk and accepts responsibility for monitoring their behavior), and who are engaged by members of their communities in a way that promotes accountability and support, are much less likely to reoffend than they otherwise would be. Even though we may want them to go away and allow us to forget they ever existed, we must remember that vulnerable people can be saved from suffering abuse when offenders have connections with healthy adults who can both challenge them and provide support. In our culture, we often seek retribution and punishment in the name of working to heal the victims. We may think that humane treatment is too good for offenders or even somehow disrespectful to victims. However, if a punitive approach is less effective at preventing future victimization, that ultimately means that more people will be victimized as a result of our desire for the offender to “get what’s coming to them.” We should advocate for the most effective treatment of perpetrators if we are truly committed to preventing future abuse.

Finally, and most difficult, we can engage in prevention efforts by working to change elements of our culture that promote abuse. In working with offenders, it becomes obvious that the distorted thinking they use to justify offending can be rooted in common cultural beliefs. Specific to abuse perpetrated by clergy, the responses from the Church hierarchy and laypeople reflect patterns of belief that contribute to an environment in which abuse could occur. Examples include unquestioning belief in authority; believing that people who were victimized were somehow “asking for it”; or believing that men are helpless to control their sexual behavior. To move forward, we need to challenge ourselves and challenge each other to change our thinking when we hear anything that could place blame for sexual abuse on victims or potential victims or confirm perpetrators’ belief that they are not fully responsible for their abusive behavior.

Copyright © 2018 Bud C. Ballinger III. All rights reserved. Posted to, with permission.

Margaret Wehrer is an anthropologist who teaches at SUNY Polytechnic in Utica. Her current research and advocacy concern migrant farmworkers from Guatemala. She was an oblate of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, where she was a member between 1986 and 1992. She is a former staff member of Pax Christi USA, a Catholic social justice organization.  She will addressing the role of the church in supporting sexual abuse victims. 

“To hate is such a lazy thing, but to love takes strength (that) everyone has but not all are willing to practice.” (Rupi Kaur, The Sun and Her Flowers)

As a lifetime Catholic, a former member of a Benedictine Catholic religious community, and a survivor of sexual assault, I love the Catholic Church but hate the way it has handled the clergy sexual abuse scandal. In this paper I analyze the problem and suggest ways that lay people can move the Church forward.

Three factors that I feel contributed to the current crisis are the Church’s framing of sexuality as shameful, the laity’s belief in priestly perfection, and the hierarchy’s “circle the wagons” response to criticism.

The first problem I see is the church equation of sexuality with guilt and shame. I was named after St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, who renounced marriage at the ripe age of 8, so from the time of my First Communion I was left with the impression that celibacy was the only way to be a good Catholic. Add to that the focus on Mary’s virginity, and it was clear that sexuality was bad, and Catholics were to engage in it only under extreme duress. Girls in particular were to shun sexuality, dress modestly, avoid sexual contact, and keep their eyes turned heavenward. Repression rather than joyful acknowledgement of sexuality was the norm.

In this atmosphere, any expression of sexuality was seen as shameful, even if one was an unwilling partner in it. So when a priest or religious acted in inappropriate ways, it was easy for a victim to blame themselves for causing it by being too sexual, or saying or doing something to cause it, reinforcing this link between sexuality, guilt and shame which had already been established from early childhood. When appropriate boundaries were crossed, rather than running home and saying “Mom, Father X touched me in a way that made me uncomfortable,” my generation was taught to feel ashamed because we were somehow at fault for this transgression.

The second thing we need to change is unquestioned obedience to the clergy. I attended Catholic schools from elementary school through college. My family socialized with a lot of priest friends, and we did lots of parish activities as a family. We even attended Friday night fish fries at the local seminary. Through this socialization, I was taught that since priests were divine authority figures, my job was to obey them. They were to be trusted without exception. I wasn’t taught to “trust my intuition” or to question the motives of a priest or nun.

This attitude might explain why my high-school friend Nick didn’t protest when he was abused by the priest who oversaw the youth group of which he was the president. It was unthinkable at the time for Nick to resist, to call the police, to file a complaint. Or in my case, when a priest I was working with in Haiti invited me to his house only to appear before me naked, asking to have sex, I had no thought of doing anything more that escaping and perhaps telling a few friends, in hushed tones, about the experience. It never dawned on me that I could press charges, file a complaint with his bishop, contact the local newspaper, or anything of the sort. Since he was a priest, and priests are perfect, what right did I have to soil his reputation? And besides, wasn’t I in some way at fault? I wish I had been taught that priests are sinners, and that I should follow my instinct. If this priest seems like a predator, I can trust my gut and act on it.

The third factor in the clergy-abuse scandal is related to the second. Because we were taught that priests are perfect, when we hear sexual abuse victims’ stories, and their cries for justice and healing, many of us automatically frame the victims as the “problem.” I have seen Catholic websites and parish email messages frame sexual abuse victims as an outside enemy trying to bring down the church, and themselves as the staunch defenders of the faith. Even my father, a Catholic deacon, sees abuse victims as an external threat bent on bringing down the Church.

The funny thing is that the abuse victims I have met were loyal, trusting Catholics who believed that priests and nuns were perfect, and who for decades after their abuse bore their shame and humiliation in silence. I wish the “defenders of the faith” could meet Nick. He was the “good kid”,the obedient 16-year-old who trusted a priest to respect your dignity. Nick, that priest failed you, and on behalf of the Church, I’m sorry.

Why has the Catholic Church ignored the suffering of victims like Nick? I believe that the reason stems from the Church’s history as a 2,000-year old bureaucratic institution which seeks to maintain itself against all odds.When I call the Church “bureaucratic” I mean that it went from a free-flowing movement run by charismatic leaders, like Saints Peter and Paul, to an institution with land, property, and enormous political, social and economic power, the excesses of which we saw in the Middle Ages. While the official leaders of our church may be the bishops, cardinals and popes, the institution’s daily functioning is maintained by a group of people whose sole job is to maintain it. Therefore, the mindset of any institution is intrinsically conservative; it seeks to preserve itself through adherence to tradition.

On one hand, bureaucratization is highly beneficial, allowing the Church to withstand strong internal and external criticism, to be highly efficient, and to endure into the future. Because of church bureaucracy we have highly developed traditions of art, music, philosophy, theology, and literature. However, the weakness of a bureaucratic institution is that it is very slow to change, it doesn’t recognize or admit its own weaknesses and failures, and it often focuses on self-preservation rather than adherence to its founder’s vision.

There is a wonderful Zen story that speaks to this. One day, when a Zen Buddhist teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat that lived in the monastery distracted the teacher, so he ordered that the cat be tied up. This practice of tying up the cat during meditation continued for as long as that teacher lived, and when he died, his followers continued tying up the cat during meditation. When the original cat died, the disciples bought another cat and tied it up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the Zen teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice, never knowing that it was all because one teacher didn’t like the sound of one cat howling.

The Catholic hierarchy has spent decades tying up the victims of clergy abuse, ignoring their pain out of a desire to maintain the image of priests as perfect and above the law. They have lost sight of Jesus’ vision of the Church as a community of mutual compassion and humility, and of priests as fellow sinners in need of healing. Sexual abuse victims are the “canaries in the mine,” pointing to a failing in the Catholic Church that needs redress.

Rather than “circling the wagons” and blaming the victims, I suggest that the Church open its ears and listen to the cries of its suffering members.

Let’s brainstorm creative responses to this scandal that heal the victims and prevent future abuses:

  • What if the Church publicly asked pardon for the crime of clergy sexual abuse in a full-page ad in every diocesan newspaper?
  • What if every diocese held an annual “take back the night” rally or holy hour for healing for victims of sexual violence? (This could be linked to “All Survivors’ Day”, an international day for survivors of sexual violence, on November 3.)
  • What if a prayer intention, one Sunday a month, was for victims of clergy sexual abuse?
  • What if 2020 became the Church’s international “Year of Repentance for Sexual Abuse”?
  • What if we researched saints who survived sexual assault or who spoke out against it?
  • What if the Church modeled compassion and empowerment to victims of sexual assault by providing services, physical space, and trained counselors?
  • What if homilies helped sexual abuse victims overcome their guilt and shame?
  • What if homilies and faith formation classes highlighted saints like Elizabeth Ann Seaton who modeled positive sexuality?
  • What if the Church opened its door for counseling and healing for sexual assault victims?
  • What if the Church established a clear process for victims to make claims of sexual harassment against its ministers?
  • What if churches offered legal aid for sexual-abuse victims seeking justice through the courts?
  • What if our faith-formation classes taught our children to listen to their conscience rather than blindly trusting church authority?
  • What if we taught what it means to love and protect your body as a temple of God?
  • What if seminaries encouraged priests to celebrate their identity as fellow sinners, in need of God’s mercy, rather than paragons of perfection to be admired and feared?
  • What if the Church started addressing its own sexism? The Church’s silence on the issue of clergy sexual abuse is due in part to its blindness to the issue of sexual assault, whose victims are overwhelmingly women.It’s time for the laity to take the reins on this issue where the church hierarchy cannot and will not. We need to take the leadership; we need to speak for the church because, as Vatican II reminded us, we ARE the Church, and Jesus gave us the mission of continuing it. We’ve spent enough time complaining about what the church hierarchy has done wrong.Now it’s time for we lay people to take the Beatitudes seriously, admit our failures as a Church, and bind up the wounds of the suffering people in our midst. As my opening quote reminds us, bringing love to the victims and the perpetrators of abuse will require a love beyond our human capacity. God will support us in bringing this new vision into being.Copyright © 2018 Margaret Wehrer. All rights reserved. Posted to, with permission.

Rebecca Shiner is Professor of Psychology at Colgate, where she has taught since 1999. Her PhD is in clinical psychology, and her research focuses on personality development in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. She is married to Mark Shiner, who is a Catholic deacon and the Catholic campus minister at Colgate. She and Mark have two children—Leo, a student at Brown University, and Sophie, a high school senior.  Rebecca will be starting our panel by talking about the ways that Catholics can respond psychologically to heal the deep breach of trust that has occurred as a result of the clergy sexual abuse crisis. 

I am glad to be talking with all of you today; of course, I would prefer to be talking with you about a different topic altogether. But, given that our Church needs to face its history of hiding clergy sexual abuse, it is good that we will be having a frank discussion of this topic today.

Father Jason asked me to address with all of you the ways that we can move forward in healing of the breach of trust between the Church and her people. I think that Father Jason asked me to address this topic because I am a clinical psychologist by training, and I conduct research on how people manage their negative emotions. However, I am well-suited for addressing this topic for another, more personal reason: I have all kinds of negative emotions about the clergy sexual abuse crisis myself! I am hurt and sad; some of the men called to be shepherds to the flock that makes up the Church have instead turned out to be wolves attacking and wounding the sheep. I am also angry about the ways that Church leaders have covered up clergy sexual abuse of both young people and adults. Many of us hoped back in the early 2000s that the Church had finally begun to reckon with its past history—that the Pope, Cardinals, Bishops, and priests were finally acknowledging openly the ways that clergy had abused parishioners and dealing with this crisis with honesty and integrity. It turns out that our hopes for change were not entirely well-founded; some leaders continued to cover up crimes and failed to take this crisis seriously. So I share the feelings of hurt, anger, and betrayal that many of you likely feel.

I have several ideas about how we and the Church more broadly can respond effectively to this breach of trust. I am going to organize these suggestions based on the framework used in the psychological research on coping with hardship, loss, and stress. For decades, psychologists have been very interested in trying to understand what the most effective means are for responding to the inevitable suffering that people encounter in life. This literature divides possible coping responses into three big categories: social support, emotion-focused coping, and problem-focused coping. Social support involves reaching out to others for care, concrete help, and information. In emotion-focused coping, we do not try to change the source of stress; rather, we try to change our emotional response to that stress. And, finally, in problem-focused coping, we try to change the stressor itself. I am going to address each of these three big categories of coping strategies in turn and will offer some suggestions of how each one is relevant to our responses to the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

First, social support is just what it sounds like: reaching out to others to receive and offer empathy and caring, concrete help, and additional information. As humans, we naturally turn to other people when we are suffering I think that social support has the potential to play an especially important role in how Catholics can move forward. This crisis has occurred in part because of an attempt on the part of the Church hierarchy to maintain secrecy about what has happened—to keep parishioners unaware of clergy abuse by moving priests from parish to parish, by failing to report clergy to the proper legal authorities, by failing to address abusive situations that people recognize may be present. Social support is a vital way to counteract this secrecy and the isolation that it breeds. We can act as the body of Christ, by providing for the emotional and practical needs of people who have been victimized and assaulted. We do not have to wait for the official Church to organize us in this way; we can create communities where victims feel safe and supported. Social support is also important for those of us who are feeling deeply disillusioned about the Church; we need to stay in conversation with each other as we move forward.

The second big category of coping responses is called emotion-focused coping. Emotion-focused coping involves strategies that modify our emotional responses to painful, stressful, or difficult experiences. For example, if you receive disappointing news about something, an emotion-focused coping response might be to re-interpret the meaning of that news for your life; you might be able to imagine some unanticipated good that will come of the bad news, rather than focusing just on the loss. A lot of emotion-focused coping strategies are quite bad for us, especially ones that involve turning away from the truth of the situation—strategies like avoiding dealing with the problem, denial of the problem, or wishful thinking. The Church has engaged in all of these unhealthy emotion-focused strategies for decades, and it has led to considerable harm. Any emotion-focused coping strategies we use for dealing with the clergy sexual abuse crisis will have fully to engage the reality of the situation.

As we think through possible emotion-focused coping responses to the clergy sexual abuse crisis, it is essential that we accept that we have the right to feel whatever way we do about this crisis. No one can dictate to us a right or wrong way to feel, nor should we judge others for their responses. It may be uncomfortable to have so many negative feelings about the Church and its leadership because we have been taught to respect the hierarchy of the Church. I would argue that in this case, it is a sign of respect to be disappointed, hurt, or angry. We rightly expect more from our clergy and the hierarchy of the Church—more transparency, more accountability, more sense of urgency, more love; it is because of our respect that we are distraught.

Just as we cannot dictate how people respond emotionally to this crisis, we must be careful not to demand that those who have been wronged by the Church forgive their abusers or the Church as a whole. Forgiveness is rarely a thing to be aimed at directly. Rather, forgiveness comes about more often as an indirect by-product of a long process of healing and as a grace from God.

One emotion-focused strategy that I think will be especially helpful is adopting a self-compassionate approach to any suffering one has experienced as a result of this crisis. Self-compassion is the practice of treating oneself with the same care and kindness with which one would tend to approach others; when we adopt a self-compassionate stance, we accept our negative emotional reactions to things without judging ourselves and we recognize the ways that our suffering connects us with all other humans. By adopting a self-compassionate approach, both victims and people who care about them are likely to open up more possibilities for healing.

The third and final big category of coping strategies is called problem-focused coping. In problem-focused coping, we try to fix the situation that has led to the suffering in the first place. Problem-focused coping is a great strategy if the situation is one that we have control over; if we don’t have control over the situation, problem-focused coping might just make the suffering worse. For example, you could be suffering because of an unjust situation at work; if your workplace is somewhere where you can effect change, then organizing with co-workers to change your situation is an important step. If you have no ability to change your workplace, attempts at organizing will just leave you frustrated and discouraged. In the case of the Catholic Church, problem-focused coping is tricky. To what extent do lay people have any ability to make change in institutional practice? I am not sure. I am going to leave it to my fellow panelists to address the potential for problem-focused strategies within the Catholic Church more fully.

My final recommendation for responding to this crisis is a very practical one. I believe that the Church should provide victims of clergy sexual abuse with therapy free of charge. We have some therapies for addressing trauma that are reasonably well-supported, and the Church should pay for victims to receive these therapies. The Church shouldn’t be funding treatments that don’t have research support backing them up, and should look to psychologists for guidance on what treatments work best. This is the least that the Church can do to support the people who have been hurt by the people they wrongly trusted.

It is my sincere hope and prayer that we, as a local parish community, and we, as a universal Church, will embrace some of these strategies for helping victims and the Church as a whole to move forward, in full truth and in love for the most vulnerable people among us.

Copyright © 2018 Rebecca Shiner. All rights reserved. Posted to, with permission.