“Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him” J6:64. Imagine that! Even though he knew Judas would betray him, Jesus called Judas to be his disciple. Jesus ate with Judas, walked with Judas, prayed with Judas, entrusted Judas with money and even when Judas came to the garden with soldiers to arrest Jesus, Jesus called Judas ‘friend.’ Even when people doubt Jesus, even when people betray him, Jesus loves them. He keeps loving them to the end. If the apostles are a field of wheat, Judas is a weed, and Jesus let that weed grow because of his love. But of course, in the end, Judas refused to be loved; he refused to be forgiven and he perished as a weed.
There are still weeds like Judas growing in our Church today. The Pennsylvania Grand Jury report alleges that 300 priests abused children in 6 dioceses. Most of this happened in the 60s, 70s and 80s, but one allegation is as recent as last year. Sex abuse is a problem that will not go away. It happens in every culture in every generation. Therefore we must be vigilant, because although abuse will continue, we know that education and reporting make abuse less frequent and less heinous. The first sex abuse crisis broke in June 2001 in Boston. Since then, Safe Environment training has equipped every church employee, student, youth minister and volunteer with simple, effective tools to address abuse.
Safe Environment training teaches children to recognize abuse. And when they are abused, or even feel uncomfortable, educated children do tell adults.
The other part of Safe Environment training is that adults are taught to believe children and to report the situation to police immediately.
This has worked. Father Steve Pohl, a priest of Louisville took pictures of school children with his phone several years ago. One child felt uncomfortable and told his parents. Soon the FBI found child pornography on Steve’s computer. It’s a horrible story. But here is the good news: A child knew how to speak up. An adult believed the child. Authorities made a swift response and because of that, the story is a brief one. Steve was not reassigned; he was put in jail thanks to that child.
Safe Environment training is effective and it is utilized. We have made progress. But that was only the first step. The current abuse crises in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Boston, Australia and Chile reveal that abuse happens not only to children but to vulnerable adults, including seminarians. We as a Church have not yet realized that and have not yet addressed it. But we can and we will. I believe we can do it because we made progress after the last scandal. I do not naively think that sin or abuse will go away, but what we can do is respond with integrity, courage and justice.
I promise you that I will be writing letters and speaking to our bishop, our vicar for priests and to the Pope’s representative to the United States. I promise you that I will be advocating for clergy reform. There is not only a problem of clergy abuse but of infidelity and unchastity. These moral catastrophes are all interrelated and we must address all of them.
The moral catastrophe that afflicts us is not only in our Church but in our world. It is frightening, but true, that priests are not more likely than other men to abuse people. Pat Wingert wrote in Newsweek in 2010, “Based on the surveys and studies conducted by different denominations over the past 30 years, experts who study child abuse say they see little reason to conclude that sexual abuse is mostly a Catholic issue.” End quote. That is a frightening statement about our culture and our society, in which abuse is common and commonly hidden.
Priests are not more likely to abuse, but their abuse is more heinous because it is an abuse of power.
Priests are not more likely to abuse, but their abuse is more shocking because they are called to holiness. Priests are called to represent Christ and abuse goes against everything that Jesus Christ is. Abuse goes against the very nature of priesthood which is to sacrifice one’s self for the sake of others. Abuse goes against the words the priest says at the Eucharist: “This is my body given up for you.”
Priests are not more likely to abuse but their abuse is more conspicuous. We are One, Holy, Catholic Church. And when one member suffers, we all suffer. Rabbis and preachers are not less likely to abuse, but their abuse is felt by fewer people because their congregations are separated and stand alone. We as Catholics are united as one in good times and in bad. And so when abuse happens in Chile or Pennsylvania or Australia, we feel that pain. And that is a good thing that we feel the pain of the survivors. And it is a good thing that we feel the shame of the abusers. Jesus has united us for a reason. He wants us to pray for one another and to empathize and to act as a single body to respond to the cry of people in need.
We are one body, we are one field. And there are weeds in the field. And it is our duty to expose the weeds. We must pull them out of places of power. We must name abusers publicly, in order to protect potential victims. And we must name them publicly for their own sake, so as to call them to repentance.
Jesus never gave up on Judas even though Judas gave up on himself. Jesus never gives up on any of us. And so I invite you to respond to Jesus’ fidelity to us by being faithful to his Body, the Church. I invite you to stand with Peter in the face of terrible obstacles and say, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” The devil would love it if people walked away from Jesus because people did terrible things in Jesus’ name. I intend to walk towards Jesus and I invite you to walk with me.
Father Hamilton and I are not done with the topic of clergy abuse. We will be writing about it in the bulletin and on the app because we all need to learn about it and understand it. We will also be working within the Church for reform. We will also be preaching about morality in our wider culture, which is also suffering. And, most importantly, we will be praying. Father Hamilton and I are planning opportunities for all of us to pray together for change in the Church and for healing.
We are one Church in need of healing. Let us walk towards Christ together.