When the clergy abuse scandal hits close to home

How to move beyond the headlines, pain

Photo: Napalai Studio/Shutterstock

One morning back in February, I sat at the breakfast table, coffee in hand, to enjoy the pleasant ritual of reading our local paper. Within moments, my peaceful mood turned to one of misery. A former pastor had been credibly accused of sexual abuse. My initial reaction: Impossible! Not this priest! He was so reverent at Mass. A great preacher. A compassionate confessor. His promotion of Marian and Eucharistic devotion in our church was outstanding. It made no sense.

My next thought: Well, if something did happen, it couldn’t have been during the years when he was at our parish. Maybe he’d fallen to a very recent and terrible temptation. Maybe he had acquired some sort of mental illness or early dementia which contributed to a lapse in judgment in some isolated instance.

I clung to this hope for several months after this initial short news story. My husband and I had several Masses offered for him and sent a neutrally-worded note assuring him of our prayers. Weeks went by and no follow-up story appeared. I began to hope that the accusations had been proven groundless.

Then, in May, a more detailed story appeared. Father was now in a county prison. The accuser — who had confided his story to a military chaplain — had been systematically abused from grade school through high school. And yes, this did take place at our parish during the time we lived there. In addition, other accusers had now come forward with similar stories from other parishes where Father had worked. It seemed that this horrible behavior had occurred through much of his priesthood.

My personal pain over this news must be miniscule compared to that of the victims and their families. But the sense of betrayal is real for our entire parish. And now, as we were only just starting to get past the depressing sadness and/or anger caused by Father there comes this bigger news about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. It’s news that could point to systemic tolerance of abuse, harassment, and unchastity throughout diocesan bureaucracies and seminaries.

It’s almost too much to bear. No wonder so many Catholics want to jump ship at this point. Although that’s not a temptation for me (“Lord, to whom shall we go?”), it’s easy to understand why some people are, sadly, making that choice.

Although there is no magic, instant formula to encourage a disheartened laity, I want to recommend a book that has been very helpful to me these last few weeks. I actually read it through twice. It’s called Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics (Our Sunday Visitor, 2017). The author is Fr. Thomas Berg, who himself was a victim of emotional and psychological abuse by his order, the Legionaries of Christ. (As you may recall the founder of that large religious community was exposed as a serial abuser who for years lead a double life and was enabled by the superiors who worked directly under him.)

Fr. Berg describes the spiritual crisis he experienced, and how he was helped toward recovery by the support of friends, intense prayer, and counselling. He also includes the lengthy testimony of several sexual abuse victims who share what happened to them and how they eventually found healing and even forgiveness of those who had hurt them.

In the January/February 2018 issue of Catholic Digest, Fr. Berg spoke about his own experience and the issue of rebuilding trust after betrayal (see “Bringing healing to a wounded Church”). This is one member of the clergy who truly gets it. He describes himself as a “wounded healer” in the phrase coined by the late Henri Nouwen. In fact, Fr. Berg says that he wrote this book as part of his ongoing effort toward personal healing. I’m grateful to Fr. Berg for helping me adjust my own attitude in this time of crisis, and intend to “pay it forward” by donating several copies of his book to our parish library.

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