Pope Francis concluded his recent trip to Ireland with a Mass at the World Meeting of Families, during which he called on families to “become a source of encouragement for others.” What sort of encouragement does he envision, I wonder.
Like many Catholics, I am grieving. A few weeks ago a grand jury report came out in Pennsylvania, where I live, detailing abuses of more than 1,000 children at the hands of clergy. The atrocities detailed in the report — and the efforts to conceal them and silence victims — cannot be undone. They happened. In our Church.
I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, not at the hands of clergy but of another trusted authority figure — a teacher. I have healed from that experience and I helped ensure that my molester went to jail, but I live with the knowledge of what that type of abuse does to people. It stays with you. It becomes your formative sexual experience. Now I must reckon with the fact that my Church allowed this type of abuse to occur and reoccur to little children for decades or longer.
I am also a new mother. My husband and I baptized our baby in February. Our congregation sang “This Little Light of Mine.” It was a joyful occasion. But my conversations with other young Catholic parents are sobering. They think carefully about the limitations they should place on their children’s participation in Church activities. Catholic school is out – too much clergy access to kids, and too much institutional authority. I was an altar server growing up, but my husband and I have already decided that our son should not become one. With good reason, we do not trust the Church to keep him safe.
Some might ask, rather than keeping this vigilance over our children, why not leave? In my 20s I explored other faiths and I left the Catholic Church for a time. I was pulled back, in small part by the beautiful traditions and rituals that are so much a part of my faith upbringing, but mainly by Catholic social teaching – particularly the emphasis on community over individualism. Catholics are taught to seek the common good and put the needs of the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable first. I think about what my heroes, great Catholics Dorothy Day, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, Sr. Helen Prejean, and Fr. Greg Boyle, would do. Breaking from the Catholic Church might protect me and my family, but it would leave behind many vulnerable people and a broken system. The same belief in community that drew me back to the Church has created a moral obligation to remain and fight for change. It is the harder path, but I can’t let this wound fester. I can’t walk away from the victims, past and future.
The Church is going to change from the inside because we lay Catholics demand it. Groups like Catholics for Action are already organizing for change. We have had enough of deeply flawed, top-down decision making. The Church is not just bishops and cardinals and popes. The people are the Church, and we will root out the evil that has allowed this abuse to continue.
I am taking Pope Francis’ advice from the World Meeting of Families to heart, by “encouraging” my fellow Catholics to speak truth to power. True reform cannot happen until we have full transparency and access to Church records. To regain any moral standing, the Church must support a retroactive change to the statute of limitations that prevents victims from suing their abusers. If it bankrupts us with lawsuits, then we will live the call to poverty for which we were meant. To protect our children and the children of others we must establish qualified administrative oversight by lay people and women within Church institutions. And finally, those clergy in positions of power who protected known abusers must be removed from their posts and defrocked. In the sermon on the mount Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it away from you.” It’s time to pluck that eye out.