How Clergy Abuse Survivors Are Challenging the Church's Cover-Ups | Sojourners

How Clergy Abuse Survivors Are Challenging the Church's Cover-Ups

A Q&A with SNAP President Tim Lennon
Protester on behalf of abuse victims while Pope Francis celebrateds mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Peter & Paul in downtown Philadelphia. Sept. 26 2015. By a katz / Shutterstock

Editor’s Note: This story contains descriptions of sexual assault and child abuse.

Over the past few decades, sexual abuse survivors, whistleblowers, and journalists have exposed a horrific pattern of sex abuse and cover up in the Roman Catholic Church. As a Catholic millennial, I have never known a church unmarked by the abuse crisis. In the bathrooms at my Catholic high school and my small Midwestern parish, I distinctly remember posters detailing who I should call if I was abused or assaulted by an authority figure. Last year, the Pennsylvania grand jury report and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick revelations made my generation aware of this crisis in a renewed way. Too often, in responses, the voices of survivors themselves are lost.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss the current state of the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis with Tim Lennon, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. Lennon is the president of the board of directors of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a nonprofit support network for survivors of sexual abuse by religious and institutional authorities. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.

John Noble, Sojourners: Tell me about the history of SNAP.

Tim Lennon: SNAP was originally founded in 1988 by Barbara Blaine, a survivor of sexual abuse by her parish priest. She found others abused within the Church, started support groups, and that grew and grew. Now SNAP is a network of over 25,000. We’re a peer network. None of us are experts. We’re survivors helping survivors. Our mission is to help survivors, protect children, and do advocacy around laws around exposing predators and those that cover up for predators. Most survivors of abuse, especially child sexual abuse, never come forward. We provide an opportunity for people to tell their story within a community where they are believed and supported.

What happened to me as a survivor should not happen to another child. But that takes us into conflict with those who see their power and prestige as more important than the safety of their children and their community. And in that respect, we’ve taken bishops, cardinals, and the pope to task for their cover-ups.

Noble: Over the past two decades, several events have shifted how we think about sexual abuse by priests. Perhaps one of the most significant of these was the 2002 Boston Globe exposé of clerical sex abuse, and 2015’s Oscar-winning film Spotlight , which highlighted the investigation. What can you tell me about the investigation and the film?

Lennon: One of the original leaders of SNAP, Phil Saviano, was portrayed in the movie as this strong advocate who went the extra length of not only researching his abuser, but the other abusers within the Church. And then he took that knowledge and advocacy to the newspaper, which bravely stepped forward to take on this very powerful institution, especially in Boston.

For most survivors, like me, [Spotlight] brought tears. Even thinking about it makes me sad. The portrayal of the survivors in the movie evoked what I call the “troubles” that survivors go through. When I came into memories almost 50 years after a rape, I suffered months of depression, crying all the time. Being very sad, being angry. Even though some of these crimes happened decades ago, the effects of sexual abuse last a lifetime. The average age of a victim of child abuse coming forward is 52. When you have a movie such as Spotlight, it becomes very evocative for survivors. It becomes very enlightening for the community as a whole. And it pointed to how prosecutors, district attorneys, and politicians have been either intimidated or seduced by the power of the Church.

Noble: Largely in the response to the Globe exposé, the Roman Catholic bishops in the U.S. passed a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People on June 14, 2002. Can you talk a little bit about that document?

Lennon: Well, the Church was exposed for systematic and historic cover-ups. So, they developed this document, and formed a review committee. The head of this committee was a previous head of the FBI. He was on this committee for a couple of months, and then he quit. He basically said the Church wasn’t changing. The reforms of the Charter are popular [and] important. But does the Church hierarchy follow that Charter?

Questions about disclosure, about cover-ups? That has continued for the last 30 or 40 years. The recent grand jury report in Pennsylvania demonstrated that there is a systematic and historic cover up by the bishops, leading to the Vatican. What happened in Pennsylvania happens in every diocese in the United States, whether it’s Portland, Oregon, or Portland, Maine. Illinois recently came forward with their own report of 500 additional predators on top of the 185 that were already known. The State of Michigan recently raided all [7] dioceses in Michigan. There is a growing awareness that, within this one institution, there is a historic crime.

Noble: For some time now, SNAP has been calling for reforms in statute of limitations laws. Why do you think reforming the statute of limitations matters?

Lennon: The statute of limitations is basically a “get out of jail free” card for predators. People don’t disclose their abuse for decades. It took 30 years to remember some of my abuse, which was molestation over several months. And it took almost 50 years for memories of my rape, which was very violent [and] life-threatening, to come forward. When I [went] public in 2016, 10 of my classmates came forward.

The injury is lifelong for a survivor. I’m 71. Every day, I feel the harm that was done to me. It’s with me every day. A statute of limitations says after three years, or five years, “no crime, no foul.” The predator gets to continue to prey on those [victims]. So, statute of limitations? It’s incredibly important to eliminate it. For those people who bury memories, such as myself and a large percentage of victims of child sex abuse, there needs to be a “look-back window,” an opportunity to bring out cases if they come into new memories and recognize the harm done to them.

Noble: More recently, the case of Cardinal McCarrick rocked the U.S. Catholic world. In 2018, after allegations of abuse against him were found to be credible, he was removed from public ministry and became the first cardinal to retire in 90 years. What does this case tell us about the state of accountability in the Roman Catholic Church?

Lennon: That it’s a continuing cover up. [New Jersey dioceses] settled two different cases of [McCarrick] abusing seminarians, going back 10 to 15 years. A researcher, Richard Sipe, published this information [in 2010]. And it’s only now that it becomes news. 

Cardinal Pell in Australia was recently convicted of sexual abuse. He’s the third-highest-ranking person in the Vatican. I haven’t seen him fired. I haven’t seen him exposed by the Vatican. In Buffalo, N.Y., Bishop Malone said in March that there were 42 predators. A whistleblower dropped documents in November showing that there’s over 110. In the conference of Italian bishops, the bishops said that it’s up to the bishops to decide whether sexual abuse should be reported to the police or not.

The pope could say to every bishop that you have to report all abuse to the police. He hasn’t done so. So even up until today we see this giant kind of cover up. It’s continuing every day.

Noble: Many of Pope Francis’ conservative detractors have alleged that Pope Benedict XVI restricted McCarrick’s public ministry, and that Pope Francis removed those restrictions. Documents also show that the Vatican knew about allegations against McCarrick in 2000, one year before Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal. How should we understand the leadership of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis in light of this scandal?

Lennon: They’re all the same. The systematic cover up continues. The pope can apologize, do thoughts and prayers, wash the feet of survivors, have healing sessions, or whatever. But these are symbols. He could take actions. He could compel the bishops to open the books, to report all sexual abuse. But he has not done so. He’s just given us concerns. It’s no different than any of the previous popes. It’s a continuation.

Each country’s head bishop is going to meet with the pope at the end of February in Rome. We’ll see if any action is taken. I think it’ll be a historic moment, whether he takes action or he doesn’t take action. But up until then, we have not seen any action. And I’m sorry, I don’t accept all the apologies. Apologies in absence of action are phony. It’s false. It’s a lie.

Noble: How have you seen the McCarrick scandal and the Pennsylvania grand jury report change the response to sex abuse in the U.S.?

Lennon: There’s all the news, and not only with the Pennsylvania grand jury. In the recent period we’ve had one courageous gymnast step forward and 500 follow. Cosby, one actress steps forward, and 60 follow. Weinstein, one courageous person steps forward and 300 step forward. The Kavanaugh hearing, how [Christine Blasey Ford] was so disrespected and dismissed. All of this creates an environment that sparks a great amount of emotion for survivors. It’s important for someone to stand up, and it provides an opportunity for another victim to tell someone else, whether it’s a family member or a friend or a counselor or a teacher. These are first steps to getting help. These stories are really, really important.

Noble: SNAP is currently calling for a 50-state Attorney General campaign, asking U.S. Attorneys General to investigate dioceses in their state. Why is this the most effective way to deal with sexual abuse in the Church?

Lennon: We’ve seen through the dishonesty that we can’t rely on the Church to tell the truth, we can’t rely on the Church to protect its parishioners. We have to rely on civil society. We have to rely on the prosecutors, we have to rely on the politicians to give us strong laws. We need to have a community that are concerned about this issue, aware of this issue.

Noble: Why is SNAP calling for the resignation of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops?

Lennon: I was raped and abused when I was 12 years old in the diocese of Sioux City, Iowa. Cardinal DiNardo was a bishop of Sioux City. Not while I was there, but after. Cardinal DiNardo knew of Father Coyle, who taught at my high school, who admitted to raping or sexually abusing 50 boys. For a responsible person, the first step would be to reach out and to correct the harm. For those who have been harmed, the first thing you want to do is [ask] “how can we help?” He neither informed the community of this vile predator, [nor] did he reach out to the victims. To me, this is an abdication of his responsibility as a religious leader and as a human being. He should not be in a position of power when he ignores the health and safety of those that have been harmed. And his archdiocesan office was recently raided by the Texas Rangers. So again, this gets back to the systematic kind of cover up.

Noble: Some on the right have pointed to homosexuality in the priesthood as a cause of this crisis. Some on the left have pointed to clericalism as the main problem. What do you understand as the root cause of this crisis?

Lennon: Our organization totally rejects this whole issue around [blaming] homosexuality. It’s just bigotry in its most base and hateful form. We reject that in any and all cases. As far as clericalism [or] celibacy? Truthfully, I don’t care. My view is, jail the predators. And bishops complicit in covering up, maybe they should be in jail as well. I’m less interested in the psychology or the philosophies of those that would harm children and the vulnerable. I’m more interested in holding them accountable and getting them out of the axis of power.

Noble: What will have to change for SNAP to say that justice for survivors has been achieved?

Lennon: Because sexual abuse is a lifelong injury, this is a continuing process. I don’t consider myself healed. I consider myself on a path of healing. For the Church as an institution, the parishioners are going to have to decide. What kind of Church do you want? What kind of Church officials do you want? Those that would cover up? Those that would see prestige and power as more important than the parish? The pope has an opportunity with this meeting in February to make changes, not just more words and symbols and apologies and whatever. If he actually takes action, actually kicks out a few bishops for covering up and makes explicit the reason why [he’s doing so], I think that may begin a process of change. But, again, I see no help. That’s why I rely on civil society.

Noble: What should survivors know about resources, their rights, and action that they can take?

Lennon: Most survivors believe for their whole life that it’s their fault. It’s important to say that it’s not your fault, that you’re not alone, that you can get better, that you can thrive. Those are the most important kinds of things.

It’s important for survivors to tell someone, whether it’s a family member or a close friend, or a counselor. We have 100 volunteers all through the United States, and we’re always just a phone call away. RAINN has a very sophisticated support hotline. There are local rape crisis centers. There are resources, and I think that there can be hope.

Editor’s Note: Need help? Call 800-656-HOPE (4673) to connect with a sexual assault service provider in your area.