CLC hosts conversation on: How do we, as Catholic Leaders, lead through the sex abuse scandal?

On August 19, 2019, IWF’s Catholic Leadership Collaborative hosted approximately 30 leaders from St. Louis Catholic parishes, institutions, organizations, and Archdiocesan Offices gathered at Incarnate Word Academy in Bel Nor to address the question: How do we, as Catholic Leaders, lead through the sex abuse scandal?” Patrick and Sue Lauber Fleming, psychotherapists who have worked extensively with perpetrators and victims of abuse, leading and accompanying them on their journey of healing, gave a presentation and led the discussion. Here are important takeaways for Catholic leaders facing the repercussions of the sex abuse scandal in their various ministries:

Where there is no vision the people perish – Proverbs 29:18 The purpose of the presentation was to offer a vision and a language for healing from the clerical abuse crisis in the Church. This vision of is for individual as well as for the institutional Church.

Quoting theologian Richard Rohr: “Pain that is not transformed is transmitted,” Fleming posed three questions:
• How can the pain of the survivors be transformed?
• How was the pain of the perpetrators transmitted?
• How can we heal the Church so the pain does not continue to be transmitted?

The couple reflected on personal experiences of abuse, as well as stories from perpetrators in a supervised recovery and healing program in Dittmer, Missouri. In listening to each person’s sacred story, compassion, if not understanding, can be achieved. The listener learns about the inner world of intense suffering perpetrators undergo in their sickness. Perpetrators themselves have often been victims of abuse that has never healed. Hence, it is transmitted. Sharing stories, expressing sorrow and forgiveness can lead to profound peace and ultimate healing.

Abuse happens whenever power and vulnerability sickness and secrecy meet. Radical change requires addressing all four areas. When the conversation turns from the personal stories of victims and perpetrators, the situation becomes more complex. The bishops have done a good job since the 2000 Dallas Charter to address the protection of the vulnerable and the sickness in the clergy. There have been few reports of cases of new abuse. The bishops have not, however, addressed the power and secrecy of the problem. If not addressed, these two issues will manifest themselves and will cause further problems.

Most changes have occurred defensively. Policy now requires that if a bishop does not report sexual abuse allegations by bishops there is an investigation process and a disciplinary process. They are encouraged to consult with a review board, but this is not required.

The Church has the resources and experiences to transform our pain into something life giving. But we can’t wait for the bishops to create this vision and provide the proactive leadership. We need to talk in more detail about what can constitute the vision that brings healing in the Church. Other groups are experiencing trouble with this area: The Boy Scouts. The Southern Baptists. US Gymnastics Association. What can the Church learn?

Examples of promoting healing abound. Parishioners at St. Cronin’s Catholic Church in St. Louis have held sessions and created a wonderful liturgical action called The Wailing Wall. It is a place to where the victims, survivors, and others share thoughts and feelings. Catholic University in Washington, D.C. had a Spirit Fire Conference, a meeting of survivors, priests, bishops, therapists to learn what is possible in terms of a healing mission. But for a vision to emerge:

Power must be surrendered. Clericalism is obvious when ordained ministers see themselves as superior, above and apart from the people. This leads to the perception that they are above the law, and that the Church and clerics must be protected at all costs. Clericalism makes it easier to rationalize and cover up the abuse and not report it. Clericalism can lead to an abuse of power. We need to uproot clericalism and as lay people we need to not enable clericalism by elevating clergy.

Vulnerability must be acknowledged. The Church has made a great deal of progress with this.

Sickness must be treated. Pope Francis and others call the perpetrators “wicked” or “evil”. Experience reveals, however, that the perpetrators are essentially good. This goodness emerges once they are in treatment. The media has called the abusers “monsters”. What we have seen is that they are our brothers in pain who have a sickness that leads to very criminal monstrous actions.

The Church in its healing requires proactive truth telling and accountability. It cannot just react; it must lead, taking responsibility for what was done.

We need a complete Church dialogue of the bishops, clergy, the perpetrators, survivors, and others. We need a reconciliation movement like what followed Apartheid. We are all part of the circle of transmitted pain.

The Church is like a family. Think of a well-loved uncle abusing and being discovered. It affects everyone in the family, including the neighbors. It is like a stream rushing down the mountain. Although it is “a secret,” siblings and the next generation are affected. This is what has happened in the Church. The sex abuse scandal has affected each of us in different ways.

What healing and transformation do I need, and do the people I am serving need? The presenters offered five pathways as a possible vision to healing.

Spiritual Courage: Accessing the spiritual courage to overcome fear and shame in order to speak up and share stories.

Holy Anger: Learn how to have that anger and keep it from turning into bitterness and resentment.

Grief: Reflect on what you have lost and allow your mourning to lead to God.

Forgiveness: This happens in stages and takes time. Free the forgiver from anger, and disconnect from the perpetrator. Because anger keeps you connected.

Transformation: Seeds of new life and purpose can be discovered.

For more information regarding the Catholic Leadership Collaborative, contact Megan Armentrout at the Incarnate Word Foundation.