Last time I wrote about feeling overwhelmed by the clerical abuse scandal, I got called out for it. Rightly.
The column headline was “I feel the same way you do.” A longtime friend tore a strip off me by asking how I could possibly know what survivors were feeling. I learned my friend had been abused. I was accused of burying my head to what’s going on in the Church.
We’re still friends and I learned a valuable lesson. The people we most need to hear from in the midst of this scandal are those who have been victimized by it.
The rest of us can analyze and offer suggestions on what should be done and where the Church should be heading. Most of the reaction I’ve seen and heard has been blessedly sincere, with angry critiques, thoughtful observations, and hope-filled recommendations. Surprisingly, I’ve heard few people say they’re washing their hands of the Church.
But the voices we’re in most need of hearing are those who have been treated so horrifically by priests who took advantage of them and by shepherds who put the interests of their priests ahead of the needs of their flock.
Many victims have abandoned the Church that allowed them to be violated and failed to support them as it should. Others are holding on to their faith tenuously. Some have come through still strong in their faith but cynical about individuals and wanting to be part of the purging, healing, and rebuilding process.
Someone who has come to realize this more than anyone is Archbishop Miller. Several weeks ago, he put out an emotional statement expressing his outrage and sadness over the scandal. He felt devastated and promised a pastoral letter with plans for healing through prayer and penance for the sins committed against the victims.
After releasing his statement, he heard from victims who told him something was missing: the victims themselves.
Survivors have spoken out to say they want to be involved in determining what the next steps are, and to be part of them.
This can be disconcerting for a church that prefers to handle matters on the inside and without excessive involvement from the laity. But that’s been a major part of the problem. Any institution that doesn’t have to answer to those who it oversees is in danger of corruption. The survivors and the faithful have insights into the problem – insights that the clerical side of the Church can be blind to.
As survivors come forward and, praise God, offer to help the Church, Archbishop Miller realizes a tremendous opportunity is being presented to him. And so, the pastoral letter that looked like the best approach for dealing with the scandal a month ago is now on hold.
He has begun meeting and dialoguing with victims of abuse and wants to include individuals and groups, whether the abuse was perpetrated here or in some other jurisdiction. The survivors want to be more than just heard; they want to be instrumental in fixing things, from the outset. The time has passed for those in the official Church to assume they know what’s best for the faithful without listening to them, in this case the faithful who were wounded by members of the Church acting in its official capacity.
These revelations, which had been covered up for so long, can become a blessing for the Church. No longer is there any excuse, or stomach, for keeping corruption internal. Walls of secrecy are being torn down around the world.
Yes, it’s painful and we have no idea where it will lead. Debate over celibacy, homosexuality, and the role of women and laity will be a large part of it, as will, in the words of Father Richard John Neuhaus, “fidelity.” The role of law enforcement will be a steady presence, no longer in the back of people’s minds, but front and centre.
But the role of the victims, the survivors, will be critical, as they bring their unique and long overdue perspective to help identify what went wrong, and what the Church needs to do to address this tragedy.