What I Heard From Women at the FemCatholic Conference
Updated: Mar 13, 2019
I have never really used the word “feminist” to describe myself. It’s still not my favorite label, because of some of the assumptions people might make if I use it. But when I saw that two of my very favorite Catholic bloggers - Simcha Fisher and Meg Hunter-Kilmer - were going to be at the same event less than two hours from my house, I knew I had to be at the first ever FemCatholic Conference on March 2nd. So, I signed myself up, got out of bed way too early on a Saturday morning, and made my way to Loyola University.
Wow. I am so glad I did.
The whole conference was pretty incredible, but in particular, I was so grateful to be part of a conversation about the clergy abuse and cover up crisis with a circle of fourteen smart, strong, faithful women. (Shout out to those wonderful ladies who stayed in touch and are reading this blog post!) We gathered up during an optional discussion time, when people could chose a topic of interest and connect with others who were passionate about the same subject. Of course, the women who decided to join this particular discussion were those who have a stronger interest in this issue, but it was still greatly encouraging for me to see so many people really invested in this conversation.
In my search for understanding, I have spent a lot of time listening to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of lay people who are struggling to process the reality of sexual abuse and leadership failures in our Church. Many of the same themes come up, over and over, no matter the context, but I also learn something new every time I listen. Here are my reflections on some of the thoughts that were shared in this particular discussion:
- We began, as all these conversations seem to begin, by recognizing our common feelings of hurt, anger, frustration, and betrayal. Many women shared their experience of ongoing resentment, distrust, and skepticism towards the leaders of the Church, as well as their sorrow at how this has affected their experience of the Mass and their attitude towards priests. One participant sensed that the people of God were still moving through a process of grief; she suggested that we, like Job in the Old Testament, need more time to sit silently together in the wreckage. Another woman echoed the words that Claire Swinarski had used in her talk earlier in the day: this scandal “pierces my soul.”
- The tone of the conversation was serious, but also hopeful. I sensed a shared feeling of urgency, as well as a real conviction that we as lay women have an important role to play in the reform and renewal of our Church. A young woman brought up the Saint Francis of Assisi/Martin Luther comparison that I have heard many times recently: These two reformers both saw clearly the corruption in the Catholic Church of their time, but they chose to respond in different ways - one by staying and creating transformation and one by leaving and creating division. Of course, the story is a bit more complicated than that, but the point is apt - This is not the first time in our history that faithful people have been troubled by the behavior of their leaders. We have myriad examples of holy men and woman who deeply loved their Church and fought determinedly for her holiness (not only St. Francis, but also St. Dominic, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Peter Damian, to name a few).
- Along with that feeling of determination, I also picked up a sense of uncertainty in our group conversation. So many faithful people look at this huge problem, feel called to do something, but really have no idea what they can do that will make a difference. Honestly, that feeling is a huge part of what propelled me into this work. I think it’s really important that we figure out how ordinary people can work for change, and I have been trying to share small things that anyone can do to help. But truthfully, even after months of research, writing, and activism, I still feel uncertain about what the average lay person can do that will really affect change, given the scale of this problem. This sense of powerlessness is deeply unsettling to many of us, but it should also feel familiar to anyone who cares about fighting poverty, racism, or any other huge social injustice. Many of us have strategies we use to motivate continued action about these issues, even when our efforts feel like just a drop in a very large bucket. Perhaps we might need to apply those same tools to our work on this issue?
While there were many thoughts and feelings that seemed to be shared by multiple members of the group, there were other perspectives that were unique to individual experiences. These were very helpful to hear as well:
- Our group was blessed by the presence of two women who work with survivors of sexual violence at Catholic universities through the organization Dinah’s Voice. These women reminded all of us that continued revelations about clergy sexual abuse can be extremely triggering for survivors of any kind of abuse; we need to be aware of that widespread trauma when we think about the damaging effects of these ongoing revelations. (As an aside: This was an important reminder for me to be sensitive to the wounds of those who might be reading my blog or following my Facebook page. I hope that I have been careful and compassionate with my words, but if anything I have said has made things worse for someone who is suffering - I am sorry. If you are willing to reach out to me to share where I have gone wrong, I would appreciate your correction.)
- One beautiful woman in our group shared that she had personal experience of the manipulation and silencing of victims by leaders of the Church. My heart broke to hear her pain recounted firsthand.
- Another young adult participant shared the story of a close friend who had recently been pushed out of seminary because he reported sexual harassment by a member of the seminary community. Sadly, this is not the first story I have heard of this kind.
- One particularly wise woman brought up the metaphor of marital infidelity as a way to understand the betrayal by some leaders of the Church. Many of us nodded along as she asserted that the Church had hurt all of us, not just those who were abused, and that we all need to hear that hurt being acknowledged. Just like an unfaithful spouse cannot just apologize once and expect the marriage to be restored, so our Church needs to make time and space for healing. We need to hear apologies over and over, as well as see a true change of heart, to really move forward with healing.
- A high school teacher spoke about the difficulty she has in trying to defend the Church to her students, who now come to her saying “But you told us that the Church is good!”
- I appreciated the unique insight of a woman who had spent time with priests in the Middle East. She mentioned that clerics there still feel comfortable playing with children and sharing physical signs of affection with the people they minister to. She reflected sadly on the different situation here in the United States today and how priests might be living with a “poverty of affection” that is difficult to bear.
- I felt a particular sympathy for a faithful woman who currently works in evangelizing ministry; she said that she had experienced such goodness and fatherly care from priests in her life that it breaks her heart to know that others have had such a radically different experience with the priesthood. In her work, she was struggling with how to express her conviction that “this is bad, but the Church is still good.”
- One of the older participants in our group shared that she has been trying to draw attention to these issues for a long time, but no one has been willing to talk about them until recently. I wanted to apologize to her, and to all who have been trying to bring the truth to light for so many years: Thank you for the hard work you did when no one seemed to care. I’m sorry I wasn’t paying attention.
There is so much more I could write about our conversation, but those are at least a few elements that stood out to me. This thoughtful group of women certainly could have talked for much longer, but our time ran out very quickly! I did collect contact information from those who wanted to continue the conversation, and I have been in touch with several of those wonderful ladies since the conference.
It was an honor to be part of this discussion.
Before I close out this post, I also want to mention that I was personally heartened by the approach that the speakers at the FemCatholic Conference took to acknowledging the clergy abuse and cover up crisis in their presentations. FemCatholic has a particular mission, so I certainly didn’t expect the whole day to be focused on this specific issue in the Church, even if it’s one that is very important to me. Indeed, the conference was not derailed from its unique purpose by this issue, but neither did the event ignore the “elephant in the room.” Many speakers offered some kind of explicit acknowledgement of this ongoing struggle, and all seemed to be situating their talks in the light of this reality.
The most direct words about the abuse crisis came from Leticia Ochoa Adams, who gave an honest and moving testimony about her own story of conversion, transformation, and suffering. Leticia’s words carried even greater weight for me because they were spoken by a person who has personally wrestled with a lot of evil and darkness throughout her life. Leticia addressed the crisis directly and asserted her belief that there is “so much good and change” on the other side of this storm. She also suggested that “God put us here today to be the change,” through living out our own personal call to holiness. When an abuse survivor asked a follow-up question, Leticia added some challenging words for church leaders: “Either we can be allies, or I will be your worst enemy, because you can’t shut me up. I expect change, and I’m going to be part of the change.”
Leticia ended the question and answer period with this final, sassy coup de grâce: “I have a fighting spirit, so I say to the devil - ‘Bring it. I was raised in the ghetto. I’ll take off my hoops. Let’s go.’”
I’m with you, Leticia. Let's go.
St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.
Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
And do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly host, by the power of God,
cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.