• Sara Larson

Should My Parish Offer a Small Group Discussion about the Abuse Crisis? Thoughts for Parish Leaders

Updated: Jun 25, 2019

When the clergy abuse and cover up scandal reemerged in the summer of 2018, I was working in parish ministry, part of a creative, faith-filled, compassionate parish staff that knew we needed to do something to respond. I remember what it was like to see an immense pastoral need in my community and feel completely unsure about how to respond to that need. Looking around local parishes last fall, it seemed that no one really knew what to do; we were all scrambling, trying to figure out how we could help our people while also processing our own doubt, anger, and sadness.

At that moment, it would have been helpful to have someone - a Catholic publishing company, a national organization, our own Archdiocesan leaders - swoop in with resources, saying, “We can help. Here are some best practices for a parish response. Use this template for a listening session. Try this resource for small group discussion. We’ll tackle this together.” That help didn’t come, so we figured things out for ourselves, as did the priests, staff, and volunteer parish leaders at Catholic churches across the country. Some parishes have had an immediate, thoughtful, and ongoing response, while others, for various reasons, still seem to be pretending that nothing has changed in the past year.

In the midst of that landscape, several new resources have recently emerged to provide a model for small group conversations about the clergy abuse and cover up crisis. For parishes that are eager to “do something,” a published resource from a reputable source may come as a relief, a simple tool they can use to start a dialogue, to feel like they are responding in some way.

Not so fast.

To all my friends in parish ministry - Yes. Please. Do Something. In some ways, doing anything at all is better than just ignoring this gaping wound in the Body of Christ. And personally, I am a huge fan of small group conversation as a powerful vehicle for building community, fostering honest dialogue, meeting deep spiritual needs, and encountering the presence of God. But if you want to start a small group to address this topic, please do so in a thoughtful way. Think carefully about what resources you will use. Understand the depth of pain you may be wading into. Be ready for diverse perspectives. And make sure your own heart is ready for the challenge.


I have had quite a few parish leaders ask for my thoughts and advice about the various available small group resources. So, over the next few blogs posts, I’ll be writing up my honest reviews of what’s available. I’ll start with Healing Our Church by Jerome Herauf and Charles Paolino (update: this post is now available here), then write about the much-anticipated Letter to a Suffering Church by Bishop Robert Barron (review now available here), and finish up with The Wounded Body of Christ by Dr. Matthew Halbach (review now available here). I also hope to share the small group model I created and have been using here in Milwaukee, as soon as I have time to put it into a format that others can use (update: summary of my small group model now available here). If you are aware of another resource I should be looking at, please let me know! Spoiler alert: These resources are all very different, with unique strengths and weaknesses, depending on your goal and your audience. I am not an expert, but I have spent a lot of time in conversations about these issues, so hopefully something I share might be helpful to you as you figure out your own path forward.

Full disclosure: I was not fully satisfied with any of these resources, so for the small groups I have been facilitating, I ended up creating my own model. The format I settled on takes place in three sessions and includes prayer, Scripture, and some structured conversation, but with a lot more time for open dialogue and a lot less talking at participants than I found in the published materials. I’m happy to share the outline with you if you are interested in taking a look at what I’ve been doing. The first two groups were very fruitful, and I’m excited to begin my third group later this week.

(Milwaukee folks: The June group is now full, but if you would like information about the next group I put together, please get in touch now. I am also arranging a group to take place in July which will be specifically for lay ministers, so if you work for the Church and want to experience this for yourself, please let me know!)


To respond to the question that is the title of this blog post - Yes, I think your parish should offer a small group discussion about the abuse crisis, especially if you can integrate it into a broader parish response. It may be challenging, but I think it will be worth it, and I’m happy to support you in any way I can. Please follow along with my next few posts on this topic, and feel free to reach out if you want to talk more about this.

Also, for those who are not parish leaders - This is a great time to approach your priest, parish staff, or other volunteer leaders in your church to ask if something like this might be possible in your parish. No luck there? Remember, you can always start a discussion with your own group of friends in your own home. If you are hitting roadblocks at the parish level, go ahead and start the conversation yourself. We are all responsible for the healing of our Church, and wherever two or three are gathered in His name, God shows up.


It is the Lord who goes before you;

he will be with you and will never fail you or forsake you.

So do not fear or be dismayed.

- Deuteronomy 31:8

Jesus, we know you always go before us. Help us to trust in you and not be afraid.

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