I Was Wrong
Until recently, there was a story I told myself about the clergy sexual abuse crisis. I think it’s a pretty common story among American Catholics, at least among those of us who have remained committed to our faith since we first learned about the horror of clergy sexual abuse.
I was in college in 2002, absorbed with finishing up classes and getting ready to have my first baby. I was crazy in love - with my new husband, of course, but also with the Catholic Church. I vaguely remember hearing about the scandals and feeling some sense of dismay about what had happened in my beloved Church, but it didn’t shake me. I didn’t read too much about it, preferring to keep the news at a distance and focus on my own spiritual growth and the more pressing issues of my personal life. Over time, I created a story that helped me put aside the messy problem of clerical abuse without dwelling on it too much.
Here’s the story I told myself:
A long, long time ago, a small number of really sick priests used their positions of power to molest children. A few bad bishops either looked the other way or trusted the advice of psychologists who cleared the priests for ministry. Those bad bishops moved priests around from parish to parish, allowing them to abuse again and again.
In 2002, this abuse and cover up came to light. Until then, no one had realized the extent of the problem, but fortunately, the media began to uncover the abuse. Of course, everyone in the Church was horrified and knew that we needed radical change to prevent this from ever happening again.
So, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops got together and, recognizing the seriousness of the problem, resolved to do everything they could to protect children from abuse. The bad priests were forced out of ministry, the bad bishops were made to resign in shame, and the remaining bishops set up procedures and protocols that prioritized the protection of children over anything else. They set up systems for reporting abuse. They committed to independent audits of their files. They made policies for background checks and abuse awareness training. They appointed a National Review Board of really intelligent, competent lay people who would investigate the problem and guarantee the integrity of the new processes. The bishops went back to their dioceses committed to implementing these policies, and things changed in a radical way. The abuse that happened before 2002 - most of it decades in the past - was truly horrible, but now, everyone knew about the problem and everyone was committed to fixing it.
Since 2002, the bishops have been fully committed to keeping children and youth safe. In this day and age, no bishop would dream of covering up abuse or protecting an abusive priest. The whole Church has worked together to eradicate this problem, and we have succeeded as much as is possible with any human organization. The horrible scandals taught us a lesson, and the Church changed completely because of it, moving away from a culture of secrecy and cover up to one of transparency and honesty.
That is the story I told myself.
I was wrong.
It hurts to admit that - to realize that I was missing so much, that I accepted this narrative so easily, without really checking to see if it was true. I maintained a blind confidence in the hierarchy, listening to them more than to victims or others advocating for change. I thought the people that were still harping on this problem were just angry folks who hated the Church and were using this issue to feed their anger. I would proudly defend the current actions of my Church, explaining to people how much things had changed and encouraging them to trust the ordained leaders of the Church.
Because of this, in some small way, I feel complicit in the abuse and cover up that has happened since 2002. Jesus calls me to care for “the least of these,” and I didn’t give enough attention to what that might mean in this case. For that, I am truly sorry. I could say I didn’t know, but perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I chose not to know, because it was easier for me and it fit the story I desperately wanted to believe.
In spite of my resistance, when I opened my eyes and really started researching and paying attention, I began to realize that my story just wasn’t true.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. It seems to me that many Catholics - lay people and priests alike - started to question their assumptions when the news about former cardinal Theodore McCarrick broke. When we heard that “everyone knew” or that McCarrick’s behavior was an “open secret” among the Church hierarchy, our carefully constructed stories came crashing down around us, and we were left with a million questions: How could this have happened? Who knew, or at least suspected, what was going on? In our reformed, post-2002 Church, why did no one say anything? Why had reports been ignored? Why did McCarrick’s adult victims not feel comfortable speaking out? Or did they try? If our leaders were still willing to lie and cover this up, what else are they hiding? What in the world is wrong in our Church?
When you start honestly asking those questions, things get messy fast. Long story short, over the past few months, I learned that a lot of what I had believed just isn’t true.
No, this was not a small number of priests. Over 4,000 were accused by 2002, and that’s likely not all who are guilty. That’s a lot of priests and even more victims. (Just to head off this objection right away: Yes, I recognize that sexual abuse is widespread all over society. That doesn’t make abuse in the Church any less horrifying. Full stop.)
No, the cover up was not implemented by just a few bad bishops. The secrecy and deception were much more widespread than that.
No, the problem of clergy sexual abuse did not first come to light in 2002. People had been trying to talk to the United States bishops about rampant abuse for years, but until the media brought attention to the problem, most Church leaders did not listen or take action.
No, the bishops did not do everything they could to keep children safe when they met in 2002. For starters, they specifically made themselves exempt from the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
No, the bad bishops who were part of the cover up did not all leave in 2002. Others hung on for years. Some are still in leaders in the Church.
No, the National Review Board was not given independence and treated with respect. Statements from those original members describe constant push-back on their work, to the point that some began to feel that their role was just created as a public relations fraud.
No, the bishops did not all go back and implement changes in their dioceses. Some did the right thing, but others made only lackluster or superficial efforts, and at least one refused completely, stating (correctly) that the USCCB had no power to force him to do anything.
No, the current bishops are not all committed to honesty and transparency. While it appears sexual abuse of minors has gone down drastically, the secretive, defensive culture that led to the cover up is still widespread, and little has been done to address that deeper problem.
That’s just the beginning.
I know I need to go through all of these assertions, point by point, and refer you to the evidence that brought me to these conclusions. That’s a big project which I will try to tackle at some point, but I at least wanted to give you some sense of what I believe is the true story. (If there are specific points you want me to elaborate on more quickly, let me know, so I can address those first.)
In summary: I was wrong, and I am sorry.
PS: Yes, I recognize that if I was wrong before, I could certainly be wrong again. I am doing my best to be well-informed, listen to lots of different voices, pray a lot, and write with humility and love, but I know that's no guarantee I will get this right. Please let me know anytime you think I'm off track, and I'll just keep doing my best to seek the truth and follow the Lord wherever He leads.
“If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples,
and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
- John 8:31-32
Lord Jesus, you are the way, the truth, and the life.
Help us to desire truth, seek truth, and love truth.
Jesus, set us free.