• Sara Larson

In Spirit and Truth News Roundup: April 6

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

I hope you are all staying safe and healthy during these difficult days. My family is still doing well and keeping busy at home, although we're feeling sad about not being able to participate in Holy Week liturgies in person. It's a strange time to be a Catholic - and a human being.

Because the world's attention is focused on the coronavirus pandemic, there hasn't been as much writing about the abuse crisis in the last few weeks. However, I have recently spent a lot of time catching up on the giant folder of news articles I had saved over the past few months, so this news roundup is still a long one.

Note: If you're really struggling during this pandemic - physically, economically, or mentally - please give yourself permission to take a break from this stuff for a while. It's ok to focus on taking care of yourself and your loved ones right now. I'll be here whenever you're ready.

(In case you're new to this blog, please know that I strive to share only articles I find both thoughtful and helpful in understanding the twin crises of abuse and leadership failures in the Catholic Church. However, sharing a link does not mean I fully endorse of every word in that article. I do believe that reading broadly, from many sources and perspectives, is a valuable way to become better informed and, thus, more able to respond with wisdom and prudence. The top three reads below are a great place to start!)


When it comes to abuse victims, the Body of Christ keeps score


"All of us who make up the Body of Christ are affected by the trauma of abuse — even if we don’t know it. Abuse leaves a trail of devastation in the immediate victim, who deserves every form of help and healing the Church can offer. At the same time, abuse leaves an often hidden trail of destruction in all those connected to the primary victim — family, co-workers, friends, parishioners — and, indeed, across the entire Church and world. This is not just basic psychology but also basic theology. As St. Paul first taught us: When one part of the body of Christ suffers, we all suffer (cf. 1 Cor 12:14ff)."

Court-appointed official says Vatican failing on accountability in Nienstedt case

This is a really important story, because it goes to the heart of these reforms - Will church leaders really follow the improved procedures that have been outlined? There's very little transparency in the whole process, so it will take reporting like this to point out failures.

In this case, it seems like Archbishop Hebda followed the correct procedure to send this case to the Vatican for investigation - and then nothing has happened since.

"'Importantly, Vos Estis allows lay people, like me, to file a complaint against a bishop for clerical sexual abuse. I took advantage of the opportunity with every expectation the Vatican would follow through,' [Thomas Johnson, who serves as ombudsman for clerical sexual abuse for the archdiocese] said. 'But it didn’t, starting with the protocol’s 30-day time period to decide whether an investigation should be conducted.'

Six months later, Johnson says the archdiocese has still not received any word from the Vatican as to whether there will be an investigation of Nienstedt. 'What a disappointment,' he told Crux. 'The protocols that were intended, I thought, to finally require bishop accountability and transparency have done neither, at least in the case of Nienstedt.'"

Leadership Roundtable brings a dose of reality to the church

I find the work of Leadership Roundtable really hopeful.

"Here in this neutral space, the nondescript acreage of a hotel ballroom, big screens lurked overhead for the occasional power point presentation while laptop-equipped note takers transmitted directly to a control center where topics were enumerated and prioritized. Here in this kind of synodal space of the future, no one, not even the papal representative, voiced a public objection to the prevailing motivation for the gathering: the church is in crisis and needs help.

The Leadership Roundtable was organized around that motivation 15 years ago and has been working on that premise ever since. The organization defines itself as a broad partnership among lay, religious and clergy "to promote best practices and accountability in the management, finances, communications, and human resource development of the Catholic Church in the U.S., including greater incorporation of the expertise of the laity." That ambitious effort was conceived amid crisis and continues to be propelled along the crisis narrative, which began as one of sexual abuse and has metastasized into a diagnosis of failed leadership at every level of the church, from rectory to papal palace.

In one sense, it is remarkable that it has taken the church at large, the people of God, nearly 40 years since the scandal story first broke in the United States, to arrive at this point. It is even more noteworthy that we have arrived at this point where an organization of laypeople can fill a hotel ballroom in the nation's capital with this mix of people, including representatives of the hierarchical culture, for a day and a half of uncensored and frank dialogue about the mess we're in and the serious damage that's been done."


Reporting system to record abuse complaints against bishops begins

As I have already said numerous times, I do not believe the "metropolitan system" of bishops handling allegations against fellow bishops is the best approach. However, I do think that this system may be helpful in some cases, and it's a small step in the right direction. I have more analysis in this blog post: THIS is the Problem: On Dolan, DiMarzio, and Ingroup Bias.

"A reporting system accepting sexual misconduct allegations against U.S. bishops and eparchs is in place. Called the Catholic Bishops Abuse Reporting Service, or CBAR, the system became operational March 16. The mechanism incorporates a website and a toll-free telephone number through which individuals can file reports regarding a bishop. The website is Calls can be placed at (800) 276-1562."

5-year sentence for French priest who abused boy scouts

"During the trial, Preynat said he became interested in young boys when he was 14 or 15, and he discussed it with his bishop of the time, but was still later ordained as a priest. Preynat testified that while working as their scout chaplain, he abused up to two boys “almost every weekend” from 1970 to 1990 and as many as four or five a week when he led one-week scout camps. He said that successive Lyon cardinals told him to stop, but didn’t report him to police."

Child protection pioneer McChesney to receive Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal

"'This has been a daily effort by literally thousands of Catholics in this country for a number of years,' [McChesney] continued, adding that she hopes her selection helps to recognize the many lay people committed to the cause, especially victim survivors, victim assistance coordinators, and the loved ones of those who have been abused.

She said that she also hopes that this shines a spotlight on those 'who weren’t believed or were ignored.' 'This recognizes that all of them were trying to do the right thing,' she added. 'It took a lot of tragedy to convince some in church leadership that this was a horrible problem of abuse and abuse of God granted power that went awry.'"

Survivors refute Scicluna’s statement that “silence and cover-ups” in the Church are now “a thing of the past”

This is the letter that the international organization Ending Clergy Abuse sent to Pope Francis on March 2, after their gathering in Rome in February, on the anniversary of the Vatican summit.

I don't agree with everything in this letter, but I think it's important to listen carefully to what these survivors are saying, because the Catholic Church has a history of not following through on promises once media attention has moved on.

(I would note that I still personally have a lot of hope in the leadership of Archbishop Scicluna, and I believe this letter does not give a fair interpretation of his statement, which was that "silence and cover ups *can now become* a thing of the past." If you read the full text of any of his interviews, you can see that he is very clear that there are still ongoing problems.)

‘Make your voices heard’: Gonzaga lecturer urges strong response to priestly sexual abuse crisis

Stronger words than I've seen at most Catholic-university-sponsored lectures on this topic.

"[Jennifer Beste] urged people to turn those feelings of anger and exasperation into action because a majority of Catholics are necessary to sway the opinion of Church leaders. 'I ask you to please make your voices heard,' Beste said. 'We need to organize. We need to protest.'

Fighting abuse in lay movements: Vatican mandates norms, guidelines

We don't pay as much attention to this in the United States, but the rapid growth of many lay movements around the globe makes this an important step. Some of the most egregious cases of abuse in recent years have taken place within the context of lay movements that had almost no child protection or reporting protocols.

"'Organizations, Catholic or not, led by a charismatic leader who is followed uncritically and commands or demands control over members are at risk for cases of physical, sexual and psychological abuse,' said Jesuit Father Hans Zollner.

The Vatican office that grants official recognition to international Catholic lay movements and organizations ordered the groups to develop detailed child-protection guidelines and norms for handling allegations of the abuse of minors and vulnerable adults."

Former Catholic “fixer” explains why accused priests come to Missouri

Of note: "'Is there proper supervision at these facilities [for accused priests]? Those are real concerns,' Wall said. 'It’s a public safety question, you know, where are the perpetrators that have been acknowledged either by a court or by the various religious institutes? Who’s supervising them?'...

Near Dittmer, in Franklin County, a rehabbing priest was convicted of possessing child pornography while living at the Wounded Brothers project."

Former priest in northern Virginia charged with sexual abuse

Attorney General investigations do matter.

"A former Catholic priest in northern Virginia has been charged with sexually abusing a teenager in a case that dates back nearly 35 years, and a city councilman for the District of Columbia came forward to say he was the victim...

In a statement, Herring said Asalone’s indictment is the first to come from his ongoing investigation, along with Virginia State Police, into clergy sexual abuse. He urged victims to come forward. 'I know that stepping forward to share your experience can be difficult or scary but I want you to know that, even if it happened years ago, we will still take it seriously and make sure you get the help and support you need,' he said."

Retired Wyoming bishop could soon be criminally charged for child abuse

The progress in this case gives me hope that Catholic leaders really can do the right thing - even when the perpetrator is respected and powerful. Of course, it should never have taken this long, but I'm grateful that Bishop Biegler initiated this investigation and that the truth about Bishop Hart has been exposed.

A Welcome, Long-Overdue, Smart Step by a Bishop

This is a strange source, but important commentary none the less. The author is spot-on about the gap that can exist between policy and practice.

"Policies go unenforced all the time. Here’s one simple reason why.

In a crisis, CEOs and bishops and Boy Scouts executives and university presidents typically holler 'Get me the lawyers and the PR people!' They sit down and write up a policy, procedure or plan. On paper at least, it addresses the situation at hand. Then, they shout from the rooftops 'We’ve fixed everything.'...

Sooner or later, public pressure and media attention wane, the policies are quietly shelved and the old patterns re-emerge."

Priest chaplain at Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse had abuse record

"[Fr. J. Irvin] Mouser, a priest from the Archdiocese of Louisville, was removed from public ministry in 2002 on charges of child sex abuse. He is accused of abusing five boys during his time as a priest at the parishes of St. Helen in Barren County and St. Francis of Assisi in Jefferson County. The Holy See directed Mouser to live a life of "prayer and penance" — he was not to serve in any active ministry as priest, celebrate Mass publicly or don clerical garb.

But Mouser did all of that while living in Loretto, where he served as chaplain to the Sisters of Loretto. There he was also in close proximity to children, since students from a nearby high school and young children would often visit the motherhouse and the adjoining farm."

Update: The Archdiocese Answers Awake’s Safe Environment Questions

Here's my latest post for Awake Milwaukee, with answers to more of the questions we asked the Archdiocese of Milwaukee:

"Members of the Awake Leadership Team met in February with Jerry Topczewski, the Archbishop’s chief of staff, and Suzanne Nickolai, Safe Environment program manager for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. At this meeting, Nickolai provided written responses to our questions about the Archdiocese’s Safe Environment Education sessions...

According to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s website, the archdiocesan Safe Environment Education sessions are part of the broader 'Safeguarding All of God’s Family' program. The goal of this program is 'to protect our children and all in the church family from abuse and related dangers.' For a little background, here’s how the website describes the program requirements:"

Cruel legacy for abuse victims whose church hid the guilty

Powerful words from a survivor abused in the Church of England:

"“I don’t think I’ll ever be right again... If you’ve been stabbed or shot there’s an obvious wound. The hardest wounds to sort out in any trauma are those inside the head. Those are the most challenging ones. I try not to get flashbacks. I’ve got to the point that there is a curtain that’s pulled across it...

I’d rather have been shot or stabbed and recovered from it and moved on. There isn’t a day that goes by without some form of reference."

Genesis to Revelation - My Story of Abuse by My Pastor and Counselor

This is a really helpful, though painful, story about what spiritual and sexual abuse of adults can look like. (Trigger warning, especially for those abused and manipulated as adults.)

"When I finally told my husband, Felix, about the abuse, it was in pieces. I was still protective of my abuser and did not want KW to get into trouble. So, I told Felix that I had initiated the relationship. Eventually, the full story came out, and Felix confided in a psychologist. The psychologist pointed out that this was exploitation by a counselor, and it was a felony in Texas. The responsibility lies with the professional counselor to not cross this boundary. Now this was all good, but I still felt responsible. That is the result of a very skillful groomer. I knew he had initiated the idea of the sex, but I did go along with it. It took me a long time to let go of the guilt and the shame. I would later learn in my “repair counseling” that victims of sexual assault often overestimate their own degree of consent and underestimate the extent of coercion involved by the predator. I truly felt bad-to-the-core.

I also felt that, as a professional myself, I should have known what was going on, but after counseling with a trauma-informed counselor and reaching out to support groups and others who are familiar with sexual exploitation by professionals, I finally began to realize that the abuse was not my fault. It is always the fault of the one in a position of power. End of story."

Top anti-abuse expert says ‘paternalistic’ attitude is worse than clericalism

As someone who studied theology in college and still loves a good theological debate, I appreciate what Fr. Zollner is saying here: we have to consider what may have gone wrong in our theology that made this culture of abuse and cover up possible. It's certainly something I think about a lot.

"It is easy to put all the responsibility on the shoulders of canon lawyers and psychologists when it comes to doing something about abuse in the Church, but this is simply not the whole picture. A theological analysis will help to understand what went so terribly wrong in our ideas about the Church, bishops, priests, and deacons, about the relationship between justice and forgiveness, and about grace and redemption offered by the suffering and risen Lord."

Also: "Clericalism, as the pope frequently says, is the temptation to think and act as if the mere fact of being a priest or bishop can justify special treatment, special privileges, and an exemption from the rules that apply to others. It denotes an inherent sense of entitlement. Of course, a “clericalist attitude” could lead one to believe the Church only has a patriarchal structure or that only priests are important. However, I think it is important to affirm that it is also very much matriarchal. In every age, prophetic women have been leaders. Women like Dorothy Day, Mary MacKillop, Frances of Rome, Hildegard von Bingen, the early church “matriarch” Saint Macrina, and Mary the Mother of God herself - all carried out their missions, which were often in tension with what some men in their lives wanted."

My conversations with Jean Vanier raised many questions. I have no answers.

This is a thoughtful reflection about Jean Vanier. I especially agree with the author's objection to the statement "we all sin" as a response to this spiritual abuse.

"As the news of Mr. Vanier’s transgressions crashed into the world of L’Arche and Faith and Light, I heard the voice of old Protestant friends, warning against the Catholic cult of the saints, too close to idolatry. God alone saves. A French friend cited Chateaubriand: 'The human heart is always double.' Several correspondents cited St. Paul: 'For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.'

This is all true, but it is a dangerous truism. We all sin, but we do not all engage in sexual abuse. And the blanket appeal to the sinfulness of the human condition can mask the spiritual abuse at the heart of this sexual transgression. The manipulation of spiritual vulnerability, even of the disciple’s love of Jesus and Mary, as a tool for sexual conquest lies at the center of Vanier’s assault against these women."

Trustee in Buffalo Diocese bankruptcy appoints 7 abuse victims to creditors committee

I have to confess, I was not paying close attention when my own archdiocese (Milwaukee) went through the bankruptcy process. I will be watching closely as things unfold in Buffalo. This is the news from a few weeks ago:

"A trustee for the federal bankruptcy court has selected seven people suing the Buffalo Diocese over clergy sexual abuse to serve on a creditors committee that will investigate the diocese's finances and negotiate a bankruptcy settlement...

The committee is charged with investigating the diocese and its assets, liabilities and operations, as well as claims made against the diocese, and then ultimately negotiating a settlement."

Judge orders Buffalo Diocese to release secret files of 2 ‘notorious’ priests

As many survivors say over and over, the main issue is not money - What is needed most is the truth. When a diocese files for bankruptcy, the truth is often buried even deeper, so this is a small step in the right direction.

"Two weeks before the Diocese of Buffalo declared bankruptcy, a state judge ruled that the diocese must turn over the 'secret files' of two of its most 'notorious' pedophile priests. But most Catholics -- and by extension, dozens of the priests’ alleged victims -- are still barred from seeing the files because of conditions the judge placed on their disclosure...

In court papers, diocesan lawyers said the file of White, who was removed from ministry in the 1990s following multiple child sexual abuse complaints, consisted of 784 pages. The size of Orsolits’ file is unclear, but in 2018 he told The Buffalo News that he had molested 'probably dozens' of boys. He was removed from ministry in 2003 but is still paid by the diocese.

More than a dozen men accuse the two priests of sexual abuse that allegedly occurred decades ago, but aside from Hayes’ two clients, no others will have access to the files because Chimes ordered that Hayes “shall not distribute or disclose the ‘consolidated personnel file’ or its contents to anyone pending further Order by this Court.”

Many sexual abuse survivors have said their primary goal in filing lawsuits against the diocese was to find out what the diocese knew about the priests, when it knew they were alleged abusers and why it allowed them to stay in ministry."

Diocese says abuse victims can see secret priest files, but blocks access

More from Buffalo:

"Gary Astridge has spent much of his adult life cobbling together dribs and drabs of information about the Rev. Edward Townsend, the priest he says molested him multiple times in the 1960s, starting when Astridge was 7 years old.

So, when Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger first suggested in January that abuse survivors could examine Buffalo Diocese files on their alleged abusers at the chancery offices, Astridge left three messages with Scharfenberger’s office seeking an appointment. Two months later, the City of Tonawanda resident said he has yet to receive a return call. 'To me, once again, it’s just words, empty,' said Astridge, who last August sued the diocese over the abuse. 'Emotionally, it’s so disheartening, so discouraging. It’s a slap in the face.'"

Clergy abuse survivors 'frustrated' by diocese's bankruptcy filing

Important commentary from survivors impacted by the Diocese of Buffalo's bankruptcy filing. I really can't figure out what I think a diocese should do when faced with so many claims, but I do know it's important that we hear this perspective - and challenge our Church to reveal the whole ugly truth, regardless of the financial situation.

"'I am angry, frustrated,' said Kevin Koscielniak, who has accused the Rev. James Burson of abusing him in 1979. 'They just took everything away for us being able to get to the truth. Does that sound like they really care? We care about having our stories heard. We don’t care about money.'

He called on Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger to open up the diocese’s files regardless of what happens in court, so that survivors and the public can learn the truth about what the church knew about hundreds of abuse cases.

'Scharfenberger says he wants to do the right thing,' Koscielniak said. 'So open it all up, regardless of bankruptcy. Show everyone in Buffalo that you really do care.'"

Court approves $34 million clergy abuse settlement with Minnesota diocese

As more and more Catholic dioceses file for bankruptcy, it's good to know that there can be some positive results for survivors. While there is no substitute for the process of discovery in a legal case, at least creditors' committees can insist on disclosure of internal church records, as well as improved prevention protocols, as they did in the Diocese of New Ulm.

"After tearful testimony by several survivors of clergy sexual abuse and a heartfelt apology from Bishop John LeVoir, the Catholic Diocese of New Ulm and area churches won approval Tuesday of a $34 million settlement with nearly 100 claimants. Just as important to the victims: The diocese agreed to adopt 17 protocols designed to protect children from abuse going forward and to turn over its files on credibly accused priests."

Salt in the abuse wound

Oh, dear Lord, this is awful. Lawyers are actually arguing that the compensation for some survivors should be lower because they were poor children who had poor prospects in life already.

"Among the lawyers working on the multitude of compensation cases stemming from child sexual abuse inside Australian orphan­ages and churches, it has become known as the 'salt-in-the-wounds defence'.

As those lawyers engage in negotiations with institutions such as the Christian Brothers, they often run into the same legal argument: that the physical and emotional abuse and educational neglect the same children suffered in their care, coupled with the already poor prospects of the children before they were abused, should be reflected in lower compensation than they would otherwise be entitled to."

(Trigger warning on this story, especially the graphic account of abuse in the latter part.)


One of my main goals with this page is to raise up the voices of survivors, whatever their experience or perspective.

Please read this account from Michael Baumann about his difficult experience asking questions at a diocesan event. But then make sure you read the post titled "Compassion" as well, to learn how much difference one gesture of kindness can make.

ABC journalist Sarah Ferguson on making Revelation and coming face to face with two of the Catholic Church’s worst serial paedophiles

This is disturbing but also feels important.

(Trigger warning for survivors - This article includes the perspective of perpetrators. It's very unsettling.)

"Throughout filming, [Australian Journalist Sarah] Ferguson was conscious of the confronting nature of the material and the impact on the audience. 'There is a risk in putting criminals like this on camera and the material has to justify the affront and I had to ensure the interviews had meaning,' Ferguson says. 'You have to be very conscious of what the effect will be on the viewer of hearing and watching a paedophile priest talking about his life, that's right on the edge.

But the moment of seeing the person themselves, the person who actually perpetrated these crimes, in their ordinariness, it is a revelation. It's dark but it's compelling and the experience of the few people who have seen the series is you can't take your eyes off it, but it also leaves a lot to think about afterwards.

This is this ultimate double life — you are standing up in church on Sunday preaching about morals and committing heinous acts before and after, sometimes immediately before and immediately after. How is someone capable of leading a life like that?'"

Walking with ‘suffering Christ’ means standing with victims, says priest

There's an obvious pro-institution bias in this article, but I'm sharing for this piece of reflection by Fr. Hans Zollner:

"In his presentation, Father Zollner compared the church to an individual suffering from trauma who tries to wall it off, keeping it separate from everyday life. That can work well for a time, he said, but eventually the wall develops cracks, the trauma bleeds through and the person suffers flashbacks, reliving rather than simply remembering the traumatic event.

'My theory is that is happening in the Catholic Church now,' the priest said. 'What has been hidden is coming out now, but that brings out the whole history.'"

Whistle-blower priest seeks lifting of suspension imposed by disgraced bishop

The more I learn, the more I realize that truth-telling has consequences.

"According to the Buffalo News, Biernat is scheduled to meet with Scharfenberger later this month for a second time on March 11. While Biernat said he welcomes the conversation, in a new interview with WKBW, Biernat defended his actions last fall, saying area Catholics 'need to know how their bishop is in private, how their bishop is behind closed doors.'

'In the decree, they cite policies of secrecy, but isn’t that what led us into the trouble that we are in right now?' Biernat asked. 'Secrecy…that we kept things secret and that everything is OK as long as people don’t find out.'"

NY Giants chaplain subject of latest sex abuse lawsuit against Newark Archdiocese

I just came across this story from back in December. It caught my eye because (rather unusually) it includes a quote from a member of the lay review board who originally heard this case.

"A review board determined that his case warranted further action, but Dowd was acquitted by a panel of three priests from outside the Newark Archdiocese after a 2005 hearing. Church officials at the Vatican in Rome approved the decision in 2007. He was not returned to ministry in a parish, archdiocese officials said at the time, because of the 'notoriety' of the case...

Both accusers told an archdiocesan review board the same details about being brought to the priest's room in the church rectory, according to a former member of that board. 'Both of them described his bedroom exactly the same,' said Margaret Pipchick of Cranford, who said she was a lay member on the review board when the case was heard. She said she expected the priest to be defrocked when the matter was sent to Rome. 'Rome decided that was not going to happen,' said Pipchick."


As you know, I like to close every blog post with an invitation to prayer. For these news roundups, I encourage all of us to bring everything we just read to the merciful heart of God. If there is a specific story that you found moving, hopeful, painful, or unsettling, please place those thoughts and reactions into the hands of Jesus and ask Him what he is calling you to do in response.

For those who are not able to attend Mass right now because of the coronavirus, I ask you to consider my invitation to offer this challenging time to God in solidarity with abuse survivors, particularly those who are no longer able to go to Mass because of their trauma.

My Jesus, I long to receive you in the Eucharist.

I offer this longing to you, praying for all who have experienced abuse in my Church.

May we all someday be one, as You and the Father are one.


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