• Sara Larson

In Spirit and Truth News Roundup: August 25

Welcome to the latest summary of important news related to the twin crises of sexual abuse and leadership failures in the Catholic Church. I missed the last scheduled date for this bi-weekly feature (due to my recent kidney stones ordeal), so this roundup covers more time and is a bit longer than usual. There are some very thought-provoking articles below, so I do hope you will take the time to read.

(As always: I strive to share only articles I find both thoughtful and helpful in understanding the twin crises of sexual 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!)


'Pray for Your Poor Uncle,' a Predatory Priest Told His Victims

This is a really thoughtful exploration of one family's experiences with the predator Theodore McCarrick, ending with a poignant reflection on keeping faith in the midst of such scandal. Definitely worth a read.

"Francis told me he thinks it’s possible to distinguish the church from the people who have for decades debased it. How dearly I wanted to hear that; how crucial it was for me to believe it. Francis went on in his gentle, searching tone. 'All throughout the church, and the church’s history, you can see times where there were people who were really living testaments to their faith,' he said. 'And you can see people who took advantage of the power that they had. And that God allows that is just kind of, part of the mystery we’re all going to have to figure out, when we go to ask him. Right?'"

Spiritual Wounds: Grappling with the Trauma of Sexual Abuse in the Church

More excellent reflection from my friends in the Awake community in Milwaukee:

"We need to listen. Lay people, priests, and bishops need to listen and be aware of when we are having a hard time listening. This sounds easy but can be quite challenging. When we listen to someone who is sharing a hard story, we might find ourselves tuning out, changing the subject, or arguing with them. These behaviors take away from the sense of safety a survivor needs. When we do not listen well, this can point to resistance in ourselves. If you notice you have a hard time listening, it might be time to refer the survivor to someone with more experience and training than you. There are experts out there who can help them. Another issue can arise when the listener jumps in to try to solve the survivor’s problems instead of simply listening; this can unintentionally trigger trust issues, a common problem for survivors.

The community’s response to a survivor who shares their abuse influences the survivor’s healing journey. Communities, like Awake, that believe and support survivors, can help a survivor to heal. If someone shares their story of abuse, thank them for trusting you. Their story is sacred."

‘I now understand why abuse victims leave the Church’: Susanna’s story

This story is just heartbreaking. This victim's words are disturbingly similar to others I have heard from adult abuse victims... The pattern of manipulation, shame, gaslighting, and betrayal is so familiar and so ugly. Lord, have mercy.

"When he started touching me, I was paralyzed. I wanted to run, to scream, to do anything, but I couldn’t. I was crippled by fear and confusion. 'What the hell is going on? Is this really happening right now?' I remember asking myself over and over again. But my thoughts wouldn’t do me any good. Several hours went by, my consciousness fading in and out. Every time I woke up I hoped I was in a nightmare and the chaplain of my college wasn’t on top of me, touching me in ways I had never let anyone touch me. I was wrong each time. Finally, in the early hours of the morning, I left. That evening I had gone with my friend to the rectory of the chaplain I admired as his spiritual daughter; I left as a suicidal victim of sexual assault."

And then this: "In the months that followed, I tried desperately to make the Diocese of Nashville treat me as a person and not as a problem they just wanted to go away. It was one thing to be betrayed by Father Kevin, but feeling betrayed by the diocese felt like salt in a fresh wound. In time it became clear that when I reported what happened to the Diocese of Nashville, they failed to factually document, report, and make accurate notification to the appropriate parties, especially to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and St. Cecilia Academy. This needed to change if other vulnerable adults were to be protected in the future, and this was my goal. I never wanted to sue the diocese or go to court; I simply wanted to change the vague and incomplete policies for the protection of vulnerable adults and how reporting is handled."


Adult abuse case: Accusations of grave mishandling across Church jurisdictions

I truly believe the Catholic Church has come a long way with how it handles allegations of sexual abuse of a child (although there is still much more we could do). But sexual abuse of adults is still disturbingly mishandled in many, if not most, cases, like that of Susanna, whose firsthand narrative I linked above.

This is just one example. It's a long, detailed story, but worth your time. You can see how much can still go wrong in reporting, communicating, investigating, and following through on allegations of abuse. And how many people can be put at risk during that time.

"An ecclesiastical leadership culture that understands 'safeguarding' to mean carrying out the bare minimum requirements of law may keep bishops out of trouble, but it will certainly get the Church more Susannas. When Churchmen are largely free to interpret the laws by which they abide, and higher authority is reluctant to use the laws made for good order and better government, real cultural change cannot happen.

If nothing else, Susanna’s case illustrates how far Church leadership has to go before they achieve anything like the Responsibility, Accountability, and Transparency to which Pope Francis dedicated the whole Church at every level of governance, in the work of which he called all Catholics in every state of life and all persons of good will to assist according to their abilities."

Revictimizing the Victims of Sexual Abuse

There is much devastating truth in this article. I know one victim-survivor who was treated compassionately by her diocese when she reported her abuse. Every single other survivor I know has a story like the ones in this piece. This includes many who have reported in the last few years.

"Victims of sexual abuse by clergy frequently have told me that the way they were treated by bishops has hurt them more than the abuse did.

Virtually every bishop has made the announcement that he is dedicated to helping victims who have been sexually abused by priests and that he has put considerable resources toward that effort. Unfortunately, from what I have heard from too many victims, some bishops are quite adept at virtue-signaling and at making empty promises."

Scholars seek to establish ‘truth and reconciliation’ structures for clerical abuse

Whatever happens next, I believe these scholars are pointing to exactly the right problem with the Church's response thus far:

"In their project proposal, they said that the latest wave of sexual abuse revelations in the Catholic Church has given rise to widespread alienation from the Church among lay Catholics. While Church leaders, both in the Vatican and at the national level, have adopted measures in response to the crisis, the scholars claim their efforts have fallen short in four key respects:

- There has not been a full authoritative account of the truth about sex abuse and the response of bishops.

- There has been inadequate accountability for bishops and other high church officials.

- There has been little empathetic public acknowledgment of survivors of abuse on the part of the Church.

- There has been little genuine repentance among bishops for their role in the crisis."

Bishop Bransfield offers 'apology', repays $400k to W Virginia diocese

Bishop Bransfield's letter takes no responsibility and shows no remorse. It's disgusting. (Note that even the CNA headline puts the word 'apology' in scare quotes. This is not a true apology.)

"'I am writing to apologize for any scandal or wonderment caused by words or actions attributed to me during my tenure as Bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese,' said Bransfield, who led the diocese from 2005 to 2018, when Pope Francis accepted his resignation just after Bransfield turned 75...

The bishop also acknowledged in his Aug. 15 letter that 'there have been allegations that by certain words and actions I have caused certain priests and seminarians to feel sexually harassed.' 'That was never my intent,' he said, adding that 'if anything I said or did caused others to feel that way, then I am profoundly sorry.'"

Bransfield's complete letter is here. Bishop Brennan's statement is here.

Pittsburgh diocese gets barely passing report card on sex abuse response

"Catholics for Change in Our Church (CCOC), an independent organization of Pittsburgh Catholics seeking a greater role for the laity in the Church, issued a progress report on Friday provided grades for the efforts of the Church in nine categories, resulting in an overall grade of C-.

'CCOC has been disappointed in the rate of change in the past year,' the report said. 'We have been left to wonder: Why does the Church hierarchy, at a diocesan and a parish level, not welcome the help and support of talented and enthusiastic laypeople?'"

(I believe this final question is one that many concerned Catholics around the country have been asking for years regarding the Church response to the abuse crisis - Why are Church leaders not actively seeking assistance and input from those who are ready and willing to help?)

Latin Americans press fight against clerical sexual abuse

While the global pandemic has certainly slowed momentum in many efforts, it's good to see some places are pressing on to address sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. This conference was supported the the Catholic bishops of Latin America, and it sounds like there were plenty of challenging words about the need for dramatic culture change in the Church.

"To be sure, this was no ecclesiastical feel-good session. The talk was blunt and, at times, searing.

'Nowhere have I encountered the level of destruction I found within the Church,' said Chilean laywoman Maria Josefina Martinez Bernal, a member of the National Council on Abuse Prevention and Victims Accompaniment of the Chilean bishops conference since 2011, and a member of the Fundacion para la Confianza, an NGO founded by three survivors of former Chilean priest Fernando Karadima.

'In the name of the will of God, [Church officials] tricked people of faith,' she said. 'In sacred places, they violated the trust of young people. Because, with a crucifix in the background, they didn’t believe the victims who came forth, or promised them to act, and didn’t.'

Pope says fighting clerical abuse fosters deeper respect for life

The Pope's comments here are interesting, but read beyond the headline for some good discussion about the state of child protection in Latin America.

"Back in November, at a conference organized by Portillo, Ali Herrera flatly told some 450 people from all of Latin America, including several bishops, who’d gathered in Mexico, that while gringos to the north have taken important steps to combat the problem, his own region basically has done 'nothing.'

'We’re in 2019, and in some places and spaces of our Church, nothing is happening' when it comes to the protection of children from clerical abuse, he said."

Survivors’ group in Chile condemns abuse ‘secretism’ of Catholic Church


"Though some of these scandals were front-page news during the first year after the crisis exploded, the Chilean network of clerical abuse survivors claims that two years after Scicluna and Bertomeu visited the country to meet with victims and civil authorities, little to nothing has happened to the abusers.

Several abusers have been removed from the priesthood, but the bishops and cardinals who face allegations, so far, have not faced the consequences."

LA parishes asked not to use David Haas music amid misconduct investigation

Now that the pattern of abuse by David Haas has been made public, the real question will be how many people reported concerns over the last 40 years and how many leaders ignored them.

"In an email sent July 30 to archdiocesan employees, parishes, schools, and ministries were asked to 'refrain from using music composed by musician David Haas out of respect for those who have reported sexual misconduct by Mr. Haas.'

The email stated that the Archdiocese is 'investigating allegations of sexual misconduct described in recent media reports' involving Haas, who for several years has been a popular performer and speaker at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, which attracts tens of thousands of participants each year to the Anaheim Convention Center."

Should We Sing David Haas’s Songs After He’s Been Accused of Sexual Abuse?

I am really proud of the good content we're creating over on the Awake blog each week, thanks to my friend and colleague Erin O'Donnell. Today, we're reflecting on how parishes are handling the revelations about David Haas as they make musical selections moving forward.

"When she heard news about the allegations against Haas, Mary Robertson, director of liturgy and music for Three Holy Women and Our Lady of Divine Providence in Milwaukee reached out to three close friends who are victim-survivors of sexual abuse. She asked how they would feel hearing Haas’s songs during a liturgy. They responded that they would be unable to sing his songs anymore, knowing the allegations against him. One responded, 'I would feel anger that once again survivors don’t matter, that the Church once again can’t make the difficult decision to do the right thing and stand in solidarity with the women whose lives will forever be affected.' The parishes where Robertson works have not yet made an official decision about Haas’s songs, but her personal feelings are clear. 'I think it would be a slap in the face for a victim, knowing that we’re aware of the allegations and are still using music that Mr. Haas has written,' Robertson says. 'To me it would feel like we were selfishly singing a song because it’s our favorite, and ignoring the survivors who experienced the abuse and could be retraumatized by hearing his music.'"

Jersey City priest accused of groping woman, authorities say

I'm learning that this kind of thing is way more common than most of us realize. At least in this case the woman felt able to report the crimes, the Archdiocese of Newark actually took them seriously, and the priest was arrested.

But that doesn't mean this story has a happy ending. I know many adult women who have been harassed, abused, and assaulted by priests, and the emotional and spiritual damage is devastating.

"A Jersey City priest is facing accusations that he groped and harassed a woman inside the church rectory earlier this year, authorities say. Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez announced Monday that Rev. Donato Cabardo, a 56-year-old priest at St. Paul of the Cross Church, was charged with two counts of criminal sexual contact and one count of sexual harassment. Cabardo was arrested Friday when he turned himself into authorities at the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office."

Fr. Hanel Returns to Parish After Cleared by Investigation

This is the resolution of the one case that was publicly pending in my Archdiocese.

I have no inside information and no commentary, but I thought it was an interesting article.

There is no “caught in time”: A current-day story of how doubt and denial harmed a young Catholic’s journey to healing and forgiveness

This a long, painful, but important read if you want to understand the ongoing problems with compassion and transparency in the Catholic Church's response to clergy sexual abuse. Thank you to the author who sent her story to me and invited me to share it with all of you.

"At a certain point, the quest for answers becomes too draining and yielding to the silence easier. I’ve called on Church leaders to end their silence, so it’s now time I listen to my own plea and let my story be heard. Nonetheless, I remain hesitant since I still feel a need to protect the parishes and priests I’ve mentioned (even Fr. Robert), despite their wrongdoings. But I do believe my story and others like it need to be heard if our Church is to ever truly heal. I write so that others who’ve experienced abuse similar to mine know they’re not alone, like I for so long felt. I write so that silence might turn into whispers of conversation, and those whispers one day into an honest dialogue. I write to take my place as a wounded healer.

One thing I hope people will learn is that even when grooming does not lead to the worst forms of sexual abuse, the grooming itself is a kind of abuse that has lasting effects. You may think I have overblown things and overreacted. I can understand that view (a past me would agree with you), but Msgr. Bugarin told my friend’s parents that Fr. Robert’s actions were a violation of the sixth commandment. “Violation” is an apt word; I felt violated once I understood what could have happened."

Slew of new lawsuits name 21 previously unidentified alleged abusers in Rochester diocese

Every year we learn more names and stories. Yes, false accusations are possible, but they're rare. There is still so much to be revealed.

"More than 70 survivors filed civil suits last week accusing former priests, nuns and lay teachers who served within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester of sexually abusing them as children. Among the new cases are 21 alleged abusers who had not previously been accused publicly."

KBI has received 205 reports, opened 120 cases in investigation into priest sex abuse

Whenever a state investigates, more abuse is uncovered.

"Nearly two years after launching an investigation into clergy sexual abuse in the state’s Catholic dioceses, Kansas’ top law enforcement agency has now received more than 200 reports. 'As of Aug. 7, we have had 205 reports of abuse and have opened 120 cases,' said Melissa Underwood, spokeswoman for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, in an email responding to an inquiry on the status of the probe."

FBI says Ohio priest preyed on vulnerable, drug-addicted teens

Lord, have mercy. (Trigger warning: Details of grooming and abuse, especially in the second half of the article.)

"The Rev. Michael Zacharias, 53, who served in Fremont until 2017, was arrested Tuesday in Findlay and charged with sex trafficking minors, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He also faces charges of coercion and enticement and sex trafficking of an adult by force, fraud, or coercion, the FBI said."


As always, I will close this blog post with an invitation to prayer. 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.

God, please give all victims of sexual abuse your healing, justice, and peace.

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