• Sara Larson

In Spirit and Truth News Roundup: February 25

Welcome to the latest summary of important news related to the twin crises of sexual abuse and leadership failures in the Catholic Church. This is a long one, but there are a lot of really valuable articles and reflections to share this time.

I also want to let you know about an important event coming up from Awake Milwaukee. Our March 18 Courageous Conversation is going to be focused on the abuse of adults in the Catholic Church. This topic is close to my heart, because these people are close to my heart. I hope you will consider joining us and sharing with others. You can see more information and register at this link.

(As always: I strive to share only articles I find both thoughtful and helpful in understanding the twin crises in the Catholic Church. However, sharing a link does not mean I fully endorse 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!)


After abuse, addiction, and recovery, Mike McDonnell works to help others

This is a complicated, messy, and ultimately beautiful story about the effects of childhood sexual abuse - and the possibility of recovery and healing.

"Mike McDonnell understands how victims can lose their way. He was abused by two Catholic priests, one of whom was later convicted, a dark secret that traumatized him so much he became addicted to drugs and alcohol, two of his three marriages failed, and he stole about $100,000 from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia — a crime for which he served nearly a year in jail.

But through recovery, and maintaining his Catholic faith, McDonnell, 52, has rebuilt himself as a victims advocate as he tries to help others. He’s now a local leader for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). 'He’ll take phone calls at all hours of the day and night,' said Shaun Dougherty, a board member of SNAP and a fellow advocate. 'He’ll talk victims through any problem that they have. He’ll find resources for them if they need it. He’ll help guide them in any way that he can.'"

What We Often Get Wrong About Sexual Abuse and Sexual Offenders

I have a spent a LOT of time reading and learning about these issues, but I definitely learned something new when I listened to Mitch Mueller speak recently. I'm glad we've captured some of this on the Awake blog, because these things need to be part of our conversation.

"[N]ot all abusers engage in grooming behaviors, explains psychotherapist Mitch Mueller, LPC, of West Bend, Wisconsin, who has worked for many years treating sexual offenders. A practicing Catholic and parishioner at St. Mary’s Immaculate Conception in West Bend, Mueller feels called to educate the public about people who commit sexual crimes. 'If you don’t understand offenders, you’re not going to do a good job of reducing the offenses,' he says."

Seven decades after a priest assaulted her, a Plainfield woman is still grappling with the trauma

I've read many survivor stories. This one is sad, moving, and beautifully written.

(TW: Childhood sexual abuse and long-term effects of trauma.)

"The arrival of the Rev. Daniel Roberts dashed the idyllic moment. 'I lost it. I started shaking and crying,' Rondeau said. It was the first time in years that she’d seen the priest who she says sexually assaulted her as a young girl in White River Junction. 'It was like it happened all over again.'

She told her older sister that she refused to go inside as long as Roberts was there. But, in the 1970s, decades before news about sexual abuse within the Catholic Church would make headlines across the country, and long before the #MeToo movement would draw attention to the prevalence and lasting trauma of sexual violence, Rondeau’s sister only sighed. 'Come on, Patty,' she said. 'That was so long ago.'"


Frontline Documentary: The Silence

I've been trying to understand more about the abuse crisis in historically marginalized communities, and, oh, it's such a painful story.

This 28 minute documentary on the abuse of Native Americans by priests and religious workers in Alaska is absolutely devastating. As one survivor says, "If Jesus were to come to the village, I have no doubt in my mind that he would be crying."


Why I Write about Abuse the Way I Do

This is a thought-provoking blog post from a friend that I love and respect. She's reflecting on her own approach to writing about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, but it's got me thinking about my own here as well.

"Emotion can be useful as a starting point, but only if it leads to meaningful action. And the only way it can lead to meaningful action is if it's directed towards it. Giving people a direction, showing them what they can do in their communities and parishes, is as important as motivating them to want to do something in the first place."

I think that many Catholics are not sufficiently horrifed and enraged by the reality of abuse in our Church, and sharing terrible stories can be helpful in breaking them out of complacency. But anger is not enough - it needs to fuel action, and that means we need to also be thinking and talking about what we can DO to make things better.

Archbishop Aymond and his fiercest critic make peace, pledge to collaborate on abuse crisis

Well, this is encouraging. Obviously, what matters most is what changes actually come from this meeting, but this sounds like a hopeful step. This quote is from the joint statement by the local SNAP leader and the Archdiocese:

"For the past 18 months, the Archdiocese of New Orleans and local SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) leadership have appeared at odds, often publicly and in the media, over how the archdiocese has handled claims of sexual abuse by clergy. In recent weeks, it has become obvious to us that though we may have different ideas and methods, we have common goals: healing for victims, their families and prevention of abuse. Let us be clear, clergy sexual abuse is a scandal, it is a sin, and it cannot be tolerated. The Archbishop stated two years ago that the sexual abuse of minors is a crime.

After months of indirect and unproductive communicating, we decided the path forward must include face-to-face, honest, and open communication between us... While this meeting was a good start, we know well that what is most important is what actions are taken as a result. We are committed to open and honest communications and to developing a program for healing for victims of abuse and their families with the sincere hope of rebuilding trust between them and the church."

Courageous Conversation: Understanding Trauma to Build Trauma–Sensitive Parishes

Here's the blog post and video from Awake's February Courageous Conversation with Dr. Stephen Saunders. If you're a Catholic who cares about being sensitive to survivors, it's definitely worth a watch.

Don't miss the comments and ideas directly from survivors right after Dr. Saunders' presentation. They're really powerful!

"A church community that is trauma-sensitive works to prevent abuse from happening in the first place, and seeks to help people currently experiencing abuse or those abused in the past, [Stephen] Saunders explained. He stressed the importance of outreach to people who may be currently experiencing abuse, or living in its aftermath. Clergy and parish leaders may not know the identity of victims and survivors, but ministry teams can signal their care and compassion by making statements from the pulpit or in the bulletin like, ‘We know you’re here, we welcome you, and if we can, if you’re willing, we would like to help you,’ Saunders suggested."

The U.S. bishops under abuse or cover-up investigations

It's helpful to have this list all in one place. Unfortunately, there are too many names to keep track of easily.

"The Archdiocese of Kansas City announced Monday that Bishop John Brungardt of Dodge City, Kansas has been accused of committing sexual abuse against a minor. The bishop has denied the allegation, which is being investigated by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City has been charged with investigating the allegation on behalf of the Vatican, under the protocols of Vos estis lux mundi, a 2019 policy from Pope Francis on allegations against bishops. Unlike some bishops under investigation for sexual abuse, Brungardt, 62, has taken a leave of absence from the Dodge City diocese while the matter is investigated.

Brungardt is one of at least 10 bishops to come under publicly-known investigation in the U.S. since 2018. Here are the others..."

Catholic Church Sex Abuse: What Is Suitable Compensation for a Life of Trauma?

I respect that Janet Smith, who comes from a conservative theological perspective, is trying to call the Church to do better for survivors of sexual abuse. There are certainly some Catholics that are going to be more open to listening to her than to others who speak about this, and I'm glad she keeps on talking about it, even if I find some flaws in her approach.

To have these words in the National Catholic Register is important: "Victims of priestly sexual abuse rarely receive decent treatment from dioceses or orders. They are often treated not as beloved sons and daughters of the Church but as greedy adversaries. The standard for compensation often seems to be how little a diocese or order can pay to get the victim to go away after signing a non-disclosure agreement."

And this story from one victim: "Recently, Brad has been trying to report through the new system set up for greater accountability for bishops, the bishops who he believes failed to respond adequately to his abuse. He reported the abuse with full documentation in June and still has not had one response to his reports or follow up requests. Repeat: in over seven months he has not heard a word from the bishop reporting service publicized as the tool to create more adequate bishops’ accountability in the Church."

Priest accused of sexually assaulting parishioner denies claims but admits to having affair

THIS is why we need to have much better understanding of sexual abuse, manipulation, and consent regarding clerics and adult women and men. I don't know the other half of this story, but I do know women who have been manipulated, abused, and raped by priests - priests who later claimed it was "an affair."

"'Fr. Sinatra exploited his position of authority over Plaintiff as a priest, counselor and spiritual director,' the suit states...

The pastor denied he ever assaulted anyone. 'In this demand for payment, she claims that I sexually assaulted her and sexually abused her,' Sinatra told his parishioners in the letter. 'I want to let you know that — as shameful and embarrassing as my transgressions were — I have never sexually abused or assaulted her, or anyone else.' While he said the relationship was consensual, Sinatra acknowledged that he breached his promise of celibacy and sought forgiveness from his flock."

Preventing and Responding to Clergy Perpetrated Seuxal Abuse: A Guide to Best Practices

I found this guide useful, as a broad overview of the approach churches should consider. It's written from a broader Christian perspective, so some of the suggestions don't apply well to a Catholic context. But so much of this rings true. (And Dr. Pooler will be speaking at Awake's next Courageous Conversation in March, so I look forward to hearing more from him then!)

"- 'What happened to you was not your fault.' The victim may need to hear these words many times, especially if they believe that they consented to or cooperated with the abuse. Let them know that the minister is always the one responsible for maintaining safe boundaries with a congregant.

- Protect the victim from their offender. Never attempt to force a meeting between the victim and the accused clergy member. Never question the victim in the presence of the accused clergy member. Church leaders should offer appropriate support to the accused minister, but the victim’s need for healing should have top priority.

- Don’t silence the victim. They have a right to talk about what happened to them. Telling their story – as often as they need to, any way they need to, to anyone they need to tell – is vital to the process of healing.

- Make sure the victim feels welcome to stay in the congregation if they want to. For many victims, their faith community is their most important source of support."

No charges against North Dakota priests accused of sex abuse

The statute of limitations means we've waited too long for prosecution in so many of these cases. But at least these investigations help unveil the truth.

"North Dakota’s attorney general said... his office’s 18-month investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse by members of the state’s two Roman Catholic dioceses will not result in any charges because too much time has passed to prosecute the two lone living clergy members.

The investigation began when the Fargo and Bismarck dioceses provided a list of 53 clergy members who have had substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said there likely was enough evidence to charge the Rev. Norman Dukart of Dickinson and the Rev. Odo Muggli, an Order of Saint Benedict priest at Assumption Abbey in Richardton, but the statute of limitations has run out on their cases."

Kansas Catholic bishop under investigation by KBI for alleged sexual abuse of a minor

I don't presume guilt, nor do I presume innocence. I'm glad to see Brungardt has stepped down during the investigation, which doesn't always happen with bishops.

"Kansas’ top law enforcement agency is investigating an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against Roman Catholic Bishop John B. Brungardt of Dodge City, the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas announced Monday.

'An investigation conducted by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) is under way,' the archdiocese said in a statement published in The Leaven, its official newspaper. 'Bishop Brungardt denies the allegation and is cooperating fully with the KBl.' Brungardt, a former high school science teacher, has asked to step aside from his duties until the matter is resolved, the archdiocese said."

Catholic charity confirms allegations of assault against founder

I'm sharing this piece mostly for this devastating final line: "Van Straaten now joins the growing list of founders of major Catholic organizations to be accused of some form of abuse, including Legionaries of Christ founder Marcial Maciel, the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae founder Luis Fernando Fiagri, the Monastery of Bose founder Enzo Bianchi, and the founder of the L’Arche community, Jean Vanier."

Lord, have mercy on your people.

Fr. Robert DeLand to be Released Early, SNAP Responds

I'm grateful to SNAP for keeping watch and drawing attention to cases like this.

"A Catholic priest who was sentenced to prison in Michigan after multiple men came forward to accuse him of sexual assault and grooming is being released early from prison. Given this man’s apparent pattern of criminal sexual conduct, we hope that Church officials will keep tabs on him and inform the communities where he will live and work about the danger he represents.

Fr. Robert DeLand was first accused of abuse decades ago. Diocesan officials in Saginaw were aware of claims against him as early as 1992 and even “investigated” allegations against him in 2005. The priest was finally taken off the streets in 2018 thanks to the work of police and prosecutors in Michigan.

Based on media coverage of his history, it appears to us that Fr. DeLand is a serial abuser. He has been the subject of abuse allegations over the course of three decades and was abusing vulnerable young men as recently as 2017. Given this background, we are concerned that he will once again find, groom, and prey on young men now that he is being released."

Diocese of Brooklyn Alerts Parishioners of Queens Deacon Arrest

I don't share many stories about clergy being arrested for sexual crimes (although I read plenty of them), because sometimes I'm not sure what purpose sharing serves. But it does feel important to occasionally remind all of us that there are still leaders in the church who are a danger to others. This type of internet-based crime seems to be an increased risk in today's culture; I have read quite a few stories like this.

"Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz said Vega started communicating on a dating app last July with a person he thought was a 14-year-old boy. What Vega didn’t know was the “teen” was an undercover agent. Katz said. Prosecutors said Vega exchanged pornographic pictures with the “minor” and then planned to meet in-person. When Vega showed up, the undercover agent was there to arrest him. Vega was charged with attempted use of a child in a sexual performance, attempted criminal seuxal act, attempted dissemination of indecent material to a minor and attempted endangering the welfare of a child."

Catholic Priest from Diocese of Gaylord Accused of Abuse

I'm glad this allegation of abuse of an adult is being taken seriously. But I have to wonder what happened that pushed this women to speak out in such a public way (she made this allegation at a parish meeting). Had she tried to make herself heard in other ways and felt ignored or silenced?

From SNAP's statement: "The abuse of adults is an aspect of the clergy sexual abuse scandal that has long been hidden but is getting more attention in recent years. We hope that this story will inspire others who were hurt to come forward and find the help and healing they need."

'I wasted my time' - Reporting clerical sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Lagos

This story feels so sadly familiar to me, but I'm grateful to this important reporting from The Pillar. When victim-survivors tell us how they're being treated when they come forward, we need to believe them and work for change. (TW - Sexual abuse, spiritual manipulation.)

"Moremi, noting that she felt manipulated when she reported her abuse, is skeptical about the archdiocese’s commitment to take policies seriously. She blamed 'a flawed system incapable of handling this.'

'For months, I was so confident that the Church would validate my experience and treat it with so much respect. I was so confident.' Even when friends doubted that diocesan officials would help, Moremi said, 'I was adamant. I was so sure.'"


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.

Come Lord Jesus, come.

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