• Sara Larson

In Spirit and Truth News Roundup: January 20

Welcome to the In Spirit and Truth News Roundup, collecting important articles about the twin crises of abuse and leadership failures in the Catholic Church.

I strive to share only articles I find both thoughtful and helpful, but please note that 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.

Here's the roundup for the last two weeks:

Global survivors of abuse looking to McCarrick report to provide dramatic proof of Pope Francis’ new promise to abolish papal secrecy 

This is the latest statement from the global survivors' organization Ending Clergy Abuse, calling for full transparency about the McCarrick case. I don't necessarily agree with every word of this statement, but it's a helpful exposition of what some survivors would like to see as evidence that the Church is committed to complete transparency.

"Abolishing secrecy in Catholic church sex abuse cases must begin with this report, which means it must be accompanied by the full release of all materials obtained by the investigating team, including but not limited to: all interviews (such as the one that must have been conducted with senior church officials like Sodano); all internal church documents from the Vatican, US dioceses and the US Vatican embassy; transcripts of witness testimonies, interviews and affidavits; all diplomatic communications and, of course, McCarrick’s complete laicization file.

You can not claim to eliminate secrecy and then keep secret the evidence upon which you based your conclusions. Providing 'summaries' and 'interpretations' of evidence and testimony that cannot be directly examined or consulted is unacceptable."

Ousted cardinal McCarrick gave more than $600,000 to fellow clerics, including two popes, records show

This is another important piece of the puzzle surrounding McCarrick.

"Former cardinal Theodore McCarrick gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in church money to powerful Catholic clerics over nearly two decades, according to financial records obtained by The Washington Post, while the Vatican failed to act on claims he had sexually harassed young men.

Starting in 2001, McCarrick sent checks totaling more than $600,000 to clerics in Rome and elsewhere, including Vatican bureaucrats, papal advisers and two popes, according to church ledgers and former church officials. Several of the more than 100 recipients were directly involved in assessing misconduct claims against McCarrick, documents and interviews show."

Also, I keep on wondering about this kind of statement: "A spokesman for Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, called such gifts common and said they do not influence how Parolin exercises his official responsibilities. He received $1,000 from McCarrick shortly after becoming secretary of state in 2013. 'To send and receive such gifts is customary during the Christmas season, including between Bishops, as a sign of appreciation for work carried out in the service of the universal Church and for the Holy Father,' the spokesman said in a statement."

Even if we believed the statements that these cash gifts were not meant to buy influence, that would still mean that Church leaders seem to be passing huge amounts of money among one another on a regular basis. What a strange practice for a Church called to stand in solidarity with the poor.

Theodore McCarrick has moved from Kansas friary

The latest news on McCarrick:

"The disgraced former cardinal Theodore McCarrick has moved from the Kansas friary where he had been living since 2018... He has moved to a residential community of priests who have been removed from ministry, senior Church officials told CNA.

The former cardinal made the decision to leave the Kansas friary himself over the Christmas period, sources say, adding that his continued presence in the friary had become a strain on the Franciscan community that was hosting him."

Healing From Clerical Sexual Abuse

An eye-opening reflection from survivor Allen Hebert.

"When I was 12 years old, my family and I met a friendly and seemingly normal priest. Fr. Andy Willemsen wormed his way into my family’s trust and my parents had no suspicions as he began grooming me. He took advantage of a young boy, psychologically manipulating and perverting me into believing we were in a 'God-sanctioned relationship,' 'simply helping me explore my sexuality.' In my case, grooming involved my abuser building trust, and then exploiting it to compel me to willingly engage in an abusive relationship without viewing it as such.

I never felt intimidated or threatened, rather I was gently led into a very abusive relationship. The relationship continued even after I stopped the physical aspects of it. It was only much later in my life that I recognized my relationship with Fr. Andy as abusive. It was then that I felt stupid and recognized the reality that he abused me."

Is Your Faith Stronger Than Scandal?

Here's a second, more recent post from Allen Hebert, with some thoughtful exploration of a difficult question - How do we react when a priest we know and trust is accused of abuse?

"In the immediate wake of the revelations concerning Fr. Sullivan, there are already people who are struggling to believe that a priest they thought was very holy and virtuous—he regularly spoke passionately about these topics—was actually taking advantage of numerous women who he encountered during the course of his ministry. Some of the people who knew him have expressed on social media platforms their suspicion concerning the accusations.

If you are tempted to defend Fr. Sullivan, keep in mind that it took great courage for these young women to come forward. Remember that it took significant risk of not being believed or being blamed for leading a good man astray for them to share their painful experiences. Reconsider making comments about how you cannot believe it is true. Avoid bemoaning this as an unjust attack on a holy priest. Instead, reflect on how you, too, may have been groomed by Fr. Sullivan to believe he could never do such a heinous thing. If you are struggling to come to grips with being fooled, know that you are not alone. You are a victim too, the whole community is affected by the actions of this priest. The whole community now needs to go through the healing process. "

Processing the truth about Fr. Michael Sullivan and why we should

Here's another post related to Father Michael Sullivan's recently-uncovered abusive behavior. I respect the honesty of this woman of faith wrestling with new information about a priest she loved and trusted.

"When I heard the Bishops’ letter read at mass recently regarding Father Michael Sullivan being removed from ministry for inappropriate behavior with women who had now come forward, the news felt like a thunderclap. Internally I went straight to denial even with all that I know about these issues. My mind went through all the thoughts I get mad at other people for; thoughts like: Maybe it’s a mistake. Maybe it isn’t true. Maybe those women wanted to get him in trouble. Maybe these claims are exaggerated. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. Maybe he was just tempted. Maybe it wasn’t his fault somehow.

By the time the letter ended I had come to my senses. I know better than all that. What is interesting is that I thought those things for a minute anyway."

Catholic Church Shields $2 Billion in Assets to Limit Abuse Payouts

This strikes me as an informative and mostly fair exploration of some of the financial issues related to abuse claims, bankruptcy, and the like. There's an underlying bias you should watch for throughout the article, but it offers some helpful information if you're trying to get your head around these issues.

As someone who has invested my heart (and my financial resources) in my own beloved parish for many years, I do have sympathy for the desire to prevent abuse settlements from impacting parishes that serve those who had nothing to do with the abuse or cover up. To be honest, I don't have this one all worked out in my own head and heart yet. But it's definitely something all Catholics should be thinking about when we say we want to support survivors.

Note: One reader expressed some concern after I shared the above comment on Facebook. To clarify - I don't mean to imply that I support efforts to protect Church assets from abuse settlements. I believe the Church should be ready to become poor, from top to bottom. However, as someone who has seen the way parish ministry can impact lives in such a positive way, it is still painful to me to think of all that may be lost as a consequence of these crimes. We must be clear though - any loss is not the responsibility of survivors, but of those who harmed them.

Why is the Vatican keeping Bishop Scharfenberger in the dark?

Here's a little update on what's going on in the Diocese of Buffalo after Malone's resignation. (Thank you to my friends in Buffalo for keeping me updated!) I remain hopeful for at least incremental, if not perfect, improvement, but I'm so glad there are good people on the ground remaining vigilant.

"Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, New York, is in a tough spot. Appointed apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Buffalo after the resignation of Bishop Richard Malone, Bishop Scharfenberger is the public face of the Church in a place riddled with scandal and in dire need of urgent repair. But he apparently has little power to effect reform and little information with which to work.

Bishop Malone resigned after 18 months of intense public scrutiny of his leadership, which produced significant evidence of serious mismanagement and attracted the attention of state and federal prosecutors.

'I didn’t know quite what to expect,' Bishop Scharfenberger told Charlie Specht of ABC local affiliate WKBW in a wide-ranging interview that aired earlier this week, 'because I really hadn’t been briefed at all.' The bishop continued: 'All I knew is what I read in the papers, to tell you the truth.'"

Judge says parents can sue diocese over abuse reporting

This is a significant development. I had to read carefully to understand what's new about this ruling:

"A Pennsylvania judge has ruled that parents of children in the Roman Catholic Church and survivors of sexual abuse by clergy members can move forward with a lawsuit against the Diocese of Pittsburgh alleging that it has not fulfilled its obligations under state law to report child sexual abusers.

'This ruling is unprecedented. This is the first time a cause of action has been brought by a non-survivor member of the public and the first time a court has said that is a viable legal strategy, that a private citizen can compel the church to prove it’s complying with the mandatory reporting law,' said Benjamin Sweet, attorney for the survivors and parents...

Sweet said the Pennsylvania lawsuit is different than others brought against the church because none of the plaintiffs or attorneys are seeking any damages or monetary awards."

Hope for Change in an Age of #ChurchToo Sexual Abuse

While my focus is on the Catholic Church, I find it valuable to read the stories of survivors and advocates working on addressing sexual abuse in their own churches and other organizations. There are notable differences in the structures and culture, but many of the stories are eerily similar to those we're telling in the Catholic Church as well. Praise God for Megan Lively's courage in working for change in the Southern Baptist Convention.

"Megan connects survivors to people in the SBC who need to hear their stories. She knows that her continued support of the SBC means she’ll be misunderstood or critiqued. She also knows it’s what faithfulness looks like for her—to God, to survivors, to the church she feels called to remain in.

'I think the SBC took a period of time to listen and literally lament before they even started considering what they were going to do… that’s important. They were willing to hear the really bad things before they started working on a solution.'

This, of course, is a point where many disagree with Megan. Some on the outside, and even some on the inside of the SBC don’t see listening—they see stalling. They don’t see lament; they see PR. But Megan says that unless people stay involved in the process, they can’t speak effectively to what’s really happening."

Is a Catholic ‘Victims’ Rights’ movement the next frontier in abuse reform?

Thoughtful exploration of an important issue.

"Like American law, victims of clerical sexual abuse are not parties to criminal procedures, and for the same reason described by Locke. In a briefing for reporters this week on Pope Francis’s recent decision to lift the obligation of pontifical secrecy in such cases, Spanish Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, said it’s because “the interests of the victim are assumed by the state.”

The problem, of course, is that by 'state' Arrieta means 'institutional church,' and to ask victims of clerical abuse to trust the institution to look after their interests is often a tough sell. Over and over, one hears complaints from abuse survivors of being kept in the dark about what’s happening with their canonical complaints, of being refused access to files compiled as part of the process, and of having no say in whatever canonical sanction is imposed."

My Story of Sexual Abuse by Faith Hakesley

This is a heart-wrenching account of one woman's abuse by her parish priest while she was a teenager working in the parish office. Thank you, Faith, for your honesty and courage in telling your story.

** Trigger warning - This is a very difficult story to read. **

"I froze. I think I may have stopped breathing for a moment. What the heck was happening?

It happened so quickly that I wasn’t even sure it happened. It was over before I could even wrap my brain around what he was doing. Fr. Kelvin went on with his day like nothing had happened. He was his usual cheerful self and he waved good-bye as he went off to hear confessions and say the 4PM Mass that afternoon."

French priest recounts how he abused boy scouts over decades


"A former priest detailed Tuesday how he systematically abused boys over two decades as a French scout chaplain, and said his superiors knew about his “abnormal” behavior as far back as the 1970s...

[Bernard Preynat] said he abused up to two boys 'almost every weekend' from 1970 to 1990 when he worked as their scout chaplain, and as many as four or five a week when he led one-week scout camps.

He said parents first alerted the diocese in the 1970s, but his hierachy never punished him. 'I often said to myself ‘I have to stop’ but I started again a few months later. I blame myself today,' he told a hushed courtroom. 'It seemed to me that the children were consenting,' he said. 'I was wrong.'"

French trial exposes how church covered for predator priest

Another update from Preynat's trial. This is a disturbing story - but I'm grateful that a trial is allowing this truth to be told.

"One of the first people to notice Bernard Preynat’s unhealthy obsession for young boys was the supervisor at the seminary where, still a teen, the future priest started training for his career in the church.

'At 14, 15 years old, I became interested in the youngest boys and the supervisor summoned me to tell me that I was abnormal and sick,' the self-confessed child abuser said at his trial in France this past week. 'I explained this to the bishop.'

And yet, after a two-year church-imposed course of psychotherapy, Preynat was still ordained into the priesthood. This chance, the first of many, to keep him away from children was spurned by the church hierarchy, which instead consistently — and successfully — long kept his abuses under wraps."

Mexico bishops urge no statute of limitations for sex abuse

This is a surprising move. Now, if only the United States bishops would follow this lead.

"The Roman Catholic Church in Mexico called on the country’s government Tuesday to modify the legal code and do away with statutes of limitations for sexual abuse of minors.

'We want to ask in the name of the bishops of Mexico for there to be no expiration for this crime,' said Rogelio Cabrera, president of the Mexican Bishops’ Conference. He called it 'unjust' that nothing can be done about such cases starting 10 years from the date of the offense, 'since the wrong done lasts for the lifetime of the person who has been a victim.'"

The survivors of clergy sexual abuse who finally pushed the Vatican to recognize the problem

This is a fascinating, succinct look at the history of the survivor movement in the United States since the 1980s. (I have to admit, I clicked on a ton of the links within and ended up in several hours of reading.)

Thank you to scholar Brian Clites for his important work on this issue.

The Grand Inquisitor: Abused by a priest as a child, Tom Economus has channeled his anger into a crusade to force the church to confess its sins

Here's a very old article I came across in my research recently. Note the date - November 4, 1999 - and don't believe anyone who tells you "we didn't know" about widespread clergy sexual abuse until Spotlight in 2002.

"[Tom Economus] made it his life's work to rid the church of the sort of abuse he encountered growing up. 'The connection that they really don't get is that it's not just physical abuse, it's the spiritual abuse,' he says. 'This man of God has manipulated children, and that's really at the heart of this issue. It's not like they run out, abuse a kid, and that's it. There's a relationship with the kid, there's a relationship with the family, there's a whole mental manipulation here that goes on that is totally devastating.'"

Analysis: After investigation, when will Pope Francis act on Hoeppner?

There hasn't been a lot of press around the Vos Estis investigation of Bishop Hoeppner, but this is an important case to be following.

"Hoeppner is unique among his brother bishops: he is the first U.S. bishop to be investigated under the norms of Vos estis lux mundi, the 2019 policy from Pope Francis on investigating bishops accused of mishandling or obstructing allegations of clerical sexual abuse...

But while the Vatican authorized the investigation in September, and a report was sent to Rome in early November, it is unclear when the Vatican will announce the results of the investigation, and the next steps in the scandal-plagued tenure of Bishop Hoeppner."


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.

In particular, I invite you to remember the names, faces, and stories of all the abuse victims who were mentioned in these stories and keep those people in your daily prayers.

Saint Sebastian, courageous speaker of truth, pray for us.

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