• Sara Larson

In Spirit and Truth News Roundup: March 11

Welcome to the latest summary of important news related to the twin crises of sexual abuse and leadership failures in the Catholic Church. There were so many valuable articles this time that I had to expand to four "Top Reads" this time around. Please check them out below!

(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 reads below are a great place to start!)


New Orleans archdiocese to add clergy abuse survivor to allegation review board

Wow. It's really interesting to see what's unfolding in New Orleans. I'm sure everything's not rainbows and unicorns behind the scenes, but this certainly sounds like progress. You can find more information in articles here and here.

"Archbishop Gregory Aymond announced Thursday that a clergy abuse survivor, whose identity will be kept confidential, will become part of his Independent Review Board. The board, comprised of 'primarily lay professionals' according to the archdiocese, reviews abuse claims to see if they are credible and then makes recommendations to the archbishop.

Additionally, Aymond said he will replace the archdiocese's victims assistance coordinator, who is currently a member of the clergy, with a layperson. Joey Pistorius, director of the archdiocese's Catholic Counseling Service, assumes the new role effective April 1. Pistorius, a licensed professional counselor will collaborate with a team of counselors who are trained to work with 'disclosures of trauma,' according to the archdiocese. The counseling team will receive training from Kevin Bourgeois, a social worker, clergy abuse survivor and, until recently, one of Aymond's harshest critics."

Cardinal Blase Cupich demanding details on abusive order priests but won’t post findings

This is a really nuanced and well-researched article about the complex but important issue of diocesan oversight and accountability for religious orders operating in the area. (Ignore the title - it doesn't capture the main point of the article, which actually highlights many positive steps Cupich is taking as well.)

"'I have to fill out a comprehensive summary,' [Rev. Stephen] Rehrauer says, on every member of his order in the Chicago area each year for the Archdiocese of Chicago, which he says asks about any allegations of misconduct that have been made at any time, among other probing questions.

'That’s new,' Rehrauer says. As a result, he says, 'They have a more complete awareness of who’s who in the archdiocese.' Another order cleric says the archdiocese has 'been even more rigorous in scrutinizing boundary violations with adults.'"

After McCarrick Report, Here’s How to Extend Safe Environment to Adults

I don't know how I missed this interview when it was published in December, but I found it very helpful - and accurate to the experiences of survivors I know who were abused as adults.

"It isn’t normal for a caregiver to start sharing their own problems in life. Normally, they’re the ones just listening. If they’re starting to unload their own problems, it could just be a sign that person is in a bad state and probably shouldn’t be giving a [pastoral care] session. It doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily going to be abusive.

But a standard operating procedure of a lot of abusive pastors and priests is to share their own emotional problems and unsatisfied sexual desires. It’s not just a [celibate] priest who could say it, but even married pastors and other lay persons can start that procedure by making the care-seeker feel sorry for this person. And then the manipulation can start coming in: like trying to tell the care-seeker how special they are; then they try to take it to a spiritual level, invoking things like St. Francis and St. Clare, for that spiritual-emotional closeness. And then they’ll say that this is normal for the care-seeker and care-giver relationship. And they’ll use all these kinds of spiritual hooks, biblical or otherwise, to try to bring someone into a very intimate, trusting situation and then exploit it and turn it into a more physical relationship."

I Don’t Need ‘I Believe You.’ I Need ‘I’ll Stand Up For You.’

This is really important.

"With a real possibility of justice, victims would speak up more readily. Survivors of sexual assault deserve more than just for people to believe us. People need to stand up for us, to advocate for accountability and justice, to speak truth to power — even when it’s uncomfortable or risky. That should be the automatic response."


Fr. Michael Pfleger’s parish stops payments to Chicago archdiocese to expedite his investigation

This situation is obviously really painful and messy, but I do agree with the Archdiocese of Chicago's statement here:

"It is ironic that we are now accused of taking too long to consider allegations because a priest is prominent and well regarded.”

Blind loyalty to Pfleger could harm Black community

I can't help but wonder - What if these allegations are true, and what if there are other victims in this parish? What message is parish leadership sending to them?

"One of the Rev. Michael Pfleger’s supporters summed up the sexual abuse allegations against the priest in a way that many might find appropriate. They don’t fit with “what I know about him,” Northwestern University law student Blair Matthews told a Tribune reporter in January when the accusations came to light. Like many who are standing solidly behind Pfleger, Matthews credits the priest and the St. Sabina Church community with helping him succeed in life.

Many people who have met the outspoken and charismatic priest might agree. Sexual abuse is not the sort of thing that immediately comes to mind when you think of a man who has spent his life helping disadvantaged youths lift themselves up. But abuse happens. We know from other cases in the Catholic Church and elsewhere, the perpetrators often are the people who garner the most trust. As much as we might admire Pfleger for his contributions to the African American community, no one should automatically presume that in this case, the abuse did not occur, any more than we should presume that it did."

Third man alleges inappropriate behavior by beloved South Side priest Pfleger

I'm thankful for the courage of this truck driver who decided to speak up.

"The man, a truck driver who does not live in Illinois, said he had little interest in revisiting the past, having found peace in his feelings toward Pfleger and the Catholic church nearly 30 years ago when he achieved sobriety. But he argues his story shows Pfleger was not “a real squeaky clean priest” back then and people should try to keep an open mind as the archdiocese investigates.

“I told (my friend) I’m not getting in the middle of that stuff up there,” said the man, who asked that his name not be made public. “She kept telling me, ‘You know, they’re not going to believe the victims because of who Mike is, and maybe if you talk to somebody and say what you know, it may help the victims with their credibility.’ It finally kind of started sinking in. I thought, ‘I have to say something.’”

Survivors of sex abuse by nuns suffer decades of delayed healing

Important reporting on the often ignored problem of sexual abuse by religious sisters. It's much less common than abused by male clergy, but it does happen, and these survivors' stories are no less important.

"Cáit Finnegan told GSR that Sister of Mercy Sr. Juanita Barto, the jovial Spanish teacher at Mater Christi Diocesan High School* in Queens, New York, molested her regularly over a four-year period, beginning when she was a sophomore in 1966. It started with little notes. Barto would leave them in Finnegan's locker, asking her to come talk in her classroom. She also invited Finnegan to attend Broadway shows with her. The more they talked and developed a "special" friendship, the more Finnegan began to confide in Barto and come to love her like a family member. Soon, Barto started locking the classroom door during their talks and sexually violating Finnegan.

Finnegan, an aspiring Sister of Mercy with budding musical talent, said she didn't understand what was happening to her ('In my Irish Catholic family, there was no such thing as sex,' she said), but Barto told her that God was love and this was how people expressed love.

Leadership groups condemn abuse by nuns but leave solutions to local congregations

This is a messy story, with what sounds like slow but real progress. I'm grateful for all those who are pushing religious sisters to do better in addressing abuse in their own congregations.

"Several years after making the resources [about addressing sexual abuse in their religious congregations] available, LCWR followed up with congregations to see what abuse policies and procedures had been put in place. Zinn said there was something close to 90% compliance. She emphasized, however, that LCWR has no legal or canonical responsibility for its members and can only offer them suggested guidelines. 'LCWR is a voluntary organization,' Zinn said. 'We have no authority over our members. We can't tell them to do anything.'

Cáit Finnegan, who says she was sexually abused by a Sister of Mercy over a four-year period as a teen, doesn't buy that. 'They keep saying through the years they have no authority to go into communities and say this or that. And that's a bunch of hogwash,' she quipped. 'They have moral authority like nobody else — these are the leaders of every damn religious order.'

Abused by Nuns: Together We Can Heal

A follow up on the above pieces - resources for survivors of abuse by women religious.

"Those of us who have been molested or raped by nuns are finding each other and speaking out. Our goal is to help other victims and prevent future victims! It is a frightening thing to reach out to others initially, but there are other survivors of sexual abuse by nuns who can offer personal peer support."

Fordham Panel Explores Clergy Abuse in Native American Communities

This was a really painful presentation to listen to, but I learned a lot.

This quote from Awake's summary blog post was particularly striking: "Holscher asserted that Native American communities have been largely left out of the conversation about sexual abuse by clergy. 'There’s a reason that sexual abuse has become a crisis in the United States, and that’s because a lot of white Catholic kids were abused,' she said, adding that few people know about abuse in Native American communities because 'white Catholics don’t see it as their problem in the same way.'"

Catholic priests accused of sex abuse increasingly use defamation lawsuits to fight allegations

My heart is always with victims and survivors first, and we know that false allegations are rare. But I've been thinking a lot about these questions of due process for accused priests and how the Church should proceed when there's no clear evidence. I don't have any good answers.

"The available data suggest false claims are uncommon but not unheard of. The most recent annual report released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found that for the 1,787 allegations received between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019, that did not meet a threshold for credibility, 1% were determined to be false, 37% were unable to be proved and 16% were "unsubstantiated," meaning investigators could not prove one way or another that they occurred as claimed. Another 46% were still being investigated.

In a landmark 2004 report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice that looked at 5,681 cases investigated by diocese and religious communities, 1.5% were found to be false and 18% unsubstantiated."

Washington archdiocese allocates $2m for Cardinal Wuerl’s ‘continuing ministry’

Ugh. (I don't have anything more thoughtful to say about this one. Just a big sigh.) Follow up article here: Washington account of $2m Cardinal Wuerl fund raises transparency questions.

"According to financial records of the Archdiocese of Washington, $2,012,639 was designated for 'continuing ministry activities for [the] Archbishop Emeritus' during the 2020 fiscal year. The amount is a 35% increase from the $1,488,059 designated for Wuerl’s ministry in the 2019 fiscal year reports."

As a reminder: "During the final months of Wuerl’s tenure in Washington, the cardinal came under sustained scrutiny after he denied that he knew about, or had any reason to suspect, the crimes of which McCarrick was accused. In fact, Wuerl was made aware in 2004 of an allegation of 'inappropriate conduct' against McCarrick. Wuerl reportedly conveyed the allegation to the apostolic nuncio in Washington, D.C. In 2010, Wuerl advised the Vatican against sending an official birthday greeting to McCarrick, because of 'the possibility that the New York Times is going to publish a nasty article, already prepared, about the Cardinal’s ‘moral life’.'"

Considering Mary’s Nightmares

Some of my friends who are abuse survivors really appreciated this article, so I thought I would share it here in case others might find it helpful. I don't think I've ever really considered the trauma Mary experienced and how that might have impacted her. It's a beautiful concept for reflection.

"Being conceived without sin doesn’t protect you from trauma. Mary may have had nightmares. She may have found herself crying without even realizing that she was thinking of them, the children who had died to save her son, the parents who mourned them. And then perhaps her mind went to the prophecies, to the slaughter awaiting him.

We can’t know what she did then, how she talked herself down or whether she even needed to. But I have a feeling that there were moments when the tears spilled over, just as there are for us, and that a young, heartbroken Mary pulled a squirmy Jesus to herself and clung to him. When she forgot how to be a woman filled with joy, she grabbed ahold of Jesus and belonging to him held the darkness at bay for a while."

God Heals Through Our Vocation

Some personal wisdom from my friend Emily, who is a wife, mother, practicing Catholic, and survivor of clergy sexual abuse.

"I think a lot of people are struggling with disillusionment and spiritual trauma right now. Our spiritual and magisterial leadership is a mess, to put it mildly, and many people carry painful experiences of priests, bishops, or other ministers in the Church misusing their God-given vocation and authority over them to dominate, subjugate them, or indulge their lusts.

It’s a painful time to be a Catholic right now, and the storm doesn’t seem to show any sign of letting up soon. Perhaps it sounds trite, in the face of so much suffering, but I think at least part of the answer lies in focusing on our individual vocations. I’m not saying that the “big picture” stuff doesn’t matter. It does. The decisions the magisterium makes will either save many souls, or end up sending them to Hell. I am saying that our answer to this ought to be in focusing on our primary vocations as spouses and parents and priests and neighbors. The organism will only heal when its cells begin to heal and function as they ought to, focusing on the specific tasks that they were made for. It’s in those smaller tasks that love moves and heals and restores."


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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