We Are Not Done: What I Heard at the St. Martin de Porres Listening Session
Updated: Mar 31
On February 28, the central city parishes of Milwaukee hosted a Listening Session in the Great Room at St. Martin de Porres Parish. The event was well-attended, with about 60 people participating, representing a variety of ages, parishes, and states in life. (You can read my previous blog post to understand the format of the evening.) While anger and frustration were very present in the room, I also sensed a strong feeling of solidarity and determination, and many people expressed gratitude for this opportunity to share their voice.
For notes from another Listening Session, one which went in a very different direction, you can read this post: "Please Don't Forget About Us" - What I Heard at the St. Robert/Holy Family Listening Session.
Also of note: This is the first event related to the abuse crisis where I witnessed significant racial diversity. While the sentiments expressed at this session were not notably different from those I have heard in all-white groups, I am sure that people of color experience this crisis in a unique way. I acknowledge that my experience is fairly narrow, and I would like to grow in my understanding of diverse perspectives. If you are a person of color reading this blog post, or you know someone who might have a different perspective to share, I would appreciate hearing from you.
Here are some of the thoughts and feelings I heard expressed in the small group and large group conversations at this listening session. (Comments in quotation marks are direct quotes from participants; other statements are paraphrased.) While I do not share all of these opinions, I think it’s important for us to acknowledge what people are saying.
Many strong feelings and opinions were expressed:
“I love my local community, but I hate the Church.”
“Church leaders acted just like corrupt political leaders.”
“It’s too early for solutions. I’m still burning with anger and sickened by the cover up.”
“The Church needs to beg our forgiveness and not stop begging for a long time, because the Church hurt all of us.”
“Pope Francis has disappointed me.”
“The Church’s response has taken too long and is too quiet.”
“The prayer service with Archbishop Listecki [in September] was worthless.”
“The Church is just too wealthy and too powerful.”
“I am losing my faith in the Church.”
“I’m here because I love the Church.”
Various people raised hard questions that were left unanswered for the moment:
“Why hasn’t this changed yet?”
Is abuse and cover up still happening?
What is being done to fix this?
What are we doing to hold bishops accountable?
How are priests today being formed to work effectively with the laity?
“Who does Archbishop Listecki report to or answer to?”
Why was the second forum about the abuse crisis at Cardinal Stritch cancelled?
How can we move forward?
“How do we create redemption?”
Several mentions were made of possible causes or contributing factors in the abuse and cover up:
“The clerical structure is at the root of the problem.”
Bishops turned to lawyers for advice, which led to harsh treatment of victims, who then became angry and “became a liability for the Church.”
There has been a habit of protecting “the Church” instead of victims, who were seen as the enemy.
Bishops really were told by psychologists that abusive priests could be treated and returned to ministry. “The bishops did the best they could.”
Priests have not been supported in developing a mature, healthy sexuality.
Sexual abuse is a difficult cycle to break. Often abusers were themselves abused as children.
Priests are lonely and are not being cared for in a holistic way that addresses physical, emotional, and psychological health.
“It is absolutely wrong to blame gay men for this.”
The power differential between priests and lay people is too large, enabling abuse and making it difficult to report abuse.
Fear of losing power is a huge barrier to honesty.
Many participants called for broad changes in the Church:
An increased voice for the laity
Inclusion of women in the priesthood, diaconate, seminary formation, or other leadership roles
Removal of the practice of mandatory celibacy for priests
A reconsidering of the Church’s sexual ethics
Structures of accountability for both priests and bishops
Greater transparency and communication from bishops, particularly about any current cases being investigated
Greater visibility and accessibility for Milwaukee’s Archbishop
An increased sense of collaboration and communion between clergy and laity
A few people had more specific recommendations:
A holistic wellness program for priests that addresses their physical, emotional, and psychological health
An investigation by the Wisconsin Attorney General
More transparent and pastoral communications from the Archbishop
Reporting all accusations to law enforcement authorities
Lay people “agitating” with placards, letters, postcards, and protests
Priests using their homilies as an opportunity for healing
A process of reparation that requires offenders to take concrete actions to give back to the person and community they have hurt
Approaching healing as a matter of post-trauma recovery, using the model of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission
When considering what we, as lay people, could do to make a difference, there were mixed feelings. Some felt completely hopeless, while others were more positive about the potential for change:
“There is no way for the laity to organize. The Church is organized from the top down.”
“There’s just too big a disconnect between the local church community and the hierarchy.”
“People are speaking with their feet” by not coming to Mass.
Lay people have many gifts and talents that can be used to transform the Church.
“The hurt we are feeling is real, but heart is important too. We do have the power to rise up again and do the right thing for the sake of the Church.”
“We are the body of Christ! We can continue His redemptive work. It’s the responsibility of all of us to heal the wounds, forgive the sinners, and live in God’s love.”
“I am dreaming of what a new Church could be.”
After all of these thoughts (and many more) were expressed, the facilitator invited Bishop Jeff Haines, who had participated throughout the evening as a “listener,” to offer a few thoughts. Full disclosure: Bishop Haines has been a source of great hope for me over the past few months, because he has been very open and supportive of me and my work. In our first meeting about this issue, back in December, Bishop Haines talked with me for over two hours (seriously, how often does a priest have time to meet with anyone for two hours?!?), and he struck me as very sincere and candid. This pattern has continued as we have met again, exchanged emails, and seen each other at various events. Even when I have been asking hard questions or calling for specific changes, Bishop Haines has never for a moment questioned my love of the Church or treated me like an enemy. I am truly grateful for this, as well as for the thoughtful and pastoral way he has spoken at events like this listening session. Here is my best attempt at replicating what he said at St. Martin de Porres:
First, Bishop Haines thanked all participants for attending the listening session and specifically for expressing our “pain, anger, and challenge.” He said he would leave tonight with a sense of hope, because he knows that people care.
Second, Bishop Haines apologized to all of us, recognizing that “we bishops have let you down.” He explained how deflated he felt at the USCCB meeting in November, when the participants were told they would not be able to vote on proposals for bishop accountability. He acknowledged, “We can do better.”
Third, Bishop Haines declared “I do hear you” and promised that all of our comments would be brought to the Archbishop as well. He mentioned the desire of Archbishop Listecki to bring more lay people onto the Community Advisory Board and Priest Placement Board. He also encouraged all of us to stay involved and stay informed. (I had stood up and introduced myself and my work to the whole group a few minutes earlier, and Bishop Haines even specifically mentioned that participants could “connect with people like Sara” to be more engaged.)
Finally, Bishop Haines asked us to pray for the bishops and reminded all of us that “We are the Church. You are, as much as I am.”
Michael Adams, the session’s facilitator, closed the evening by expressing gratitude to clergy members for their listening presence and then thanking all participants for engaging in this conversation with peace and love. He said that this listening session was just a first step and echoed a comment made earlier in the evening: “We are not done.”
I am grateful to everyone who made this listening session possible and to all who took the time to share their voice. Let’s all keep listening - to one another and to the still, small voice of God (1 Kings 19:12). We are not done.
Open my ears, Lord. Help me to hear your voice.