“Please Don’t Forget About Us”: What I Heard at the St. Robert/Holy Family Listening Session
Updated: Apr 30, 2019
On Monday, April 8, St. Robert and Holy Family parishes hosted a Listening Session in Reilly Hall at St. Robert Parish in Shorewood, WI. About 50 people attended, mostly middle aged or older, with a few younger people sprinkled into the crowd. The pastor and associate pastor of the parishes were present and sat in the back of the room simply to listen. Bishop Jeff Haines also attended and offered a few closing remarks at the end of the night. (You can find the full transcript and audio recording of his honest, thoughtful remarks here: "We Priests and Bishops Haven’t Solved This": What Bishop Haines Said About the Abuse Crisis.) A volunteer from the parish took notes on the comments throughout the evening, which we were told would be compiled into a report and sent to Archbishop Listecki.
The format for this listening session was different than the one hosted at St. Martin Porres in February. (You can see my summary of that session here.) Instead of facilitated small group conversations followed by large group sharing, this event was a simple open mic format, with rows of chairs set up facing the front of the room. After a brief introduction and prayer by the facilitator (a wonderful volunteer from Holy Family Parish), the floor was open for anyone in attendance to come up to a microphone and share their thoughts. The facilitator suggested three general questions to be discussed - “What thoughts, feelings, and questions do you have about the clergy abuse crisis? What do you want our Archbishop and Bishops to hear? What can our parishes do to move forward?” - but also said that participants could share whatever they wanted. The facilitator did a lovely job of setting the tone for the evening - reminding people that there were likely survivors and others impacted by clergy abuse present in the room, encouraging us to create a safe space for all, and assuring everyone of Jesus's presence.
A note about this format: An “open mic” style listening session is certainly the easiest kind to organize, but there are limitations to this set up. Those who are less comfortable with public speaking are understandably reluctant to share in front of the whole group, which means that fewer voices are heard. (Out of about 50 people in attendance, around half of them spoke at some point during the night.) In addition, there seems to be something about this format that leads people to feel like they are making a speech when they come up and talk, which I believe results in less measured comments. (I am guilty of this myself. When I took my turn at the microphone, knowing it was the only chance I would get to speak that night, I spoke for too long and with less care than when I’m engaged in a group dialogue.) If you are thinking about having a listening session at your parish or organization, I would strongly recommend creating an opportunity for dialogue in smaller groups so that all voices are heard. And please, please, please, ask people not to applaud after comments; it creates a problematic dynamic of participants supporting or not supporting certain comments, rather than just listening and receiving everything that is said.
There was some confusion at the beginning of the session about Bishop Haines’s role there. Some participants had come to the event hoping that they would be able to ask questions of Bishop Haines and receive answers immediately. The facilitators said that this was not his role for the night, but Bishop Haines did promise that answers would be coming directly from the Archdiocese soon. He stated that questions from various listening sessions are being used to create a FAQ document that will be shared on the redesigned portion of the archdiocesan website in the coming weeks. Bishop Haines’s name was specifically mentioned in the advertising for this session, which may have caused some of the confusion. If you are hosting an event at your parish, it’s helpful to be very clear about the purpose and format of the evening, so that no one comes in with the wrong expectations. Bishop Haines did answer a few of the simpler questions in his closing remarks, which I think was appreciated by some participants.
All that said, here is what I heard 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, it’s good be aware of the broad spectrum of perspectives.
Many participants expressing strong feelings and opinions about the situation in the Church:
The Church has lost my trust, and it will take a lot more than listening to rebuild it.
I am a convert, and “this is tearing me up.” When is this going to end?
We need more than just rules to address this. We need a real understanding of the true effects of sexual abuse.
“I’m mad at the Church!”
“We all know this is a top-down problem.”
We need more lay involvement. Bishops and priests cannot police themselves.
The McCarrick situation is a huge scandal and needs to be dealt with.
People are leaving the Church, but personally, I’m not rattled.
We’re being distracted by this. “We need to fix our eyes on Christ.”
“Christ said there would be wolves in sheep’s clothing. We need to identify them!”
“We need full disclosure. We need to air our dirty laundry. It’s way past time.”
We can’t fix the problem until we identify it.
“My heart is breaking. I am struggling to stay in the Church and stay close to Jesus.”
"We seem to be lacking compassion and the ability to say I am sorry, from the top down."
“We are going to be the change. We are going to be the catalyst. We are going to be the Church.”
The statements I listed above were very consistent with the variety of comments I have heard in other settings. However, this listening session was the first time I had heard people express certain opinions that were painful for me to hear. I am passing no judgement on the hearts of those who spoke in this way, but I do think it’s important to be aware that these perspectives do still exist in our Church. I am glad these people spoke honestly about their thoughts, and I just hope and pray that God will continue to soften hearts.
Survivors need to “stop holding grudges” about what has happened in the past.
This is happening because “a homosexual lifestyle is being pushed, and we’re simply allowing it.”
I just want “talking points for how to defend my Church.”
How do they even figure out if old accusations are true? Besides, this happens not only in the Catholic Church, but also in schools, sports, and throughout society.
“We’re all sinners. How do we move on?”
Honestly, early in the session I was feeling very uncomfortable with some of the comments that were made and worrying about the direction this session was taking. But everything changed when a survivor of clergy sexual abuse came to the microphone to tell her story. This strong woman told us that she was abused by a priest at the age of seven. She said that she had been through hell since then, but that she was now at peace and works as a psychotherapist supporting other victims. This woman shared that she had been most betrayed by the bishops, who only wanted to protect the institution and who never apologized to her or her parents for the grave harm done to their family. Turning directly to Bishop Haines, she looked him in the eyes and pleaded with him, on behalf of survivors: “Please don’t forget about us.” She also urged him to call other bishops to accountability, saying “Please wake them up for us!”
After this survivor spoke, her husband also come to the microphone, speaking with great fervor about his experience supporting his wife. “I’ve been a witness to the pain,” he said, “Words are not enough! Actions are needed - Bold actions!” He went on to assert that the Church needs to practice “true zero tolerance” because “not one child should be abused,” and he also raised the question of accountability for bishops who covered up abuse. When abusive priests and the bishops who enabled them are both out of power, he said, “then maybe we can trust again. But only then.”
Along with these powerful speakers, two other participants spoke about their shared experience of learning that a family member had been abused by a priest. Each woman shared painful details of what happened when this family member came forward to bring charges against his abuser. They spoke of sitting with their family member at the trial while the judge read out loud from letters of support for the abusive priest and even called the abuser “a wonderful person.” They spoke of the group of priests, many of whom were family acquaintances, sitting on the defendant’s side of the courtroom and never once making eye contact or offering a word of greeting. They spoke of asking a priest friend why he had not offered any compassion to their family, only to hear him defend the abusive priest, saying “he’s my brother.” They spoke of a whole branch of their family that has been permanently alienated from the Church because of this experience. While the abusive priest did end up going to jail for two months, it was clear that the pain caused to the entire family has never really healed.
Another woman introduced herself as a retired pediatrician, and she tried to give listeners a sense of how she saw sexual abuse handled decades ago. She said that the medical profession did not have a clear understanding of the problem of childhood sexual abuse in the 1960s and even beyond. Doctors did not call the police when they saw signs of sexual abuse, and there wasn’t a universal agreement on how to handle these matters. So, she argued, we can’t hold the Church responsible for what leaders didn’t know at the time. She asserted that doctors learned and improved in their response over time and that the Church has too.
Beyond these personal experiences, many participants also suggested steps they thought could be helpful going forward:
We need to have ongoing two-way conversations between clergy and laity.
Lay people should be involved in addressing this problem. “The Archdiocese hasn’t placed enough confidence in the intelligence and intuitions of the laity to involve us in a significant way.”
We need honest exchanges and transparency. "When we bring these things to the surface, more people will heal."
Women need a greater role in the Church.
Priestly celibacy should be reexamined.
Priests should be held accountable and criminally prosecuted for abuse.
While taking abuse seriously, we also need to protect due process rights for priests.
Pope Francis needs to explain what he knew about Theodore McCarrick and why he reinstated him to ministry.
Priests need help learning how to communicate about this.
Screening processes for seminarians need to be improved.
Men need more time to mature before enter the seminary.
We need better supervision for priests who are laicized for sexual abuse.
All Catholics can attend the Safeguarding God’s Family training to be more aware of warning signs of abuse and can also volunteer with children’s programs at their parish.
We have public list of priests who are credibly accused of abuse - We should have similar lists for bishops who transferred abusive priests.
Abusers should be given support and resources for their own healing as well.
Our Church needs to reach out to survivors, hear their stories, and welcome them in our communities.
If our Archdiocese can be so organized and creative in reaching out to people to share information about the Catholic Stewardship Appeal, they need to be equally organized and creative in responding to this crisis.
Parishes need support in figuring out how to respond.
“Every bishop needs to fess up and do the right thing.”
Personally, while I began this night feeling sad and uncomfortable with some of the opinions expressed, I left with a little glimmer of hope. A man who, earlier in the night, had questioned the veracity of old stories of abuse and seemed to discount the seriousness of the problem stood up to speak a second time. This time, he looked at the survivor who had spoken and said “I’m sorry.”
Rise up, Lord! God, lift up your hand! Do not forget the poor!
Why should the wicked scorn God, say in their hearts, “God does not care”?
But you do see; you take note of misery and sorrow; you take the matter in hand.
- Psalm 10
Rise up, Lord. Take the matter in hand.