"The Stations of the Cross in Atonement for Abuse and for the Healing of All" - An Honest Review
Updated: Feb 19
When the Catholic publishing company Liturgical Press released a new stations of the cross guide focused on prayers of atonement and healing for sexual abuse, I received a flood of emails from my friends in parish ministry. People wanted to know if I had seen the book and what I thought; I ordered a copy right away, eager to read and evaluate this new resource.
Our local nonprofit, Awake Milwaukee, wanted to offer some kind of prayer opportunity during Lent, so our team read through the guide and sent it to our Survivor Advisory Panel for their feedback. I also shared it with other survivors whose opinions I know and trust. (Awake ended up deciding to create a more personal Way of the Cross, using a different template and including reflections from local survivors.) My review is based primarily on the feedback I received from nine survivors with a variety of perspectives.
Title: The Stations of the Cross in Atonement for Abuse and for the Healing of All
Publisher: Liturgical Press
Author: Fr. Paul Turner, director of the Office for Divine Worship for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph
Illustrator: Fr. Ronald Patrick Raab, pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado
Format: A short booklet with a prayer guide for each of fourteen stations. Each station includes a piece of art, simple chants, a scripture reading, a short quote from a survivor, a “confessional prayer of the hierarchy,” and a communal prayer to be read by all participants.
More Information: Available on the publisher’s website, including the text of the first station to preview
Note: This guide follows a non-traditional set of stations, based on Scripture and removing non-scriptural events like Jesus’s three falls and the encounter with Veronica. If you intend to use this prayer guide with the physical stations of the cross set up at your parish or other location, you will find that they don’t match up completely.
At a time when abuse in the Church in no longer headline news and many Catholics want to simply “move on” from this issue, I am grateful to anyone who is willing to keep reflecting, talking, and praying about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. While we should be thoughtful about what we do, in most cases I think any effort at acknowledging and addressing this wound in the Body of Christ is better than silence.
The publication of a Stations of the Cross book right before Lent is a wise way to encourage parishes to grapple with this issue. Lent is a time when many parishes are actively looking to create new prayer opportunities for their people, and stepping into this space with a simple-to-use resource is a great way to bring this issue to many people’s attention.
The original art created for this booklet by Fr. Raab is unique and striking. The image of Jesus on the cover, shown in the header for this post, is a perfect example. One survivor said that this art was the best part of the resource for her.
Several survivors I spoke with found the idea of a Stations of the Cross with this focus powerful and comforting. For those who already love and appreciate this traditional devotion, the familiar rhythm of the stations offer a unique entrypoint to reflection and prayer on a painful reality.
The inclusion of the voices of survivors is important (although note below the criticisms of how this is done). Encouraging participants to reflect on the suffering of survivors alongside the suffering of Christ is valuable, and several survivors told me that they thought this could be a powerful “wake up” call for Catholics who have trouble understanding the depth and breadth of the harm done.
I really like the idea of the “confessional prayer of the hierarchy” included in each station as an invitation for the clergy to take responsibility for their own role in the system that has caused harm - and to offer an apology on behalf of the Church. I hope reading these prayers might also create an opportunity for self-reflection on the part of individual clergy members and lead to greater compassion and courage in responding to the twin crises of sexual abuse and leadership failures in the Catholic Church
To be honest, the first time I read through these Stations, I had a generally positive impression. Because I spend so much time these days listening to survivors, I sometimes make the mistake of assuming that I “get it” now - but hearing the reactions of my friends to this resource reminded me that I still have a lot to learn. As I listened to survivors’ criticisms, I saw this prayer guide in a new light. I wonder if the author or publisher had a panel of survivors (with diverse perspectives) who reviewed this guide and offered feedback before publication. I think this should be a basic requirement of any new resource addressing this issue.
I am strongly convicted that the Catholic Church needs to start acknowledging and addressing the abuse of adults, which I believe is much more widespread than most people realize. Part of this acknowledgement would be to stop excluding adult survivors in the way we talk about abuse. One survivor who read this booklet was immediately alienated by the first sentence of the preface, which references “the sexual abuse of our children.” (The description of the art also emphasizes child victims, and several prayers mention things like “give us deeds that protect your children.”) I do believe this difficulty could overcome by a careful reading of the text and slight adjustments in the language to be more inclusive. (For example, the prayer mentioned above could say “give us deeds that protect all who are vulnerable” or “all your people.”)
Several survivors I spoke to expressed concern about the way that the voices of victim-survivors were included in the text. Two said that reading these words was triggering for them and would make it difficult for them focus on prayer. This led to an interesting conversation about the intended audience and purpose for these stations. We agreed that these prayers seem to be designed for a broader Catholic audience to participate in, without necessarily envisioning survivors themselves being part of the gathering. It is tricky to find the right balance in things like this; the same words that I think would be powerful and challenging for many Catholics to hear might also be painful or triggering for survivors. This should be approached with care.
Another particular criticism about the ways survivors’ voices were included came from a very perceptive friend, who noticed two important things: First, the survivors’ words feel disembodied and impersonal, as if these quotes were selected without knowing the individual or their story. Second, the reading, communal prayer, and confessional prayer read by a priest are all much longer than the survivors’ words. This feels off balance and may have the effect of de-emphasizing survivors voices, which is exactly the opposite of what we should be trying to achieve. (Perhaps the prayer read by a priest is the section that should be simple and brief, while allowing the survivors’ words to be heard more prominently.)
One survivor, who admitted that she doesn’t like Stations of the Cross in general, found the “confessional prayers of the hierarchy” weak and more of a “cop out” than a real admission of guilt and responsibility. She felt that they avoided addressing some of the most devastating aspects of denial and coverup on the part of church leaders. Reading through these prayers again with this lens, I saw her point. Obviously, there’s a broad spectrum of how honest and direct these prayers could be. I think these confessions are not perfect and probably don’t go far enough, but could still be a positive step.
All that said, there were several survivors who I consulted who raised no objections to the content of this book and thought it would be an excellent resource for parishes to use. So, this all goes to show that it’s impossible to say “what survivors think” of this booklet - or anything, really. Men and women who have experienced sexual abuse in the Catholic Church are a diverse group of people with their own individual perspectives, spiritualities, and life experiences, and we should never treat them like a monolith who all think or feel the same thing.
A final note: With any attempt to offer a prayer event focused on this issue, my concern is always that Catholics will treat this as a box to check off (“assuaged my guilt by saying some prayers”) and end their engagement there. Prayer matters, but I hope that any parish or group using these stations of the cross will pair it with action on behalf of safety, accountability, and compassion in our Church.
It’s really difficult to write, reflect, and pray about the reality of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, even for those with good intentions. There is no perfect approach that will prove satisfying to every survivor or be the right fit for every community. (I’m sure there are plenty of things I have said and done myself that don’t sit right with some people.)
These new stations of the cross were clearly written with care, and I appreciate any effort to encourage Catholics to grapple with these issues. I hope that as our Church moves forward, we will all listen carefully to the voice of survivors so that any attempt will be guided by their wisdom and personal experience.
Our Lady of Sorrows, prayer for us.