Voices: James Egan - A Former Seminarian Offering Support to Survivors
Updated: Jul 2, 2019
This fall, when I was desperately searching for honest, courageous Catholic leaders responding to the clergy abuse and cover up crisis, I couldn’t seem to find anyone I trusted. Now, a few months later, I am happy to say that I see good things happening all over the country - faithful lay people, priests, and bishops who are stepping up to lead our Church in new and creative ways. While it’s easy right now to focus on the darkness, I hope that I can also share with all of you some glimmers of light.
Today, I’d like to introduce you to James Egan, co-founder of The Archangel Foundation. James and I were connected by a mutual friend, who told me that James was someone I definitely needed to talk to. In fact, I had already seen his new organization on a friend’s Facebook page, and I was really intrigued by what they were doing. I was delighted to spend one of our recent snow days on the phone, hearing all about James and the work of The Archangel Foundation. If you are looking for a way to offer concrete support to the survivors of clergy sexual abuse, I encourage you to read on, then check out The Archangel Foundation at their website: https://archangelfoundationinc.com.
James, thank you for taking the time to talk today! To start off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What has your experience of the Catholic Church been like up to this point in your life? How did God lead you to starting The Archangel Foundation?
I come from a big Catholic family and grew up very involved with the Church. In 2013, I became a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and began studies at St. Joseph’s College Seminary in Chicago. My experience at St. Joseph’s offered a good look at the dark underbelly of the Archdiocese of Chicago. I became aware that a network of sexual predators and their accomplices still actively exists in the Catholic Church. I left the seminary in 2015, recognizing that I couldn’t be part of a diocesan structure and be a good priest. I came to the realization that my desire to serve the Church would not be fulfilled within the diocesan system, in large part due to the ongoing reality of sexual abuse and cover up. The prevailing attitude valued loyalty to the institution over justice. I saw, especially in the Archdiocese of Chicago, too many priests who used their positions to advance their own power and ecclesiastical career, even at the direct expense of victims of sexual abuse. I saw a number of priests who are sexual predators and use their influence and connections in the Church to prey upon others. I also saw too many priests who were deeply damaged people and who used their positions to bolster their own insecurities and egos.
In 2015, a friend of mine, Roman Krasnitsky, also left the seminary. Since that time we have been working with survivors, a project which really took off in a big way in the summer of 2018 with the arrival of new revelations about the corruption in the Catholic Church and the ongoing reality of clerical sexual abuse. Over time we have been able to create a network of professional lawyers, counselors, and journalists to put at the service of survivors. Eventually, we decided to turn this work into a non-profit. The idea for The Archangel Foundation came from recognizing the obstacles survivors face in coming forward and figuring out what we could do to help them.
What is the mission of the Archangel Foundation? What do you hope to achieve through your work?
Our mission is to provide survivors of sexual abuse and cover-up by bishops, clergy, and lay staff of the Roman Catholic Church with connections to legal advice and representation, law enforcement, wellness counseling, and press coverage.
We saw a huge gap in the resources available for survivors of clerical sexual abuse; there was no one place they could go to to ensure they had their needs as survivors taken care of. When someone is abused, it affects them for the rest of their life, often overshadowing them for decades. Survivors face so many obstacles in coming forward, including the disbelief of others, sometimes persecution from Church authorities, and not least of all the difficulty of finding the appropriate resources they need to address the violence done to them. We at The Archangel Foundation want to change that, and we hope that our organization can be a central source of support for survivors by offering them the best resources, connections, and advocacy we can.
So, practically speaking, what does the Archangel Foundation do?
Everything we do is custom-tailored to the individual survivor. We talk to them and see what resources they already have, what their support system is like, and how we can add to that. From there we determine the next best steps. Most states have launched an official investigation through their Attorney General to investigate the Catholic Church, so we often connect survivors to whatever investigation is happening in the state where their abuse occurred. We make sure that survivors have good counseling and the resources to afford it. If they want to tell their stories publicly, we can connect them to journalists at whatever media outlet they prefer (sometimes it’s a big secular paper, sometimes it’s a smaller Catholic media outlet, depending on the story and the desires of the survivor). We also help with smaller things: letters and statements have to be written, and we’re happy to help survivors with that. Essentially, whatever we can possibly do to help survivors we want to do. We want to work with them to find justice and healing for the horrible abuse they have suffered.
If a survivor of clergy sexual abuse is reading this interview, what would you say to them? If they have not come forward with their story yet, what advice would you give them for doing so?
First, I want to assure you of our care and support: if there is any way at all we can be of service to you, we want to be. Even though this horrible burden has been placed on your shoulders, we want to do whatever we can to share that weight. You are not alone, and we want to be there for you.
If you have never told your story before, we want to hear it and see how we can be of service to you. If you contact us, we will always respect your privacy. All of your information will be kept confidential unless you choose otherwise. We can discern with you the best possible next steps, whether that’s simply adding to your current support system, taking legal steps, or telling your story to the public.
If you are a survivor, whether your abuse happened yesterday or decades ago, we are inspired by your courage and strength in carrying a tremendous burden that was unjustly placed on your shoulders. Is there any way we can help?
The Archangel Foundation is so new - How can potential donors trust your organization and know that their donations will be used well?
Our policy is financial transparency. All donations are used for two purposes: to cover our basic operating costs and to establish funds for survivors to have access to professional resources. Our operating costs include paying for our website, our office, and marketing. At this time all our team members are volunteers. We never charge survivors for our services, so our costs are completely funded out of pocket or by good will donations. Everyone who donates a sum equal to or greater than $100 can opt to receive monthly itemized reports explaining how exactly we have used their donation.
I have found that so many lay people care deeply about this issue and want to help, but we’re often unsure about what we can do that will actually make a difference. Besides supporting the Archangel Foundation, what do you think the average lay person can do to help survivors of clergy sexual abuse and bring healing and renewal to the Catholic Church?
Part of this crisis is not only that clergy have abused people under their pastoral care, it’s also that the leadership of the Church has often completely failed survivors (sometimes by actively persecuting them and promoting and covering for their abuser). Yet the Church is supposed to be the place where everyone can find healing and peace. It’s supposed to be a light in the darkness, not the cause of brutal trauma and lifelong burdens. But the story doesn’t need to stop there: we as a Church can still band together and support survivors, even when our leaders fail to do so. In fact, it’s all the more urgent that we show people what the Church is really about and be of service to survivors.
Many Catholics, whether they know it or not, know individuals who have been abused and have not found resolution. We can all consider volunteering our time, our relevant professional skills, and our financial resources to be of service to them. We can organize together to help survivors and demand accountability from our leaders. Our foundation hopes to be a hub for that sort of organization. If any lay Catholic wants to do something about this but is unsure what they can do, we would love to hear from them and discuss what they have to offer.
OK, I hope you don’t mind me getting a little more personal now… We both know it’s a really hard time to be Catholic. So, I wanted to ask you - With all the darkness and sin in the Church, have you ever considered leaving the Catholic Church? Why do you remain a practicing Catholic today?
I have often considered leaving the Church. There are many days when it seems faith is only possible on a very abstract level since the concrete, material reality is so often at odds with the Gospel, even in very brutal ways. Even just considering the internal life of the Church, it is very difficult to be a practicing Catholic. I certainly empathize with and respect Catholics who struggle with their faith in light of these scandals in the Church, and I sympathize with those who have chosen to leave. The reality of being a Catholic today is a very difficult struggle.
The novelist Walker Percy was once asked why he was a Catholic, to which he gave the cheeky reply, “What else is there?” It seems like an arrogant response, but it contains an important point. If you choose to leave the Church, where do you go? I have come to realize that I only stand to lose more by leaving the Church. I choose to believe in the faith, even if it seems that Catholics at the highest levels do not. In the end, choosing to leave the Church over this would grant the evil perpetrators of this abuse a power over my life and my decisions that they have no right to. So I choose to stay, and my hope is that this crisis can be an opportunity for people of faith to band together, strengthen each other, and continue the mission of the Church in spite of those who have chosen to work against it.
Well, I for one am glad you have decided to stay and do this important work from within the Church. It can’t be easy though. I know that for me, it’s hard to keep my eyes on the good, the true, and the beautiful while immersed in so much that is dark and ugly. I would love to hear your perspective on that - How are you able to hold on to what is good in the Church when you spend so much time dealing with what is wrong?
Doing this work is a mix of two extremes: the first and obvious one is the heavy and dark vision of evil in the world; the second though is the exhilaration that comes from working with survivors, having really solid reasons for hope in resolutions for them and finally exposing more of the network of predators and their accomplices that have brought us to this crisis. There are really solid reasons to be excited right now. I can see grace working in many different avenues to address this evil, and I hope that I can be part of that.
I have found that my prayer life has changed a lot over the past few months, and I’m searching for new ways to connect with God in response to my new spiritual reality. What spiritual practices keep you connected to Christ in the midst of this struggle?
There are some prayers I pray every day, throughout the day, which have brought me a lot of consolation.
The first is the prayer of St. Patrick, which contains “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me…” It calls to mind and invokes the presence of Christ wherever I am, in whatever I am doing, in whomever I am interacting with. It’s very simple, but I find it very uplifting.
The second is the Hail Mary, a prayer every Catholic knows. Especially the second part - “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” - which is really a cry for help. Recognizing my own sins and failings, I ask Mary to pray for me, asking her to be there at the end of my life. It’s also a simple prayer, something I can pray throughout the day whenever I remember.
I also pray the Psalms, especially those Psalms which ponder the presence of evil in the world: “Why do the wicked prosper?” These Psalms contain beautiful prayers and the promises of God to protect and watch over us, and even to fight on our behalf.
The more I learn about the extremely heavy, dark acts perpetrated by clergy, the more I find myself desperately praying. In a way, as draining as it is, it has motivated me to reform my own life and to seek God.
I’m sure I’m not alone in often feeling desolate, questioning where God can be in all of this. Sometimes the best you can do is just show up, sometimes just sitting there in church and making yourself available. My prayer is that, even when I feel distant from Him, God is close to survivors and His grace is working to bring them healing.
Thank you so much James. I really appreciate your time today and the important work you are doing to support survivors. May God bless, guide, and strengthen you.
So, there you have it, friends. One more way you can respond to this crisis with faith and love. After you send your Catholic Stewardship Appeal message, check out the Archangel Foundation at https://archangelfoundationinc.com and make a donation if you are able!
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.
~ The Prayer of St. Patrick