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Voices: Kevin Bae - A Catholic Convert Advocating for Change

I first connected with Kevin Bae in June 2019, while I was covering the United States Conference of Catholics Bishops General Assembly. I was exhausted from three days of watching the livestream, taking notes, and trying to process and communicate everything I was observing as quickly as possible - while never quite sure if all of this work made a difference to anyone besides me.


Then I received an email from Kevin, a total stranger, thanking me for my posts; he noted that their Catholic advocacy group in Virginia had been relying on my coverage to formulate press releases, which were eventually included in coverage by the Washington Post. Most importantly, he thanked me for my “great service to the Church,” a phrase which told me that we were on the same page about our reason for this work.


In the last year, I have had the pleasure of getting to know Kevin, along with some other wonderful folks that have been organizing and advocating on the East Coast. I have been very impressed with their thoughtful approach to advocacy and their initiative to connect with other Catholics around the United States who are working for concrete changes in the way our Church handles sexual abuse.


I’m glad to be able to bring you this interview with Kevin, which was conducted by email in June and July 2020.


Sara: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, Kevin! I know we’ve emailed quite a bit about your work with CAPACT and WATCH, and we’ll get to that in a moment. But first, I would love to get to know you a bit better on a personal level. Could you share a little about yourself and your Catholic background up to this point?


Kevin: I am a new Catholic, having been confirmed in 2017 after completing a one year RCIA experience with ten others at a parish in Vienna, VA. As a Korean-American, I grew up in a Korean Methodist church, but also attended parochial grade school for eight years as a non-Catholic. Whether it be school, friends, or eventually my wife who hails from a deeply devout Catholic family, I suppose you could say I’ve flirted around the edges of Catholicism my entire life.


My wife and I chose to raise our two children Catholic, which caused me – probably for the first time in my life – to consider my own spiritual path in an earnest manner. Living in China a few years back, I decided to really investigate Catholicism and even started the RCIA process via the American expat community in Beijing. It did not go well, and I walked away.


While admittedly gun-shy from my first RCIA experience, I decided to give it another go upon moving back to the States and joined the RCIA program at my parish in 2016. I found others who were in my same boat philosophically towards spirituality, and as a small community we worked our way through the year, asking questions and being exposed to MANY different approaches towards the faith. It was refreshing to see a Church that wasn’t afraid to show us the many faces of Catholicism. Our Mystagogia process after confirmation was even more inspiring, as our mentor really dove into the social justice aspect of Catholicism. This is what I had been looking for – a Church that was willing to lay it on the line and unabashedly put the poor and the vulnerable at the front of the line.


Wow, what an interesting journey you have been on in the last few years! Was the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church something you thought about much when you were deciding whether to become Catholic?


Honestly, this is the one area in which I always felt my entrée into Catholicism always fell short. I could rarely find anyone in the Church truly willing to engage with the elephant in the room – clerical sex abuse. It was always an issue embarrassingly dealt with at arm's length and explained away as the byproduct of a few bad eggs. Nonetheless, I went on with my newfound Catholicism putting the issue out of sight, out of mind.


Then came Pennsylvania. Kaboom. When the Grand Jury report was released, I felt ashamed to have joined this faith without truly rectifying where I stood with regard to the elephant in the room. Our parish was one of the few in the DC area that immediately held forums on the issue, and I was proud of that. We wrote a letter. I was proud of that. We talked and prayed some more. Terrific. All the while, however, I had the sense we were taking symbolic actions that would accomplish little more than making ourselves feel better. I decided my future in the Catholic Church rested on this issue, and I committed to either working for real change or walking away. For me, it had to be one or the other.


That fall of 2018, my fellow RCIA alum Melinda Genovese and I decided prayers were not enough. Our group, now called Capital Advocates for Church & Transparency (CAPACT), was born to educate and engage our community around this issue of clerical sex abuse, and our goal was tangible, systemic change.


So you started with CAPACT, which was a smaller local effort. Can you tell us about how this organizing led to the formation of WATCH, which has a broader focus?


We Are The CHurch (WATCH) was initially born out of CAPACT in the fall of 2019. At that time, the bishops had begun to formulate what they were planning to put forward for enhanced accountability within their ranks, and we wanted to ensure concerned lay Catholics were being heard. As we began meeting with USCCB staff and hearing from various groups across the country, it quickly became apparent that these lay voices were being heard sporadically at the local diocesan level, but there was no unified lay voice that was driving the conversation as the bishops and those they employed were designing these new accountability measures. All of our success in this movement was happening locally, from Buffalo to Pittsburgh to Morgantown to Minneapolis, but that success existed in silos. We realized if we just waited for gradual osmosis, one diocese at a time, we would never see the change we want in our lifetimes. We decided maybe this was our role - pushing forward collective action to bring the full weight of our movement onto tightly focused goals for change.


Initially reaching out to our neighboring groups here in Northern Virginia, DC, and Maryland, we started pounding the pavement to try to coalesce the major lay voices calling for change across the country. One by one, we began establishing relationships – Baltimore, Buffalo, Morgantown, Asheville, Atlanta, Minneapolis – all around this idea of an informal coalition of motivated Catholic lay groups in the U.S. that wanted to amplify our efforts towards accountability and transparency. No hierarchy, no subordination, just an informal virtual gathering place to share with each other what is going on and – when the opportunity strikes and members are on board – collectively mobilize for change. Through this simple construct, we’ve had groups increase their petition volume, have issued joint press releases, and most recently – presented a proposal for the Lay Stewards Panel to over a dozen bishops and the USCCB in unison.


Can you share some more details about this proposed Lay Stewards Panel? Why has the group focused on this particular reform right now, and what is the status of this proposal at the moment?


The Lay Stewards Panel (LSP) has been WATCH’s first test bed for collective mobilization around a singular, concrete policy change. We in CAPACT – like most Catholics we imagine – were quite disappointed in the lack of a clear mandate and guidelines for lay involvement in the new abuse reporting system voted into existence in June 2019. We applaud the new third-party Catholic Bishop Abuse Reporting system (CBAR), and are even glad to see all investigating bishops will involve a Qualified Lay Person (QLP) in the process. The problem is - who designates the QLP? It’s the investigating bishop himself, and when you can hand-pick your own lay involvement, that can quickly spiral downward to become merely a “box check” that is hardly free from influence. That’s not right, and – in our eyes – that is certainly not what Pope Francis envisioned when he mandated lay involvement that must “act impartially and must be free of conflicts of interest” (Vos Estis Lux Mundi, Art. 13, §3). Bishops investigating bishops who have allegedly abused or mishandled abuse allegations? That is hardly ideal, but we believe even that can be counterbalanced by objective lay involvement that is free from influence of anyone involved. When you allow the entire process to stay within the confines of the accused and the investigator, however, that’s where the system is vulnerable to the “old boy network,” and that’s not right.


The Lay Stewards Panel is quite simple in design and intentionally steers clear of what the bishops perceive as red lines within canon law. There is no formal oversight. There is no investigatory role. What the panel of experts offers is a parallel channel of information to a lay entity that is “in-the-know” with regard to the allegation and the status of the investigation. That’s all. It should be a no-brainer.


One question we get quite often is why we proposed something so limited in scope. First, we strongly believe we will obtain buy-in. To actually succeed in the near term and have grassroots laity – not the bishops – propose a viable solution adopted by the USCCB would be huge. Second, while it seems limited in scope, this could actually be a game changer. Think about it, if Bishop Richard Malone of the Diocese of Buffalo knew that an objective lay group knew about an allegation against an abuser in his ranks, would he have sat on the information for a year? Of course not. The risk to himself would have been untenable. When you know someone else knows, you as the presiding investigator can no longer take the risk of a cover-up or half measures. It’s why Inspectors General and ombudsmen in government and private sector are generally independent from the system. This is not a new concept, but it remains sorely lacking within our Church.


At the moment, almost half of the WATCH coalition members have submitted the LSP proposal to a dozen bishops across the country and key leaders in the USCCB. We have heard through informal channels that the LSP proposal has been forwarded to leadership within a few different USCCB committees - so it appears the "collective action" strategy among WATCH partners has gotten our foot in the door. We've also received some formal and informal responses from bishops and auxiliary bishops, ranging from enthusiastic support to annoyance. (To be expected, as all of us know.) This is going to be a hard fought victory, make no mistake about it.


The system to create a policy change like this among the USCCB is quite similar to how a bill becomes a law in Congress, and our efforts right now are directed at garnering just enough support to get the LSP on the agenda for a vote at an upcoming Spring or Fall USCCB General Assembly. With canon law experts and supportive Catholic leaders helping us navigate this process, we are in this for the long haul and we will succeed.


It’s obvious that you and the other members of WATCH have thought this through very carefully and strategically. If someone reading this interview wants to learn more or get involved with WATCH, what should they do?


Very simple! Just email capact@capitalact.org! The first thing we’ll do is share all of our updates, which encapsulate the most recent progress or activities of all 20 or so current members/supporters of this WATCH coalition. That’s all. From there, if you are interested in supporting any particular initiative raised by a member group, or have an initiative of your own that you want communicated to the rest of the groups across the country, you can move forward as you choose. No commitment, no subordination, and no obligation. If you are interested in hearing more about the Lay Stewards Panel in particular and would consider engaging your own bishop or other leaders on the issue, we would love your involvement!


Do you have any advice for Catholics who are new to this type of advocacy but want to get involved in some way in their own diocese?


Well, it will sound a bit contrived, but the first thing I would do is subscribe to the In Spirit and Truth blog. You obviously did not ask me to say as much, but I do believe this is the best “one stop shop” for the most recent goings on as it pertains to this issue of clerical abuse. (Note from Sara: I really didn’t ask Kevin to say this, but it’s too nice an endorsement not to share!)


Second, an upcoming WATCH newsletter will focus on this topic – what does activism at the parish or diocesan level look like across the country? This will have case examples of several groups who have wrestled with how to make a difference and the paths forward they chose.


Third, email us! We’ll put you in touch with someone that has walked or is walking in your shoes!


Thank you so much Kevin! It’s really great to be able to hear more about your personal story as well as the advocacy work you are doing now to connect and organize lay Catholic around the country. I hope you will keep me posted on any progress, and I will pray for God’s wisdom and guidance on this path!


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Dear readers, please join me in praying for Kevin, for all the members of CAPACT and WATCH, and for all Catholics who are working to make our Church a safer place for all.


Saint Mary MacKillop, pray for us.


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©2020 by Sara Larson