Voices: Maggi Van Dorn - A Catholic Podcaster Seeking Answers to the Tough Questions
If you have been following the In Spirit and Truth blog or Facebook page for a while, you know that I am constantly recommending the podcast Deliver Us as a starting place for people who want to become more informed about the crisis in our Church. When I was first diving down that rabbit hole last fall, I was completely overwhelmed with all of the information and really unsure about who to trust. Since then, I have learned a lot and can more easily evaluate the bias in particular sources, but I think it’s still hard for most of us to discern if we’re getting solid information or just an argument stemming from the author’s personal axe-to-grind.
This is why I was so grateful when I discovered Deliver Us and heard the voice of a fellow lay Catholic who was asking hard questions and seeking the truth, just like me. Over the course of 12 episodes, host Maggi Van Dorn really dives into the complexities of these issues, in a deeper way than you can find in most written resources, and she does it in a way that is somehow both powerful and gentle. (You can see a complete episode list in my previous blog post about the podcast here.) I have to confess that I’m a bit envious of the incredible resources and connections at her disposal through America Media, which means that the final product is beautifully produced and features interviews with so many of the key leaders and experts that I read about all the time.
Since I love this podcast so much, I of course wanted to know more about how it came to be. Maggi and I had a phone conversation back in March, when she was incredibly busy with the production of the podcast. At that point, I mostly wanted to tell her how thankful I am for the great resource she was creating. Now that production of season one has wrapped up, Maggi was gracious enough to do a little interview via email so that I could share a bit more about the woman behind this amazing project.
Maggi, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me! In some ways, I feel like I already know you, because you are so open and transparent in your reflections during the podcast. But I don’t know much about your life before this latest project. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What has your Catholic life looked like up to this point?
Sure! I grew up Catholic, attended Santa Clara University, and was deeply impacted by Ignatian spirituality. My religious imagination has been formed to look for God in all things and to hold a preferential option for the poor or those most marginalized in our society. In my early twenties that meant serving in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, working alongside those experiencing homelessness and addiction recovery. I’ve always loved studying theology and so continued my religious studies education at Harvard Divinity School, where I earned my Master of Divinity degree. There I was inspired by the same ethic of social justice to minister in prisons, hospitals, and under-served communities. However, the sexual abuse crisis was a profound awakening where I realized that I needed to advocate for justice not just in society, but within the church, my own spiritual home. Victims of clergy sexual abuse have been silenced, dismissed, and altogether marginalized within the Catholic Church for decades, and justice really depends on our willingness to confront this issue head on.
Amen to that! I know that many Catholics, myself included, have had some kind of personal awakening in the last year that led them to that same realization. Was there something in particular that pushed you to become so invested in the conversation about the clergy sex abuse crisis? How did the Deliver Us podcast emerge from that?
I was so horrified and sickened by what I read in the Pennsylvania grand jury report. I recognized that most of the cases cited in the report were older, but I also realized that I actually knew very little about how the church had responded since the Boston Globe’s Spotlight reporting in 2002. I had spent some time in youth and young adult ministry, so I had personally gone through my diocese’s background checks and safe environment training, but the Dallas Charter wasn’t a part of my vocabulary. So you could say that I was confronted with my own ignorance. And then, in the wake of the grand jury report, Pope Francis shared a letter. In it, he wrote, “Every one of the baptized should feel involved in the ecclesial and social change that we so greatly need.” And so I began to reflect seriously upon how I, a baptized Catholic, could be involved.
I knew that, for me, the first step was educating myself on this topic. But the more I read, the more I started to feel like this crisis demanded a thoughtful response. In fact, the whole church seems to be calling out for concrete action and measurable changes. So I did an inventory of what was in my personal and professional toolkit and found that:
1. I can get some answers. I have a background in religious studies and went to Harvard Divinity School, where I developed friendships with lots of lay ministers and Catholic theologians. These friends, some of who are featured in Deliver Us, help me process the crisis and connect me to experts. In other words, there is no excuse for someone of my theological background to be idle at a time like this.
2. As a professional podcaster I can give these voices a platform. And not only can I amplify these voices, but I can tap into the techniques of audio storytelling to hold an audience that might otherwise find this topic too distressing or complicated. It’s so easy to get compassion fatigue reading the headlines, which might lead you to think no one wants to spend their time listening to a podcast about child sexual abuse. But I think if you look at podcasts like Serial, S-Town or My Favorite Murder, which have enjoyed tremendous success, you’ll see it’s not that we can’t handle hard topics. It’s really about how we present those topics. And it makes me really happy and proud when listeners tell us that this podcast has made the crisis manageable or that it has helped them stay connected to their faith during a dark period in the church.
Well, you can certainly count me among those grateful listeners. I have done a ton of researching and digging on my own, but honestly, I haven’t found anything else out there that explores these issues in such a balanced and thorough way. I’m constantly recommending Deliver Us to people and trying to explain what it is and why it’s so helpful. What would you say is the purpose of the podcast? What did you hope to achieve in creating it?
The purpose of Deliver Us is to educate, accompany, and encourage Catholics so that together we can better safeguard against the abuse of children and vulnerable persons, get justice for survivors, and usher in a culture of renewal that begins with stronger lay leadership.
I’ve never thought of Deliver Us as a silver-bullet cure or fool-proof strategy for “fixing” the church. That’s not something we could realistically accomplish through a podcast. And I would be wary of anyone offering a simple solution. Yet, I think Deliver Us balances a healthy sense of skepticism with a deep and determined optimism that we can make a difference. Each episode is titled after a big question. And within the 30 or 40 minutes, we try to offer realistic answers to those questions, or as we say in the show, “a few ideas of what may help.”
I hope that Deliver Us continues to open up important conversations for people and that it lets listeners know that they are not alone in their reform efforts, but in the company of many lay Catholics who are fighting for reform within their own parish, diocese, or faith community. The final episode of Deliver Us is a tribute to all the Catholics who have been finding ways to contribute their time and talents to reforming the church at all levels. It is my hope that listeners are encouraged and emboldened to answer the question I asked myself throughout the podcast season: “What’s Mine To Do and Not Somebody Else’s?”
What has been the most rewarding thing about creating this podcast?
It has been so rewarding to raise questions, born of my confusion and frustration, in conversation with extremely knowledgeable guests. While there are no easy answers, these experts were able to contextualize and nuance the conversation in really helpful ways. Furthermore, the process of transforming a set of interviews into a coherent audio narrative forced me to grapple with some pretty significant theological questions, like: What does it mean to be church? How does systemic sin operate in my faith community? How does the ancient practice of confession speak to the need for transparency today? In wrestling with these questions I was able to move from an experience of helplessness and despair, to the place I’m at now, which I’d describe as informed and emboldened engagement.
In the midst of wrestling with these big questions, Deliver Us also took time to feature several stories from survivors, which I found incredibly moving. What was it like listening to these stories? How did that affect you personally?
Of course the stories of abuse are devastating. But I had been reading similar accounts for months and had years of experience ministering to individuals experiencing life-threatening illnesses, addiction, and mental health crises. So, in that sense, my ministry formation really did prepare me to listen to survivors without needing to fix or arrive at a neat and tidy resolution.
One of the things I love most about the Catholic faith is the model of accompaniment that we find in the person of Jesus. When I read the gospels, I recognize a God that has entered into humanity to dwell among us, to live as we live, to weep along with us, and in doing so to make our yoke easy(ier) and our burden light(er). And so I imagine that if Jesus were sitting down with survivors today, he would listen attentively and make space for these stories to come pouring into the light of day. The ability to tell one’s story to a trusted listener is the first step towards healing. So I felt incredibly privileged to hear the accounts of Marie Collins, Michael Mack, David Clohessy, and the Fortney sisters.
What surprised me, however, was that every survivor I spoke with has essentially dedicated their lives to getting justice within the church. And when the church listens to survivors, it changes the tide of reform. This is true for Pope Francis, just as it’s true for legislators. So when we listen to victims, we’re not only opening up a sacred space of healing for them, but we’re doing the entire church a great favor.
I think everyone should listen to the whole podcast, starting right at the beginning, but if someone reading this blog post is only going to listen to one episode right now, which one would you recommend?
Oof! Such a hard question! For me, the episode that best summarizes where we are at right now, is Episode 11: “How Can We Shift Power in the Church?” It digs deep into the multi-layered problem of clericalism that many believe is the underlying cause of this crisis and then asks what we can do, practically, to uproot it.
How has your understanding of this crisis changed since August? What has been the most important shift in your perspective?
Without a doubt, the biggest perspective shift for me happened around Episode 3: “Is the Church Still Covering Up Abuse?” Whenever we hear about this crisis in the media, the church is painted in very broad strokes and rendered as a singular, monolithic institution. Pope Francis is cast as an omniscient CEO and the 5,100 bishops play the part of a calculating band of mobsters. This portrait, however false, is understandable given the decades of institutional cover-up.
But in order to properly solve this crisis, we need a much more nuanced understanding of how the church functions. I think Peter Steinfels fills in some of the details in his Commonweal article “The PA Grand-Jury Report: Not What It Seems.” What I learned from Steinfel’s reporting, is that there is enormous variation in culture, practice, and governance across dioceses and across time. So while one bishop (take Cardinal Wuerl, for example) may have gravely mishandled abuse claims in the past, they might have made a marked improvement over the decades. Or, some bishops who are striving to get transparent about their diocese's past abuse, are confronted with the opacity of how their predecessors handled things before them. So yes, the church is a bureaucracy that is vulnerable to the corruption and malfeasance of any other large-scale institution. But when we are pressing for accountability and transparency today, we should also be mindful that these systems of power are both complicated and diverse, and therefore, our response should be equally nuanced.
Yes! It’s so easy to talk about “the Church” or “the bishops” as if they’re all the same - But that’s simply not true; we have to be willing to wade into all of the complexity to be able to effectively move toward reform.
Switching gears here, I wanted to ask you something a bit more personal. I know from my own experience how difficult in can be to stay rooted in your own faith while spending so much of your time focusing on the darkness in the Church. Are there any particular spiritual practices that you have found helpful during this moment in your spiritual life?
For me, the church has always been the people of God - that is, my friends and family, along with the communion of saints that stretches across time and place. So I spend much of my prayer contemplating the lives of the saints and reading their poetry. I’d especially recommend Daniel Ladinsky’s translation, Love Poems From God.
So for instance, I find solace in listening to St. Catherine of Siena, a prototypical feminist, who scolded an absentee Pope and brokered peace treaties between Tuscany’s warring cities, all while penning mystical poetry from a convent. I believe that we can reform this church because St. Francis stripped naked in Assisi’s piazza, relinquishing his father’s inheritance, so that he could live a humble life of service and in so doing, inspire reform within a church festering with financial corruption. And I could say the same about St. Theresa of Avila or Sir Thomas Moore, or any number of saints and reformers throughout the centuries. Because to know the history of the Catholic church is to know both its grave depravity, but also the individuals and movements that have been channels of God’s grace. To spend time in conversation with these Catholics has helped sustain my faith through the depravity of this present crisis.
Thank you so much for sharing that. I’m totally with you on the power of drawing on the communion of saints at this moment in the Church. (Saint Catherine of Siena has been my personal patron throughout this work!) There’s something really encouraging about knowing that we have so many great saints who walked this path before us, responding to the needs of the Church in their own particular moment in history.
Now that Deliver Us has wrapped up, what's next for you? Will you continue to be engaged with this issue in some way, or will you be taking a break to focus on other things? (I have to say, I’m pulling for Deliver Us: Season 2!)
The podcast was my first, but not only, response to understanding the underlying and systemic roots of the abuse crisis. Since we wrapped Deliver Us, I was invited along with forty other Catholic leaders to Georgetown's National Convening on Lay Leadership for a Broken Church and Divided Nation. What emerged from the Convening was a sense that we don't always need to look to the American episcopacy for answers. Yes, this is a twin crisis of abuse and leadership, for which bishops absolutely need to be held accountable. However, the culture of clericalism that enabled this abuse to permeate the church unreported for years is still at play today, and often perpetuated by lay Catholics. So it's time that lay Catholics, especially those in rooms where decisions are made, double-down on reforming our culture.
I'm grateful that by producing Deliver Us I'm now connected to so many of these important Catholic voices, like John Carr, Kerry Robinson of Leadership Roundtable, Peter Steinfels, Kathleen McChesney, the Fortney Sisters, Marie Collins, and so forth. I look forward to future collaborations with them and other Catholics invested in this issue. I can't promise a Season 2 of Deliver Us (because it depends largely on procuring the resources and funding), but it is something I am working on.
Well, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for that second season, but I’m glad to hear you’ve been able to join the ongoing conversations in ways outside of the podcast as well. I am very interested to see what comes next for this whole movement.
In the meantime, thank you again, Maggi, for taking the time for this interview and most of all, for the huge outpouring of effort that made Deliver Us possible. Please know that I, and many others like me, are truly grateful!
This interview is the second in a series of what I hope will be many interviews with lay Catholics who are stepping up to respond to the abuse crisis in their own unique ways. You can view the first interview, with the founder of The Archangel Foundation, here: Voices: James Egan - A Former Seminarian Offering Support to Survivors. My hope with this series is to highlight the excellent work already being done around the United States and also to remind all of us that God calls each person to serve in their own unique way. I hope everyone reading this blog with continue to pray and ask the Lord how they can offer their individual gifts to make a difference.
A Prayer for the Coming of the Holy Spirit by St. Catherine of Siena
Holy Spirit, come into my heart; draw it to Thee by Thy power, O my God,
and grant me charity with filial fear. Preserve me, O ineffable Love, from every evil thought;
warm me, inflame me with Thy dear love, and every pain will seem light to me.
My Father, my sweet Lord, help me in all my actions. Jesus, love, Jesus, love.