What You Can Do: Practical Ideas for Responding to the Abuse Crisis
Updated: Mar 5, 2020
So, you’re starting to recognize the depth and seriousness of this problem, and you want to do more than just stew in anger or hopelessness. What can you actually DO that might make a difference? Here are a few ideas for being engaged on personal, parish, and diocesan levels. (I’m still thinking about what an individual or group could do to make an impact on the national and worldwide levels. If you have ideas on that, I would be happy to hear them.)
Note: If you’re in the Milwaukee area, please make sure to connect with Awake, a new local ministry of committed Catholics responding to the crisis in our Church. We have many opportunities to get involved, and we are actively seeking more allies in this work!
Obviously, no person could do everything on this list, but I hope these ideas will inspire you to move from passivity to action.
Be Informed: The issues surrounding clerical abuse and church reform are complicated, and we can’t be effective advocates if we’re not well-informed. Consider how much you don’t know, and then start learning! A few good places to start: the excellent Deliver Us podcast from America Media; the balanced, in-depth reporting from Crux (their daily update email is a good, quick way to keep up with a wide range of Catholic news from around the world); the wide-ranging resources from YA Respond (including their smart, informative blog) and of course, the In Spirit and Truth blog. :)
Listen: If you haven’t already done so, begin to really listen to the pain of survivors. Hearing their stories changes everything. This podcast episode is a good place to start. I also recommend these lessons from a survivor, the testimonies from survivors at the Vatican summit, and this story and video interview with the four Fortney sisters.
Sign: Please consider signing and sharing the Open Letter to Survivors written by Awake Milwaukee. This is an opportunity for all members of the Body of Christ to offer a sincere apology with those who have experienced abuse in our Church.
Donate: Continue to support Catholic organizations that serve the poor and vulnerable. Also, consider using your financial resources to support ongoing work important to this cause. I recommend The Archangel Foundation to help survivors, Leadership Roundtable to support high-level conversations about best practices and accountability in the Catholic Church, and Crux to fund quality Catholic reporting. I’d love to hear your ideas for other organizations as well!
Support In Spirit and Truth: If you want to support the ongoing work of In Spirit and Truth, the best thing you can do is subscribe to the blog, like the Facebook page, and share my blog pieces and Facebook posts as widely as possible. I would also love to hear from you directly so I can listen to your story and perspective. If you are interested in financially supporting this work so that I can keep on doing it, you can find more information on my Patreon page. More ideas for supporting my work can be found here.
Be A Safe Space: Many people are struggling to grapple with these issues but don’t know where to turn. Communicate to friends, family, fellow Catholics, social media contacts, and anyone else you can that you are available to listen and discuss these issues. Some people are feeling very isolated and just need someone to connect with for honest conversation. Also, keep in mind that you certainly have friends and family members who have experienced sexual abuse of some kind, even if they have not disclosed this to you. Be mindful of this in your communications, and be ready to believe, love, and support anyone who chooses to share their story with you.
Pray: I know that in today’s culture, it’s common to dismiss “thoughts and prayers” as just another way to avoid taking real action. But people of faith believe in the power of our God, who is always working on the side of justice and healing. So, prayer does matter, and in the face of this rather overwhelming crisis, I believe we’re in need of God’s help more than ever. Pray and offer sacrifices for survivors and those who abused them, for bishops, priests, and other leaders, for the Church, and for God’s wisdom and courage as you discern how He might be calling you to act. (More on prayer and sacrifice here.)
Take Care of Yourself: If you want to be engaged in this work, please find the support you need to stay physically, spiritually, and mentally healthy. Seek out help through therapy, spiritual direction, or supportive family and friends. Know when you need to take a break from this heavy work to focus on other things. (Here’s one resource I found personally helpful.)
Be Holy: The Church needs committed, faithful disciples of Jesus Christ more than ever. If you want to be an effective instrument of God’s healing, strive for holiness in every area of your life. Above all else, stay close to Jesus and remember that God is good.
Engage: If you want to make an impact on the parish level, you’ll need to get involved beyond just going to Mass. Join your parish council, human concerns committee, or another group that can work on addressing this issue together. Connect with other parish members to find others who might join you in your efforts.
Talk to Your Priest: Schedule a meeting with your pastor and tell him you’d like to discuss how you have been impacted by the clergy abuse crisis. (For best results, don’t grab him after mass or corner him at the spaghetti dinner!) Share honestly about how the revelations of abuse and cover up have personally affected you and your relationship with the Church. (Maybe even ask him how this has affected him!)
Make Concrete Suggestions: Many wonderful parish leaders feel paralyzed, not knowing how to address this issue. Don’t just suggest that your parish “do something,” offer a concrete proposal for what can be done. You will want to share this with the pastor, but it’s also helpful to include your Pastoral Associate, Director of Christian Formation/Adult Formation, and/or the point person for Human Concerns/Social Justice. My top suggestions for parish initiatives are:
Host a listening session to gather interested parishioners to share their thoughts. (I like this format.) Make sure to collect contact information from attendees so you can follow up with them and see if they want to organize for further action.
Regularly include prayers for survivors and for the healing of the Church in the intercessions at Mass.
Invite an expert speaker to offer a presentation with the goal of helping lay people be more informed about this issue. (Advertise this beyond your parish so that others can benefit as well.)
Create a small discussion group for parishioners to come together and share how this crisis has affected them personally. There are a few printed resources being offered, or contact me to talk about the model I’m using.
Offer to Help: It’s likely that every person on your parish staff and pastoral council is busy and overworked. If you want to make something happen, it helps if you’re willing to put in some effort! Offer to do research and help with planning, advertising, and implementation.
Complete Safeguarding Training: You’ll need to fill out paperwork, undergo a background check, and attend your diocesan abuse prevention training to be able to volunteer with children in any capacity in your parish. However, every Catholic adult should consider taking this training to become more aware of warning signs and reporting procedures for sexual abuse.
Ask Questions: Your parish or Catholic school should be following clearly outlined child protection policies established by your diocese, but it’s always good to check. Respectfully ask the school principal, DRE, or youth minister to explain the policies they follow to keep kids safe. If you have concerns, don’t be afraid to ask for more information.
Research: Figure out what next steps need to happen in your diocese. This takes a little research, but every diocese is different, so it’s very important to understand the particular situation in your local area. Start by reading everything related to this issue on your diocesan website. Many dioceses have a recently updated section of the website with current statements and materials. Also, do a Google search for your city and “Catholic sex abuse.” Click on the “News” tab to read up on recent developments in your area.
Investigate: As you’re searching, look into these specific questions:
Has your diocese published a list of priests with a credible allegation of abuse (or stated its intention to publish this list soon)? If not, this is the first thing you should advocate for.
If your diocese has a list published, does it include photos, years, assignment history, accusations, and current status of each priest? If not, advocate for this information to be included. (The Diocese of Sacramento’s newly released list is a good example of what should be made available.)
If your bishop has not hosted any listening sessions or public events to listen to comments and respond to questions from concerned Catholics, request that he do so.
Even if these basic things are in place, there is still much to be done! Stay connected to this blog, and contact me if you want to talk about next steps for your area.
Contact Your Bishop: Make a phone call, write a letter, or send an email to your bishop. Respectfully share your concerns, ask for specific changes, and offer to help if you can. Make sure to thank him for any progress that has been made recently and request a reply to your message. (Here’s the letter I sent to my Archbishop, in case it’s helpful.) Even better, ask for a meeting so that you can talk in person. (If you’re sending an email to ask for a meeting, CC the bishop’s administrative assistant/office manager, who is usually listed on the diocesan website.) Let me know if you want a few tips before you go in for a meeting!
Talk to Other Diocesan Leaders: In addition to contacting your bishop, you might find it helpful to reach out to other diocesan staff who are involved in these issues. Every diocese has different structures, but the Chancellor, Safe Environment Coordinator, and any names listed on the Child Protection section of the website are a good place to start.
Show Up: Make it a priority to attend anything and everything your diocese offers on this topic - listening sessions, prayer services, forums, etc. Besides the personal benefit that you might gain, high attendance at these events communicates to Church leaders that people do care about these issues.
Connect: Reach out to the leader of your local chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Tell them that you are a Catholic who wants to learn more about this issue in the local area. Invite them out for coffee and just listen to their perspective. Ask what specific changes they would like to see in your diocese.
Collaborate: Connect with others in your diocese who care about this issue. Spend a little time searching on the internet to see if there is an active community of advocates in your area. Not coming up with anything? List your diocese when you subscribe to this blog, then send me a contact form. I would be happy to help you connect with a local organization or other subscribers in your area who are also interested in getting involved. United voices are more effective than an individual working alone.
These are just a few suggestions for how you can continue to be engaged in this work for justice, reform, and healing. This list is certainly imperfect and incomplete, so perhaps you have better ideas! Regardless, however you decide to move forward, I just encourage you to take the first step and do something.
Which of these actions are you committed to undertaking? Do you have other ideas to recommend?
Christ has no body now but yours;
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.
- Saint Teresa of Avila
Lord, help each of us to hear your call in our heart and respond with love and courage