bioethics, spirituality

Reservoirs of Trust: On the American Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis

Over the summer, I read James Comey’s memoir A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and LeadershipThough not everything the man did was popular or potentially even the best and most just option, Comey struck and continues to strike me as a man of integrity who aims to be honest above all else. A particular section that stood out to me in the memoir was when he spoke of his time in the U.S. Attorney’s office:

“It was now my responsibility to build my own culture within the U.S. Attorney’s office…I tried to attend to this task from the very first day. I hired about fifty new prosecutors during my time as U.S. Attorney and sat with each of them as they took the oath of office.  I invited them to bring their families.  I told them that something remarkable was going to happen when they stood up (in court) and said they represented the United States of America–total strangers were going to believe what they said next.  I explained to them that although I didn’t want to burst their bubbles, this would not happen because of them.  It would happen because of those who had gone before them and, through hundreds of promises made and kept, and hundreds of truths told and errors instantly corrected, built something for them.  I called it a reservoir.  I told them it was a reservoir of trust and credibility built for you and filled for you by people you never knew, by those who are long gone.  A reservoir that makes possible so much of the good that is done by the institution you serve.  A remarkable gift.  I would explain to these bright young lawyers that, like all great gifts, this one comes with a responsibility, a solemn obligation to guard and protect that reservoir and pass it on to those who follow as full as you received it, or maybe even fuller.  I would explain that the problem with reservoirs is that they take a very long time to fill but they can be drained by one hole in the dam.  The actions of one person can destroy what it took hundreds of people years to build.”

– James Comey, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, emphasis added

I remember reading that section, thinking I would save it for some great scandal. Given the current president and his latest troubles, I’d assume I’d save it for him. Also, seeing as today is the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, I thought I’d be writing a much different post. Too bad the bigger, worse, and more painful scandal hits me much closer to home. Too bad my thoughts and anger finally boiled over enough that I cannot resist writing about this any longer.

I remember taking a break from my summer class to check the news in late June when I stumbled upon an article in the New York Times about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whom I had never heard of previously. The article detailed the sexual assault of a teenage altar boy decades ago. All I could think was “Oh, sh*t.”

I was not even a teenager when the first wave of a sexual abuse scandal happened in the early 2000s in Boston. My faith was still quite infantile, and the effects of the sexual abuse scandal did not really affect me personally until I moved to Milwaukee in 2015. Milwaukee priest Fr. Lawrence Murphy was accused of assaulting abused deaf boys from the 1950s to 1970s, and he is just one of many clergy who was accused of sexual assault. The archdiocese went bankrupt from paying the survivors of sexual assault. I only knew of the depth of scandal in the area as I started working with young adult ministry in the city and learned of our lack of funds to pay for programming because of payouts to the victims. Just this summer, I heard that the archdiocese was starting to recover.

And then McCarrick’s crimes became public knowledge.

More and more details of decades of predatory behavior by McCarrick have come to light, including the sexual assault of seminarians that were known by the diocese. A grand jury in Pennsylvania named the sexual crimes of about 300 priests who abused 1,000 children, as the Washington Post detailed. On August 22, Archbishop Carlo Viganó released his testimony about McCarrick and how the nuncios to the United States knew of the ongoing allegations and had reported them to the Vatican. Vigano stated that Pope Francis knew of McCarrick in 2013.

Oh, sh*t.

This abuse, this evil, this sin runs deep. Deeper than I could have imagined. I am disgusted, angry, disappointed, shaken, and scared. Did the head of the Church, the chair of Peter, the shepherd of the flock really allow predatory behaviors to continue with his knowledge? Did the leadership of the Church really look over authentic reports and allow systematic abuse to continue? How broken are we?

The Church is supposed to be a refuge, a place of safety, a place of comfort and healing. People are supposed to be able to be vulnerable spiritually, mentally, and emotionally without fear of being taken advantage of, but for these survivors, they were being taken advantage of in the most intimate way by persons who they should have been able to trust implicitly. The literature has long discussed the psychological and physical effects of sexual abuse, and it pains me that an emerging theme in the literature is Clergy-Perpetrated Sexual Abuse (CPSA). It has its own abbreviation. Abbreviations in the literature means it is common enough to warrant abbreviation. That in itself is painful. 

Terry (2015) noted that nearly 11,000 youth were abused by 4,392 Catholic priests  in the United States during a 50-year period from 1950 to 2002. That’s about 4% of the clergy, and this is before the McCarrick scandal. The majority of victims are young boys, anywhere from 71-85% of victims (Easton, Leone-Sheehan, O’Leary, 2016). The sexual abuse of a young boy (usually 11 to 14) by a clergy member is said to be particularly disruptive because of the age of the victim who is beginning to understand himself as a sexual being as well as the spiritual leadership of the attacked. Easton et al. (2016) noted that victims of clergy abuse found their total self affected by the abuse: their psychological, relational, gendered, aspirational, and spiritual self. Many reported issues with their identity, trouble relating to others in both intimate relationships and in friendships, difficulty with setting goals for themselves, and losing their faith (Easton et al., 2016).

To have a shepherd of Christ hurt his flock in this manner is awful, and what is even more awful is the lack of response I have seen in the Church so far. (But yes, I realize it has also taken me months to write something, so I get that things take time.) It has been silence and secrecy. Did not our Lord say not to hide under bushel baskets? Did not our Lord say to bring secrets to the light? (Mark 4:21-22) Why are we as a Church retreating into and remaining in darkness when we proclaim the light?

It took until mid-August to have the victims prayed for in the petitions at a Sunday Mass I went to. It took until August 2nd for a priest to address the scandal in a homily on a weekday Mass when a damning prophecy from Ezekiel was the first reading and lent itself to talking about the scandal. It took until late August for a parish priest to send a letter to his congregation in the Sunday bulletin. But otherwise, the response has been mostly silence.

But yet, despite excellent commentaries by Bishop Robert Barron and my friend Claire at the Catholic Feminist Podcast, it feels to me that the overarching reaction to this scandal is silence or misplaced solutions. Pope Francis appears to be silent about Archbishop Viganó’s letter while Bishop Olmstead of Phoenix has affirmed that Viganó is a trustworthy priest. Bishop Robert Morlino wrote a letter to the diocese of Madison about the scandal and seemed to spend more time on the sin of homosexuality then the sin of overt sexual abuse.  Friends has talked about how if priests were allowed to marry, this would have not happened.

On silence: Silence is not what the Church needs. When the Pharisees accused Jesus of scandal (which appeared to be near daily in the Gospels), He addressed it. Jesus addressed scandals with parables, with Scripture, with words. In the one instance I can think of where He is silent is where Jesus was brought a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Instead of immediately answering the accusing Pharisees, He bent down to write on the ground and when further pressed, responded “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Even after initial silence, Jesus always responded. We need silence for prayer to know how to respond in the most Christ-like way, but overarching silence about the largest scandal in the Catholic Church in recent memory and probably the largest scandal in the Catholic Church in the United States is not helpful.

On the discussion of homosexuality and abuse: As Easton et al. (2016) noted, yes, the majority of the abuse is adult men (priests) assaulting young boys. However, as my friend Anna at the Eden Invitation and Bishop Barron stated much more gracefully, just because someone has same sex attraction does not mean they will perform homosexual acts let alone to an unwilling partner. Blaming persons with same sex attraction for a scandal involving the systematic coverup of sexual abuse and predatory priests is not helpful and is needlessly discriminatory. Regardless of someone’s attraction, he should be able to control himself if he is going to be a priest and an ordained man of God in the world.

On thoughts that married priests would not be abusive: Have you seen the latest domestic abuse numbers? More than 10 million men and women are victims of domestic abuse annually. Just because someone is married and “has a sexual outlet” does not mean they will stop being abusive! There is a major difference between consensual sexual acts and non-consensual sexual acts. The acts described in the news outlets and in the Pennsylvania grand jury testimony are non-consensual. Sexual predators are not going to necessarily stop preying on people just because they have a sexual outlet because sexual abuse is more about power than sex. And please, have you seen the other sexual abuse scandals about married pastors? Marriage and signing people up for a lifetime of sexual abuse or hurt from their spouse abusing other people and cheating on them is not a solution.

All of our current solutions are not reassuring anyone let alone helping us to trust the Church. The reservoir of trust for the priesthood was damaged but not destroyed in the early priest clergy sexual abuse scandal in the 2000s. With the silence, secrecy, and level of power this scandal reaches, it feels to me that now this reservoir of trust is draining.

How? How did this happen? How does a man of God who freely gives vows to serve the Church so deeply violate the implicit trust of one of its members? How does he not see his role as a beautiful gift, a gift with inviolable responsibilities, as something to protect and nourish? How does he violate the work and care of all the women and men who have gone before him to build the Church – the martyrs who died for it, the saints who lived for it? How? How does this happen?

As Comey wrote in A Higher Loyalty “the problem with reservoirs is that they take a very long time to fill but they can be drained by one hole in the dam.  The actions of one person can destroy what it took hundreds of people years to build.” The actions of several hundred (God forbid, thousands) of priests around the world are draining that reservoir of trust. For me, it’s knowing that potentially the Pope knew and did nothing that is draining my personal reservoir of trust. Yes, I knew there were corrupt Popes centuries ago, but I never expected one in my lifetime, especially one who has shown such great love and mercy in his Pontificate.

Where do we go from here?

I don’t know what the best solution is. I do think we should be forgiving because mercy is of God, but I do not think we should be too quick to forgive in that we forget about justice. Justice and mercy are both essential for authentic love.

As Pope Francis wrote in Misericordiae Vultus:

“It would not be out of place at this point to recall the relationship between justice and mercy. These are not two contradictory realities, but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love. Justice is a fundamental concept for civil society, which is meant to be governed by the rule of law. Justice is also understood as that which is rightly due to each individual….we need to recall that in Sacred Scripture, justice is conceived essentially as the faithful abandonment of oneself to God’s will….

Mercy is not opposed to justice but rather expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert, and believe….

If God limited himself to only justice, he would cease to be God, and would instead be like human beings who ask merely that the law be respected. But mere justice is not enough. Experience shows that an appeal to justice alone will result in its destruction. This is why God goes beyond justice with his mercy and forgiveness. Yet this does not mean that justice should be devalued or rendered superfluous. On the contrary: anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price. However, this is just the beginning of conversion, not its end, because one begins to feel the tenderness and mercy of God. God does not deny justice. He rather envelopes it and surpasses it with an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of true justice.”

Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, 20-21

“Anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price,” and this justice is the beginning of conversion. Before we can even talk about forgiveness, we need to talk about justice. Forgiveness without justice is not true forgiveness. As Dr. Robert Enright outlines in the Enright Process Model of Forgiveness, one first needs to name the injustice.

Let’s start with naming the injustice: Sexual abuse by a clergy member is a crime and a horrible sin. I am devastated at how this abuse will hurt the Church, yes, but I am more devastated at how these innocent persons have been so violently hurt by the institution that was created to be a refuge for them. Sexual abuse should never be covered up nor ignored nor blamed on an outlining factor. Sexual abuse is a choice and a harmful choice that hurts innocent people.

After fully acknowledging the depth and pain of the injustice, we can start the process of choosing forgiveness and mercy. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone,” Jesus said (John 8:7). Let’s continue by looking at the systematic factors that led to the abuse and coverup. What are we doing to screen seminarians? What processes are in place that allowed McCarrick to ignore his sanctions from the Vatican? Why is defrocking and resigning so uncommon? Should it be more common?

But we also need to look in our own hearts.

While this scandal was unfolding, I was at work with my orientee, a sweet and knowledgeable new graduate nurse whom I like a lot. We were working with one of my attendings who after 2 years started to tolerate me and at 3.5 years, I dare say likes me. He is a character who I describe as “his bark is worse than his bite.” He gets annoyed easily, comes off as rude, but is a brilliant physician.

My orientee reported to him that a patient was experiencing dark stool, a sign of occult (hidden) blood loss that can be very problematic if unnoticed. He said something along the lines of, “why’d you tell me this?” It ended up that indeed the patient had a gastrointestinal bleed and needed to be admitted. She kept asking me why he was so rude. I explained that’s who he is, he gets annoyed when something is unexpected, and he was busy. “But he should not be acting like that,” she kept saying when I explained away his behavior. It took her saying this a couple times for me to admit to her and myself that she was right. He should not be rude in general but especially when he was given new information that altered the patient’s plan of care for the better.

When we get to know people and work closely with people, we tend to overlook their negative behaviors, no matter how much they annoy us. In order to cope with the initial insult of a rude person, we say to ourselves that who they are and get used to it. I’ve seen individuals, both men and women, explain away their partners’ abusive behavior in this way. I had a woman once who was literally shot by her significant other, yell at the police who were investigating the crime that he was her lifetime love and she was not going to report him. We normalize bad behavior and are reluctant to report it.

I understand how tempting and difficult it would be to report a fellow priest. I understand the temptation to re-assign a priest who had a sexual abuse allegation to a new parish instead of reporting him to the authorities. I understand how reluctant someone can be to call out an individual.

I have never reported this rude attending. Not once. Not to my managers. Not to him. I’ve complained about him, rolled my eyes behind his back, been frustrated beyond belief until I just got used to him, or avoided him. I used the good things I know about him to override his rude behavior to the point of me even defending him and calling him a “character” instead of naming what he does: act condescending and rude to staff below him.

In the same way, I think predator priests went unnoticed. Their priest brothers covered for them, looking at the way they support parish programs or their love of a Scripture verse or whatever else to justify their goodness instead of saying what he does: sexually abuse others. It must have been even harder as priests like McCarrick came into power within the hierarchy of the Church to speak out, and it is devastating to me that knowledge of clerical abuse went unnoticed by the Vatican if the claims are indeed true.

As fictional character Phil Saviano said in the movie Spotlight about the sexual abuse crisis in Boston and how the Boston Globe uncovered it: “So you go along…then you go along, you go along, you go along.” (In case you want it, the original article is here). In the same way, those who know about “characters” like McCarrick went along, and along, and long. And where we are today: broken by a catastrophic scandal.

I often reflect on that line of Jesus: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7). Does this mean we cannot call a crime a crime or a sin a sin? Not at all! Jesus was calling out the Pharisees for being harsh at the crimes of others while ignoring the sins of their own hearts. That is our temptation in this time too. Sexual abuse is a sin. However, we cannot use the sins of some of our priests to justify missing Mass, skipping prayer, not listening to the Gospel and loving our neighbor better, etc. Divine Justice will always be greater than our own, and we must resist revenge and excuses in the wake of the serious sins of others.

At the same time, we also must examine our hearts for the seeds of sin. I may not sexually abuse others, but do I daydream about them in the sexual way? Do I think of what others can give me instead of who they are? Do I allow others to be cruel without saying anything?

If we look into our hearts, we all carry our own sins. Just as we want our Lord and others to be merciful to us, we must also act with mercy. However, mercy is not mercy without justice. For justice for these survivors, the crimes of their attackers must be revealed, and the Church needs atonement. How specify to do all that, I do not know. However, I know I am looking for carefully at my own heart for the seeds of sin in both ignoring the abuse of others and in the temptation to use others for my benefit and not their own.

Lord Jesus, help us all in this time of scandal. Give us the serentity to know You still lead your Church today, the courage to challenge the Church where we can, and the wisdom to know how to respond. Please bring healing to the survivors and justice to the perpetrators. Wash us all in Your Divine Love and Mercy. Amen.


Easton, S. D., Leone-Sheehan, D. M., & O’Leary, P. J. (2016). “I Will Never Know the Person Who I Could Have Become” Perceived Changes in Self-Identity Among Adult Survivors of Clergy-Perpetrated Sexual Abuse. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 0886260516650966.

Terry K. J. (2015). Child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church: A review of global perspectives. International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 39, 139-154. doi:10.1080/01924036.2015.1012703

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