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The Abuse Uncovered Should Cause Trembling in the Church

October 27, 2021


[Jesus] said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’

“But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’

“Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’

“But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’

“There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed, there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” (Luke 13:24-30) 

As I write this, we Catholics, as a Church, are still processing revelations out of France and the release of yet another comprehensive report from yet another country, documenting perhaps a quarter of a million cases of horrific, extensive sexual abuse being perpetrated against our adolescent members—our children, mostly male, but also female. That the majority of cases occurred “before 1969” is of little comfort—no comfort, really—particularly to those of us who know that time has nothing to do with healing the wounds against trust and innocence that go hand-in-hand with sexual abuse. In fact, those wounds have a way of confounding time, of breaking open and bleeding anew—permitting old horrors to rear up before us like old ghosts, demons, and dragons that refuse to be settled, exorcised, or slain—and promising to be with us for the totality of our lives.

Over five decades have gone by since my abuse was experienced in real-time, and over the years I have “done the work” of reliving, forgiving, and understanding that “hurt people hurt people.” That last was a necessary part of re-learning compassion, as I actively pursued the reactivation of parts of my emotional and spiritual self that had shut down as a means of self-protection and ended up rendering me too benumbed to feel much of anything, or to love and pray well. Fifty years, but sometimes I still wake up screaming.

I wish I could say the Church had no part of what I suffered, but that would not be entirely true. Enduring the abuse of a family patriarch filled me with confusion, soul-deep shame, and a sense of physical danger that I carried with me everywhere I went except, for a while at least, inside our parish church.

A pious child, I loved the Church as I was able to comprehend it at that tender age, which was mostly in the material and the physical—in the building that, empty or filled with worshipers, spoke to me of the wideness of God and heaven; a beautiful place decorated with stained glass windows I loved to study, music I loved to sing, and a tabernacle I loved to visit at odd times, when there was stillness all around, except for what emanated from within the shiny brass housing that held (but could not contain) the immense holiness of Christ, whose presence seemed to permeate every inch of that space.

I even loved the heavy red velvet curtains hanging from each side of the confessional booths, those cool dark spaces so ready to hide me and my sins from the world (as though I had been gathered to the bosom of the Lord) and bestowing upon me a sense of respect, safety, and blessed confidentiality as I laid my childish faults before the Lord and heard the words of mercy uttered on my behalf.

That all changed on a quiet Saturday when, anticipating my Confirmation, I prepared for confession with an examination of conscience that brought the full enormity of the sin of my abuse upon me.

Please realize that I was nine or ten years old. I had the incomplete understanding of a child of that age, raised in an era when purity was emphasized to Catholics not simply as a premium but as a prize, or even a crown. I knew only that something terrible and sinful was happening in my life and—because this is what kids do—I assumed it was my fault, my sinfulness, my spirit displeasing heaven, my soul in eternal danger, my weight to carry. And so, having been told by the good sisters that my Confirmation would not be valid if my soul bore upon it any grave and unconfessed sin, I brought the abuse into the confessional—that safest of havens.

Things did not go well. The priest hearing my confession wanted details, wanted to know what had been done to me, whether my participation was willing and what I had done to encourage it (I didn’t know! Could I say that?)—and my confusion, my sense of sinfulness, my sense of “being dirty” became overwhelming throughout the grueling confession, which I endured to its end, when the now-breathless priest offered me absolution for my sins and gave me a pretty hefty penance.

At the altar rail, as I prayed my Hail Marys and Our Fathers, I could not stop my tears or my shuddering breaths. I gazed up at the sanctuary artwork—a scene of angels around the throne of God—and felt an interior wail grow within me as I wondered how a sinner like me, so profoundly dirty, could ever be fit for heaven.

That wail seems to have resonated through my whole life. After that, confession held no more comfort or consolation for me until much later in my life, when my adult sensibilities could grasp the realities of culpability and mercy that the confused child could not.

As someone who fully understands the effects of sexual abuse on a child—who knows what it is like to walk daily with the detritus that lingers within the shattered sense of self, the destroyed trust, the shuttered feelings that try to keep it all at bay—I read these stories of Church-wide abuse heaped upon the young by priests and religious and even layfolk (decade after decade with near-impunity), and then I read Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel, and I wonder when, finally, the leadership of this Church will do what it must do to make amends.

And by amends I do not mean defrockings, fines, settlements, and recompense—just and necessary as they are. I mean the supernatural thing, the penitential thing that must be done and (because so much was hidden for so long) must be performed within the sight of the whole world:

There needs to be a penitential liturgy.

St. Peter’s Square needs to be filled, even to overflowing, with the East-facing, nose-and-bellies-to-the-ground prostrations of every living bishop and cardinal, from the Bishop of Rome on down, and joined by priests and religious and deacons and layfolk too. The world needs to see the princes of the Church brought to that low, narrow gate—their splendid robes marred with dirt as they seek it. The whole world needs to hear them praying the Confiteor—begging forgiveness before God and the world for “what we have done; for what we have failed to do, through our faults, through our faults, through our most grievous faults.” Satellites should be bringing us views of a Church on its face in every diocese, every parish, praying in one voice, “Forgive us our sins!”

I’d be happy to participate. I’d eagerly join my co-religionists on the ground and make reparation for the sins committed—and for too long hidden—by members of the Body instituted by Christ himself, brought down by human brokenness and unable to transcend and move beyond their own sins without his help.

I hear today’s readings and tremble for all of us who profess Christ within his Body, the Church. I tremble because it seems to me that the Church does not tremble enough.