Recently I was rifling through the overloaded files on my computer to see what I could delete as I have so many files, I sometimes have trouble finding the one I want to work on.
I came across an article I wrote in 2008, about a Catholic parishioner who helped a survivor of clergy abuse cope with conflict with his family in the middle of the night. He was and remans a fragile survivors with a long history of addiction and outbursts of anger that periodically get him jailed. His mother called the police on him in the middle of the night, and he called me, and I referred him to the Catholic parishioner as I had young children and could not help him in the middle of the night. But this other Catholic parishioner could and did.
She is a passionate Catholic unwilling to be uprooted from her church, but she is also the mother of girls sexually abused by a stepfather. When she found out about the abuse, she did whatever she could to protect her girls and keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. When she came forward with accusations of abuse against the soon to be ex-husband, she found out that the community sided with him and not with her and her girls.
Those girls are grown now and are struggling, but they are grown and don’t need immediate care. That night the survivor called me, she went over the the his house and picked him up from the police who did not want to jail him, and she sat with him for several hours that night while he talked and talked. And then she sat with his mother while she talked and talked. Finally she was able to persuade the survivor to apologize to his mother, and his housing was situation was temporarily saved. Eventually he did become homeless. He lost his clergy abuse case in court which is just as well, because with too much easy money, he might have medicated himself to death. He did win disability payments which were enough for alcohol and food while he lived under a bridge for the last three years, but how he has survived while living under the bridge is another story for another day.
The point is that a Catholic parishioner provided him and his mother with enough emotional support that they could managed together for another several months.
She gave him something more valuable that money.
It reminded me what a therapist told my son recently.
“I can’t solve your problems, but I can support you while you go through them.”
I have a couple thoughts working on the clergy abuse issue.
First, the Catholic Church has a great many caring and giving parishioners who, with a little training and guidance, could provide huge amounts of support to clergy abuse survivors. If the Church made use of this resource, maybe there would be fewer lawsuits and less bad publicity. Maybe there would be lots of good publicity. But the Church does not do this.
In my experience and my view, the Catholic Church has mostly kept survivors and parishioners apart. My best guess as to why is Church leadership worries about two things. First, I think they worry that people will lose faith in Church leadership if they know just how much abuse and how much coverup of abuse there has been.
I think the second worry is that they think that if they speak openly about the abuse, many more survivors will come forward and they will be sued and lose still more of the buildings and bank accounts they have already lost.
I think they take their own counsel and that of their insurance companies and lawyers...when they could look instead to the history of saints and near saints who have inspired others for millennia.
We can’t all be Mother’ Theresas, but we can take our inspiration form Terese of Lisieux. Little things matter. Listening with compassion matters. Giving someone your time matters. Being there in the middle of the night matters. Being kind matters. Being open and non-judgmental matters.
My own parish was torn apart by judgement and angry words when the pastor was accused of abuse. The Youth Minister came forward with disturbing stories of how the pastor had sought unsupervised contact with Church youth, but instead of thanking her, other parishioners vilified her. Church administration told Church staff to remain mum instead of support her. So angry parishioners who loved the priest persecuted her even when they saw her in the grocery store away from the Church. People accosted her and criticized her in public.
She was so wounded she left the Catholic Church.
But what if Church administration had given different guidance.
What if they said, “Thank her for coming forward.”
What would have happened?
The same thing happens to clergy abuse survivors. Instead of being thanked for coming forward and preventing future abuses, instead of compassion, they are criticized and rejected.
Our little group, Compassionate Gathering, has shown what happens when rejection is replaced with welcome, when anger is replaced with kindness.
You get peace, and uplift and forgiveness and reconciliation. Steve Fearing is the survivor whose 1992 lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Portland went all the way to the Oregon State Supreme Court and opened the way for a flood of lawsuits that led to the bankruptcy of the Archdiocese of Portland. Steve was welcomed into my Franciscan parish by my group and Fr. Amando Lopez. He shared his story, and Fr. Armando apologized to him as a brother priest of Steve’s abuser, and the rest of us, a mixed group of Catholics and clergy abuse survivors, validated his story. We embraced Steve and supported Steve and believed Steve. The result was forgiveness and reconciliation. Everyone cried tears of joy.
Elizabeth Goeke, my clergy abuse survivor and Compassionate Gathering co-founder echoed the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu who led the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in examining civil rights violations in apartheid South Africa -- rights violations that included murder and torture.
“We are on holy ground here,” she said.
I have never used recreational drugs in my life, unless you count the Fentanyl that was given to me when I was in labor with my babies. I felt so high the day we listened to Steve’s story at Ascension and Fr. Armando apologized to him, I was non-functional the rest of the day. I was so happy and so uplifted, I couldn’t concentrate. I just floated around.
The concept appears to be difficult for all sides.
The Catholic Church remains wedded to keeping survivors and parishioner apart and keeping things silent and many survivors can’t imagine why they would want anything to do with the Catholic Church. They wounded me. Why go there for support? Why not go where I am safe? The Catholic Church is not safe. Catholic parishioners are not safe.
All I can tell you is I facilitated it and witnessed it and experienced it -- more than once.
Reconciliation is a piece of heaven when it is done right. I found that Catholics have to be taught to listen with compassion as it is not intuitive. We tend to get caught up in our own wounds and react rather than respond, but we can learn to respond with compassion. The most basic element is to listen without judgement, to listen to be present with the wounded person.
I don’t have enough clergy abuse survivors or Catholics working with me at present to bring them together with any regularity. But I still work with clergy abuse survivors, and I still work with some Catholics. There is a lovely little, lady here in Portland whose normal demeanor is gentle and kind, but she is a fragile clergy abuse survivor. She had a legal case, not against the Church this time. She hoped a judge would hear her out, but her case was dismissed. She was not heard. She had gone into debt trying to find someone to support her. What she worked so hard for was gone.
She felt hopeless and asked me to pray for her.
She long ago stopped attending Mass, but prayer still had meaning for her.
So I put her request for prayers out there in e-mail and Facebook form.
The first person to respond was the former nun married to the former priest who heads Call to Action in Portland. The next two were clergy abuse survivors -- one whose Catholic faith helped her heal, and one who had tried to remain Catholic and could not. The third person to respond was Franciscan friar, Fr. Ben Innes. The next person who responded with prayers was a high school classmate of mine who just happens to be Catholic. They were joined by Franciscan Friar, Fr. Armando Lopez, a Catholic parishioner from the Midwest who feels passionately that his Church has not done the right thing by survivors, and a mother whose son was abused by a priest and who has since struggled with her Catholic faith. A few other non-Catholics joined the group -- people who simply care about survivors of any sort.
What these people offered was just prayers. One survivor wrote back to me and criticized me saying prayers were inadequate. Actually, his words were much harsher than that. I agree. Prayers are not enough. But when the Catholic women went over in the middle of the night and picked up the survivor and spent time listening to him and his mother so he could stay at home for another several months, was that inadequate?
That is what we can do if we come together.
How many lawsuits would there be against the Catholic Church if we all came together and worked together to be there for survivors in need??
How much good publicity would there be?