A dear friend of mine, Fr. Howard Haase, spoke at the Marquette University Restorative Justice conference this week. The topic of the conference was the international clergy abuse crisis and he was part of a panel called “Clergy Finding Their Voice.” He talked about his love for the Church to which he has committed his life. He talked about his feeling of how that love had been betrayed by a Church that had failed to protect so many innocent lives. He talked about the need for change.
I had been incredibly moved by what Archbishop Martin said in his reflections on Monday. And as I listened to Howard’s talk, I realized how much I, too, was affected by the fallout from the clergy sex-abuse crisis. He had passed on to me his own love for the Church many years ago, when I was a lost and lapsed graduate student. He had helped me to heal and to grow. Inspired by his preaching, I learned to write homilies and began a career in Catholic publishing. His love for the Church and his commitment to his priesthood changed and graced my life.
Like Howard, I had had an experience of Church that was far from the horrific betrayal of trust experienced by those who had been abused. But in the past decade, I’ve often wondered, in the face of so much abuse and betrayal within the Church, how I could go on believing in my own experience. We weren’t immediately involved in the horrific betrayals of trust. But nonetheless we were victims of what he referred to as collateral damage.
Because of an inability to deal honestly and transparently with the abusers in the Church, the hierarchy risks creating a setting in which all priests are presumed guilty, are presumed to be a threat to children and other vulnerable human beings. I have known many faithful and committed priests in the parishes I have called home over the years. I work every day with good and holy Franciscans. And yet when I’m choosing photos for news stories, I hesitate to use a picture of the pope with small children. I can’t quite help feeling an involuntary moment of tension when our parish priest hugs my great-nephew after Mass. Most of the time I’m not even aware of these reactions, but they take a toll.
Wave after wave of stories continue to break in the media—sometimes sensationalized, other times appalling in their stark truth. I can’t ignore them, they’re part of my job. I don’t always have the strength to stand in the face of popular bias and stereotypes. Too often I stay silent in the midst of those who would turn the crisis into some sick joke or imply that all priests are susceptible to what is in fact a terrible aberration. As a single woman, I can feel implicated by broad-brush criticisms of celibacy, as though healthy and mature relationships are the right only of those who choose to marry and have children. I grow weary of the draining effect that the scandal has had on all of us. Like my coworker, I want to say, “Make things right!”
In this year’s Oscar-winning film, The King’s Speech, George VI finally breaks through the stuttering caused by a lifetime in the shadow of his father and older brother. He says, loudly and clearly, “I have a voice.” We all come to this realization at some point in our lives. It’s often the result of some great emotion that we can no longer contain. I, too, need to find my voice.
For those of us who profess belief in the Word made flesh, this realization can unite us with our divine destiny.