The Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church
Today I would like to say a few words about the sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church. What urges me to say something is the recent grand jury report released in Pennsylvania. The 900 page document says that more than 300 “predator priests” in 6 of the 8 Catholic dioceses in the state have been “credibly accused” of sexually abusing more than 1,000 victims over a period of 70 years. For the most part, these priests were never brought to justice for their crimes. On the contrary, they were often moved from place to place and their crimes were “covered up” by the Church leadership.
Just when I thought the sexual abuse crisis couldn’t get any worse, it did. The sheer numbers are staggering: 300 priests… more than 1,000 victims…over 70 years… My heart breaks for all those victims—the children, their parents, their families—who were so blatantly betrayed by the very “men of God” they trusted.
Here are just a few of my thoughts about this issue:
Years ago, when the sexual abuse stories first came to light, I was speaking with a layman, the father of several children, about the situation. With great emotion in his voice he said, “Sister, if any of those bishops had had children of their own, they would have responded to this crisis in a very different way.” He made a good point.
Similarly, I believe that if women had somehow been a part of the bishops’ decision-making process, the bishops’ response would have been different. I lament the fact that the major decisions made by the Catholic Church are made chiefly by celibate men. I have nothing against celibate men. Some of my best friends are celibate men. But I believe the Church must somehow involve laymen and laywomen (nuns/sisters are part of the laity) in the Church’s decision-making process. Hopefully, this is one lesson we can learn from the grave mistakes the bishops made.
If there is one mitigating factor in the bishops’ handling of the sexual abuse situation, it is this: we know a lot more today about pedophilia than we did 30, 50, or 70 years ago. For example, when I was studying for my M.A. in spirituality at Duquesne (1980-82), I had workshops by “experts” on sexuality. Back then, some psychologists still believed that pedophiles could be “cured.” Programs were set up to do just that. Some Bishops, in good faith, sent their “problem priests” to such programs. Today we know better. So we cannot judge all past decisions using today’s knowledge and insights. That being said, I am not excusing the “cover up.” It seems the bishops placed the reputation of an institution (the Church) above the welfare of individual human beings. What would Jesus say about such priorities?
Two more things. We must remember that there are thousands and thousands of priests who have served and are currently serving God’s people with love, compassion, self-sacrifice, integrity, humility, and joy. I know many of them. You probably do too. And secondly, we, the whole Church, need to repent for these grave sins and find ways to prevent these things from happening again.
The Holy Father has written a letter to the whole church that addresses the Pennsylvania report. For the first time, he refers to sexual abuse as “criminal.” He acknowledges “with shame and repentance” the Church’s failure to act on sexual abuse by clerics against minors. He says, “We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”
The Pope expresses great compassion for the victims: “The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet, or silenced.” Yes, by the Church! In doing this, says Francis, the Church fell into “complicity.”
He speaks of the past and the future: “Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient. Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.”
What are some of your thoughts or reactions to all of this?
It seemed fitting to choose a Lenten hymn today. This one, by Jim Farrell, is called, “Save your people, O Lord.” The sexual abuse crisis reminds us of our Church’s constant need for repentance and healing.
I welcome your responses below:
Sister, you did a magnificent job. Thank you for this heart wrenching article about this tragedy in the Church. God bless you, Sister !
O, Melannie! I agree with you 1000 percent! Women need to be more involved. Personally, I feel priests should be allowed to marry. I’m not saying that would be a panacea to the problem, but, good Lord! As I’ve said before, I’m in favor of women becoming priests. It just doesn’t make sense! Here we are a church with seven sacraments, and half its members can access only six of them? I want to believe if more women were involved in leadership positions — deacons, priests, what have you — then there would be countless fewer men and women suffering today. “Oh the horror, the horror.”
Thank you for bringing up this sad topic. What the Church failed to realize for so long is that the sexual abuse of children is a crime! As a teacher, it is a misdemeanor if I do not report any possible sexual abuse that I see in schools. Perhaps all clergy should be mandated reporters too.
In our parish, the deacon who preached about this issue brought it right to the forefront in his homily. No excuses! I was praying for him as he boldly preached.
Maybe this is the Holy Spirit’s way of waking us up. The bishops must be held accountable too.
My faith is strong but my soul is shaken.
Agreed. Clergy should be mandated reporters too. Our pastor expressed disgust with the situation and promised future transparency (at least from him), which was well received.
You have done an excellent job of framing this issue. I’ve seen news reports that additional states are planning grand jury investigations. More agony, pain, and retribution are no doubt forthcoming. Let us pray and hope that the sins of the past have, are, and will lead to necessary changes in church culture to prevent these outrages from occurring. And yes……I totally agree with your thoughts about women’s involvement in church structure and organization. Thank you. Peace and Blessings,
Sr Melanie, thank you for addressing this horrific scourge head on!! Your analysis of the problem and insight of who should be brought to the table to dialogue for solutions are Spirit inspired! In business it is called the “good old boy” mentality. Men are supreme and can do what they want and it will be tolerated and covered up. I’m not bashing men! I’ve been happily married for over 50 years! But women and men who are fathers need to be involved in decision making. Is there infallible doctrine that prevents priests from marrying? Changing that rule could help. So far the Church (pope and local bishops/ priests, have apologized and expressed great sorrow. I have yet to hear a corrective action plan. Lord have mercy on us!
Dear Sister Melanie,
I thank you for speaking up but sadly, to tell you the truth, it is still not enough. I am a life long Catholic active in the church and yet I have carried a feeling I have had since I was a child that there is a culture of secrecy among the clergy. It did not engender a feeling of trust in me as a child nor now as an adult. Even among those “good” men devoted to God. When we begin to treat priests as people and not “god”…. things might change. When the Vatican is willing to turn over the names of priests who committed these horrible acts against children so they might be prosecuted. Then things might change. When we as the people of God begin to live a mature authentic faith … things might change. I am heart broken for the families and children who are now adults. They carry a huge hole in their soul. We the lay people of the church, cannot let this go away along with the headlines of the week. We can no longer trust this matter to rest in the hands of the clergy and the hierarchy of the church.
” we cannot judge all past decisions using today’s knowledge and insights.”
Thank you sister for that is my thought too.
I pray for our good priests. Thank God for them.
Do we all have second thoughts about our chosen religion? No, our religion is what we experience in our own hearts. The devil is trying to do otherwise. He revels in what he has done to the church leaders. We can, and will, overcome this terrible exposition in our church. Unfortunately, it is dangerous for a priest to go out in public wearing his collar. I’m guessing that MOST clergy are not involved, but those that are, have themselves to live with.
Sister Melannie, I appreciate your writing about this, and I agree for the most part, but please explain “…we, the whole Church, need to repent for these grave sins…” We have a “baby priest” at our parish—ordained three years. He is precious and sweet and so sincere. For me, he represents all the innocent priests who are suffering in this mess. Why must he, or you and I for that matter, “repent for these grave sins”? My lifelong love for the church is in crisis mode. Thank you for weighing in on this horrible situation.
Dear TW, I base this sentence on the concept of the Mystical Body of Christ. We are all One Body. St.Paul’s analogy. What has happened has happened in “my Church,” “Our church.” I cannot help but be affected by these grave sins. We Catholic Christians are united by our faith and love and goodness, yes. But we are also united by our sin. Therefore I too am being called continuously to conversion, to repentance. My repentance may take various forms: earnest and heartfelt prayer… fasting… treating the children in my life with greater tenderness… supporting the priests I know… getting more actively involved in my parish–especially in their outreach programs… I guess I’m saying: this terrible sin has happened in my beloved Church. And I am so sorry! Sr. Melannie
Thank you, Sr. Melannie, for your response. I appreciate your insights and I’m in awe of your faithfulness. I need to see humility by bishops—throwing themselves on the mercy of the victims, admitting the cover-ups, being truly honest about their crimes, and making reparation in a more tangible way than “prayer and penance.” I visit prisons. I see resfidents whose lives are permanently damaged by their record. It makes me sick that these men are walking around free when others are paying dearly for lesser offenses. I have a lot of spiritual work to do to get even close to where you are. Again, thank you.
Dear Melannie, thanks for speaking about this. In my diocese the bishops letter was read but there has been no homily in my parish addressing this.
I am sad and disgusted. There was a commission set up by the bishops in the early 2000’s after the first crisis broke. If I am not mistaken there were laity on this as it unfolded and it was headed in the last years by a talented woman lawyer. As I recall she quit because, even tho there were guidelinse set, they were not being addressed or enforced by many bishops. There was an award winning movie on the issue entitled SPOTLIGHT. The L aITY were mandated as part of there certification as Lay Ministers, teachers, principals, Janitors …anyone who in any way had the slightest contact with children working for the church to take the Virtus training.
This is now more than a crisis, it can no longer be swept under the Vatican or Diocesean rugs. A letter from the pope is fine but strong and
Just action is needed. In the words of a famous song…”words, words, words…SHOW ME.” May God give us all the wisdom and grace to
act, to pray and to beg for changes. Above all to become women and men of love and courage. “ If you love the Church, strive to make her better.”
Sadly , I know from experience as a child in an orphanage that you are aware of, that some nuns were also child predators,,one in particular was both sadistic and sexually abusive,,,,children can be victims and live with irreparable damage when there is any situation where authority without supervision and transparency creates an environment ripe for abuse,,,
If I’m not mistaken a year or two ago Pope Francis authorized a special committee to form for the purpose of researching and discussing the possibility of the diaconate for women in the Catholic Church. We saw Pope Francis departing from Ireland last evening with media highlighting his comments about the Pennsylvania sexual abuse calamity and the fact that the the numbers of people were down at his appearances during his visit to that country. Politically, morally and spiritually NOW is the opportune time to convene with this committee’s findings, examine their own consciences, and decide to allow nuns/sisters and lay women to become deacons in the Catholic church. Major change needs to happen so that women’s perspective can be used to impact the needed change in how the church can responsibly handle the sexual abuse scandal world-wide. The Church is long overdue in recognizing the importance of the female laity. They should use this sexual abuse crisis as the “tipping-point” for the need to act for such positive change.
I know from experience that religious Sisters were reporting the sexual abuse of children for years at their schools and parishes and were ignored. I am not happy that there are no Sisters sitting on these meeting with the Bishops and Parishes. The Church needs to act now.
Thank you, Sister Anne
There is no excuse for the crimes that have been committed but I recall a quote I read somewhere: “The Church is better than it’s members, the Church is better than me.”
Well said Sister Melannie. I have often thought that if our sisters/nuns were able to perform what priests do and have more of a voice, our churches would be full.
Sr,Melannie: I add my thanks for your words to all who read your blog. Until yesterday I have never written a letter to a congressman or any other person who holds a position of power. However, I have written to the head of the Congress of Bishops to express what you so eloquently say above. I question the “protection” of Catholic predators and think they too must be punished for harming the children. I want to forgive them, but it is difficult and I keep working on this. As a mother, the victims are the babies of ours and are due love and respect. May Pope Francis succeed in moving all priests closer to God and not quite so close to self.
Sexual abuse as well as signs of abuse need to be reported to the agency responsible for abuse of children as well as the police Dept. This needs to be done right away. Too much cover up historically and too little too late. The victims are hurting now. Sexually abused children are hurt emotionally and can not get over it. PTSD is a nightmare. Perpetrators need to be held accountable no matter who they are. Be Accomplices as well.
God Bless You, Sr. Melanie for not skirting or ignoring this crisis. You’ve given me hope, because you offer solutions and action steps that need to be taken. I totally agree with John Hopkins. We are one body and to do nothing is complicit and sinful.
Thank you for the hard work that went into this analysis. You are using your talents for good.
I want to believe that this pope and the church today is different, but I cannot.
Case in point, Cardinal McCarrick; His accusations of abuse were reported repeatedly within the church’s circle. He was too, by all accounts, a rising star. How do you align these two very different approaches to the same man? He rose through the ranks while accusations, deemed credible decades later, were ignored.
No a few bad apples does not fly with me anymore. It took a village to raise a cardinal and even today that village goes on without accountability. The Church is all too comfortable with letting McCarrick twist in the wind for decades of depravity and advancement.
Who turned a blind eye and promoted this man? The Church did, and it was all done without one twitch of conscience for the victims. 70 years is a very long time not to do the next right thing.
Dear Sister Melanie:
Your words came at the right time and followed my bishop’s reaction. I have read both and take great comfort from both. However, I did challenge him to reach to some who was attacked while kneeling at the communion rail of a church in 1960 one month before this same person, a priest, murdered a school teacher who had gone to confession to him that Easter Vigil and left with him to the rectory never to emerge alive. I am referring to the Irene Garza case which has been well documented.
Our bishop wrote a very heart warming letter to our people after the ex priest received a life sentence. I ask for your prayers that the young lady who was first assaulted receives a word of comfort also. Thank you Sister for all that you do and I agree 100% with what you said.
Deacon R C
Having worked in the public sector for years with children & adults as a mandated reporter. I have witnessed cases of children, adults & seniors that have broken my heart. Our society as a whole needs to find respect for the value of each person. This is more than a church issue, but we need to start here with accountability if we are true followers of Christ. I thank all those who work to make love a reality for those who suffer.
Priestly celebacy is not the problem, as over 90% of sexual assaults towards children take place in the home. And, do you really believe that marriage turns men into paragons of virtue? Why is the divorce rate at 50%?
Of course, the elephant in the room is the fact that many ( not all) of these priests are gay, and could not be turned away from the priesthood without the church being accused of discrimination. Sadly, some of them become priests simply because they had access to children….not because they had a calling to God.
Looks like we have our own swamp to drain! Kyrie Eleison!
Bravo for addressing this issue so directly and forcefully. Your blog has been my one remaining link to the Catholic Church (which I left when the scandals first came to light), and your blog today reaffirms why I treasure your practical, prayerful, and down to earth commentary.
IMO, if the Church had addressed this properly from the outset, it would have more members today. (I knew the Church was in trouble when my local priest seemed to explain the issue away as a media-induced event by saying “after all, the media hates the Catholic church”.)
And kudos for your bravery in speaking up for women to have a meaningful voice in the Church governance. It’s long overdue.
I give great credit to this Pope for finally saying what should have been said and doing what should have been done long ago, but it still strikes me as “now that the evidence is truly overwhelming, we will ‘fess up to the crime”.
I have been devastated by these new reports. My son and his wife and three little boys live in Lancaster PA and have been on a journey back to the church. Two of the boys were baptized in May. They went to VBS for the first time and enjoyed it. It is my hope and that this new struggle in our church will not set them backward. Thank you for your good words. It is helpful.
Dear Sr. Melannie,
Thank you so much for today’s insightful blog. I also agree with John Hopkins. The priest at San Pedro Retreat Center in Winter Park, FL did address the issue yesterday and tied it to the Gospel about all the disciples who left because the “teaching was too hard”. Many Catholics, including my husband and myself, sometimes question why we are still Catholic at this point in history. However, the answer is always, “Where else shall we go, Lord?”
I have a dear friend whose son was sexually abused by a priest and he has
been in and out of mental institutions all of his life. This wonderful woman sometimes blames herself for not seeing it. It ruined his life and deeply affected hers.
I’m also corresponding with an inmate who was the victim of clergy sexual abuse in the 80’s in the Boston Archdiocese. He also has a history of mental problems and has been in and out of prison. In both of these instances, monetary settlements were reached but it didn’t change the fact that lives were destroyed. American’s, in general, seem to think that money solves everything. Sadly, it does not.
Dear Sr. Mellanie and Friends,
I too am disheartened by the news, very sad indeed. You see I am a Catholic priest, a retired pastor. I also am a father and grandfather.
And yet we should not take advantage of a tragedy by proposing things like married priests or female clergy. That amounts to bashing, and I think it is absurd.
And so I support Bill Donohue and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. We need their intelligence and strength to set the record straight.
Obviously this is a very painful issue. But I trust in the Divine Physician to heal us!
God bless you.
Fathers and grandfathers are as protective of their children as Jesus, the Good Shepherd is protective of his flock. Jesus did not mandate that priests should be unmarried, and I do not think it is absurd to consider married clergy. Perhaps vocations to the priesthood would increase. In Maine the mission church for Native Americans (one of 6 churches in our parish) closes in September and does not reopen until Spring. Those parishioners, many living below the poverty line, must travel 25 miles for Mass and the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Many do not go to Mass all winter. Is that how we are shepherding our flock?
I could never leave my faith because of this, but, I’d like to see some real concrete changes with the bishop on up, and with the way things “have been done”. Sounds like they also need to come to grips with some of the seminarians. It’s just all very sad and tiring.
Thanks for your wonderful input, Sister.
My faith is strong and I have worked and prayed for my children
It is their anger and disgust that worries me. The penalty for this crime must be the same for all of us. Maybe since this was exposed on 8/15, Mary is also the woman working to clean her Sons Church.
Avoid evil, do good, seek peace and follow it. Psalm34
Thank you for writing about this. Although I grew up in the Diocese of Pittsburgh and left there many years ago, I feel it personally as I read about the number of priests involved in that diocese over the years. The diocese in which I now live, has had nine priests who have been acknowledged as abusers. I am saddened by the fact that at least four of them rotated through the Cathedral Parish of my city where I was a parishioner and my children attended school. Particularly one of these men was a person I truly admired and thought was destined for high office in the church. Like you, I received theology training from the “Holy Ghost Fathers” at Duquesne—although as an undergraduate. I don’t completely agree with your view of all of us repenting for these outrages. I understand your reasoning, but I don’t feel completely united with “our” church. In fact, I’m pretty certain that “our” church has not truly been ours for a while. It has instead been an organization that has, in so many places and ways, been manipulated by a relatively small percentage of people in positions of authority who have ignored crimes and sacrilege to maintain that authority. Power corrupts, and power has corrupted our church. Our young parochial vicar addressed the report directly and firmly when it came out. It was quite courageous of him. His disappointment in those priests involved was evident. Perhaps these words struck me the most—-that he recognized this is probably only the tip of the iceberg and that he has not lost faith in Christ but has in the orgazniation. How sad and yet how true.
Andrea, you have spoken my own thoughts well.
Your reflection expresses sadness, sorrow, compassion and hope. Let us continue to pray for the whole Body of Christ that is always in need of conversion and the mercy of God. Let us continue to pray for the needs of the Church.
Sr. Melanie, You have chosen very compassionate words to help people reflect on the clergy situation. What has been done cannot be changed, but we can work together to see that this never happens again. These children and families have suffered a great deal. I hear my friends discussing this, and I have no words to defend these men, only sorrow for the church. Let us join together in prayer to find forgiveness and strength to grow in our faith.
What company or organization do you know of who would have a sexual predator in its employ and have its Human Resource Department determine the consequences of that employee’s actions? In other words…police itself? Far too long, have we had a majority of “elite”, white collared, male dominated, clerical club members posing as “the Church” ( reminder… you & I are “the Church”)…the audacity of whom have prevented women…half of God’s creation… from equally participating in all areas of leadership. As Kathleen Sprows Cummings, Associate Professor at Notre Dame, stated in America Magazine, “The call to Leadership flows from the sacrament of baptism not the sacrament of ordination.” Strong, moral leadership is needed to take millstones in hand and end the cover ups.
Dear SR. Melanie:
My wife Pat attended a conference, where you were a keynote speaker,six or seven years ago. She has been a recipient of Sunflower Seeds, since that time. I also enjoy many and see we have so many things in common, with respect to life and our church. I feel the pain in our Parish and our community. I started out in Police work in 1969, at that time there was little procedure in Law enforcement training as how to investigate child sex abuse. However techniques and training improved, When I was a County Detective The President Judge in our county in Pennsylvania had
requested that all cases of child sex abuse be handled by the county detectives who were a part of the District Attorney’s Office. This was because he saw so many perpetrators being freed due to unskilled investigations by all the Police and even the highly respected State Police, this was about 1987 or 1988. So we were able to have daily discussions with the Staff of attorney’s and the successful rate of prosecutions increased. What the Catholics and the secular world should realize that the Horrible actions of those criminal priests are still a small, even minuscule portion of the hurting world.
Then I also want to make this point, those priests, and even more-so the Church Hierarchy, who were involved in such cover up activities, did so because they had about as much training as most of the Police of my day. All are guilty, and all have sinned falling short of the righteousness of GOD as St.Paul stated. I was taught that sin is sin and each forgivable sin places us farther from the glory of God. Thank God we Catholics have this defect on the Mystical Body of Christ. What ever ails one part of the body it effects and affects the entire body so clearly espoused by St. Paul.
Our body, our church can only be healed in calling every soul to take on the ever efficacious restorative balm of prayer, forgiveness, and thanksgiving for making us aware of our defects and work to healing our
Mystical body while there is time and opportunity. God bless you in your Ministry.
First of all, hello! It’s been a long time and I hope you are well.
I agree with you that we must make changes within the church. The voices of laymen and laywomen have been minimized or missing far too long. But, I think the church must go even further. The ancient structure of the hierarchy and the all-male priesthood no longer serves the entire People of God. The sex abuse crisis and the cover-up are symptoms of an ailing structure. No, it isn’t every priest who hurts children, and not every bishop has covered it up. But, enough have and did to cause shock and distress and mistrust in the church today – even if it did happen 20, 50, or 70 years ago. There is a reason why all of this is coming out now. The Spirit is telling us something and we would be wise to listen. Peace and all good.
I am disgusted and angry about all of this sexual abuse of children— disgusted and angry not only with the perpetrators but with the hierarchy!
The institutional Church needs to be reformed. The priesthood is too insular; they have very little accountability to anyone. The bishops have protected the institution from “scandal” rather than stopping the crime and protecting the children. The priests have too much power in the parishes. Many are arrogant and will not consult with parishioners in any decision making nor will they accept any critique. They are taught that they are ontologically (in their own being) different from others. The priest has a particular role in the Church, but it is not necessarily a superior pathway to holiness. The priesthood needs to be opened to married men and women and the full participation of the laity in Church leadership needs to be realized.
I’m hoping, Sister, that a few thoughts of mine, gently pushing against the general tendency, might not be deemed out of court. I find myself wishing for some voice, however modest or tentative, to issue the necessary reminders that accusations are not evidence, that all accused are presumed innocent until proved guilty, and that there are things going on in holy Church besides those matters to which the headlines would draw our attention.
These matters will sort themselves out without my immersing myself in the tabloids every five seconds, in a misguided avarice for the latest “bit of news.”
Have a look at Save The Children.
Archdiocese of Detroit Michigan
Do you mean “Protecting God’s Children,” Archdiocese of Detroit?
We had a very moving, heartfelt homily the very first Sunday after the “Bomb” of the findings of the grand jury. He said it was the most difficult homily he ever gave.
I agree with you Sr. Mellanie on bringing in the “church” in dealing with these horrendous charges, not just the heirarchy. In fact, I believe the larger percentage of people working on this whole problem should lean very heavily to the lay women and men, with the emphasis on the women.
I personally feel that this is like a boil that has never healed because it was always scabbed over and never allowed to let the pus out so the wound could be properly cleansed.
In my opinion, this is a good thing to have happened….it has blasted everything wide open and perhaps the wound will be able to be carefully attended to so that it will be healed once and for all.
In my younger days, I use to be appalled to find out something awful went on in the church…..how could that be? this is a holy place, with holy people? But, then I began to understand what Jesus meant when he said I came for sinners, not the righteous………and the church is filled with sinners, even those in places of leadership. This doesn’t make anything better for me, but it makes it easier to understand that every single one of us are fighting are own personal demons, addictions and desires.
I guess the next step for us is to remember nothing happens in leaps and bounds, but in baby steps as we encourage and commit to doing what we can to bring this to the table to help heal our church and all those who have directly suffered because of this cover-up.
I would like to finally say two things: one of my spiritual directees who is gay shared with me that after he had prayed for years for God to change him, he decided at age 18 to go into the seminary because he thought that if he prayed enough and was around holy people, he would not have the troubles he had…..pretty sad when you think of it…..thankfully he did not remain, but how many did the same thing? the second point is that a friend psychologist told me that a pedophile in about 99% of the cases, had the same experience when they were a child, which is a very grim thought.
We need to prayer unceasingly for all the victims, but also for the priests who suffer very damaging demons.