Day of Healing Colloquium, St. Mary’s Church, December 16, 2018 by Margaret Wehrer

 Margaret Wehrer is an anthropologist who teaches at SUNY Polytechnic in Utica. Her current research and advocacy concern migrant farmworkers from Guatemala. She was an oblate of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, where she was a member from 1986-92. She is a former staff member of Pax Christi USA, a Catholic social justice organization.  She will addressing the role of the church in supporting sexual abuse victims. 

“To hate is such a lazy thing, but to love takes strength (that) everyone has but not all are willing to practice.” (Rupi Kaur -- The Sun and Her Flowers)

As a lifetime Catholic, a former member of a Benedictine Catholic religious community, and a survivor of sexual assault, I love the Catholic church but hate the way it has handled the clergy sexual abuse scandal. In this paper I analyze the problem and suggest ways that lay people can move the church forward.

Three factors that I feel contributed to the current crisis are the church’s framing of sexuality as shameful, the laity’s belief in priestly perfection, andthe hierarchy’s “circle the wagons” response to criticism.

The first problem I see is the church equation of sexuality with guilt and shame. I was named after St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, who renounced marriage at the ripe age of 8, so from the time of my first communion I was left with the impression that celibacy was the only way to be a goodCatholic. Add to that the focus on Mary’s virginity, and it was clear thatsexuality was bad, and Catholics were to engage in it only under extreme duress. Girls in particular were to shun sexuality, dress modestly, avoid sexual contact, and keep their eyes turned heavenward. Repression rather than joyful acknowledgement of sexuality was the norm.

In this atmosphere, any expression of sexuality was seen as shameful, even if one was an unwilling partner in it. So when a priest or religious acted in inappropriate ways, it was easy for a victim to blame themselves for causing it by being too sexual, or saying or doing something to cause it, reinforcing this link between sexuality, guilt and shame which had already been established from early childhood. When appropriate boundaries were crossed, rather than running home and saying “Mom, Father X touched me in a way that made me uncomfortable,” my generation was taught to feel ashamed because we were somehow at fault for this transgression.

The second thing we need to change is unquestioned obedience to the clergy. I attended Catholic schools from elementary school through college. My family socialized with a lot of priest friends, and we did lots of parish activities as a family. We even attended Friday night fish fries at the local seminary. Through this socialization, I was taught that since priests were divine authority figures, my job was to obey them. They were to be trustedwithout exception. I wasn’t taught to “trust my intuition” or to question themotives of a priest or nun.

This attitude might explain why my high school friend Nick didn’t protestwhen he was abused by the priest who oversaw the youth group of which he was the president. It was unthinkable at the time for Nick to resist, to call the police, to file a complaint. Or in my case, when a priest I was working with in Haiti invited me to his house only to appear before me naked, asking to have sex, I had no thought of doing anything more that escaping and perhaps telling a few friends, in hushed tones, about the experience. It never dawned on me that I could press charges, file a complaint with his bishop, contact the local newspaper, or anything of the sort. Since he was a priest, and priests are perfect, what right did I have to soil his reputation?And besides, wasn’t I in some way at fault?

I wish I had been taught that priests are sinners, and that I should follow my instinct. If this priest seems like a predator, I can trust my gut and act on it.

The third factor in the clergy abuse scandal is related to the second. Because we were taught that priests are perfect, when we hear sexualabuse victims’ stories, and their cries for justice and healing, many of usautomatically frame the victims as the “problem.” I have seen Catholicwebsites and parish email messages frame sexual abuse victims as an outside enemy trying to bring down the church, and themselves as the

staunch defenders of the faith. Even my father, a Catholic deacon, sees abuse victims as an external threat bent on bringing down the church.

The funny thing is that the abuse victims I have met were loyal, trusting Catholics who believed that priests and nuns were perfect, and who for decades after their abuse bore their shame and humiliation in silence. Iwish the “defenders of the faith” could meet Nick. He was the “good kid”,the obedient 16-year-old who trusted a priest to respect your dignity. Nick, that priest failed you, and on behalf of the church, I’m sorry.

Why has the Catholic church ignored the suffering of victims like Nick? Ibelieve that the reason stems from the church’s history as a 2000-year old bureaucratic institution which seeks to maintain itself against all odds.When I call the church “bureaucratic” I mean that it went from a free-flowing movement run by charismatic leaders like Saints Peter and Paul to an institution with land, property, and enormous political, social and economic power, the excesses of which we saw in the Middle Ages. While the official leaders of our church may be the bishops, cardinals and popes, theinstitution’s daily functioning is maintained by a group of people whose solejob is to maintain it. Therefore, the mindset of any institution is intrinsically conservative; it seeks to preserve itself through adherence to tradition.

On one hand, bureaucratization is highly beneficial, allowing the church to withstand strong internal and external criticism, to be highly efficient, and to endure into the future. Because of church bureaucracy we have highly developed traditions of art, music, philosophy, theology, and literature. However, the weakness of a bureaucratic institution is that it is very slow to change, it doesn’t recognize or admit its own weaknesses and failures, and it often focuses on self-preservation rather than adherence to its founder’s vision.

There is a wonderful Zen story that speaks to this.

One day, when a Zen Buddhist teacher and his disciples began their

evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery distracted the

teacher, so he ordered that the cat be tied up. This practice of tying up the

cat during meditation continued for as long as that teacher lived, and when

he died, his followers continued tying up the cat during meditation. When

the original cat died, the disciples bought another cat and tied it up.

Centuries later, learned descendants of the Zen teacher wrote scholarly

treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation

practice, never knowing that it was all because one teacher didn’t like the

sound of one cat howling.

The Catholic hierarchy has spent decades tying up the victims of clergy

abuse, ignoring their pain out of a desire to maintain the image of priests as

perfect and above the law. They have lost sight of Jesus’ vision of the

church as a community of mutual compassion and humility, and of priests

as fellow sinners in need of healing. Sexual abuse victims are the “canaries

in the mine,” pointing to a failing in the Catholic church that needs redress.

Rather than “circling the wagons” and blaming the victims, I suggest that

the church open its ears and listen to the cries of its suffering members.

Let’s brainstorm creative responses to this scandal that heal the victims and prevent future abuses:

  • What if the church publicly asked pardon for the crime of clergy sexual abuse in a full-page ad in every diocesan newspaper?

  • What if every diocese held an annual “take back the night” rally orholy hour for healing for victims of sexual violence? (This could belinked to “All Survivors’ Day”, an international day for survivors ofsexual violence, on November 3.)

  • What if a prayer intention, one Sunday a month, was for victims of clergy sexual abuse?

  • What if 2020 became the church’s international “Year of Repentance for Sexual Abuse”?

  • What if we researched saints who survived sexual assault or who spoke out against it?

  • What if the church modeled compassion and empowerment to victims of sexual assault by providing services, physical space, and trained counselors?

  • What if homilies helped sexual abuse victims overcome their guilt and shame?

  • What if homilies and faith formation classes highlighted saints like Elizabeth Ann Seaton who modeled positive sexuality?

  • What if the church opened its door for counseling and healing for sexual assault victims?

  • What if the church established a clear process for victims to make claims of sexual harassment against its ministers?

  • What if churches offered legal aid for sexual abuse victims seeking justice through the courts?

  • What if our faith formation classes taught our children to listen to their conscience rather than blindly trusting church authority?

  • What if we taught what it means to love and protect your body as a temple of God?

  • What if seminaries encouraged priests to celebrate their identity as fellow sinners, in need of God’s mercy, rather than paragons of perfection to be admired and feared?

  • What if the church started addressing its own sexism? The church’ssilence on the issue of clergy sexual abuse is due in part to its blindness to the issue of sexual assault, whose victims are overwhelmingly women.

    It’s time for the laity to take the reins on this issue where the church hierarchy cannot and will not. We need to take the leadership; we need to speak for the church because, as Vatican II reminded us, we ARE thechurch, and Jesus gave us the mission of continuing it. We’ve spentenough time complaining about what the church hierarchy has done wrong.Now it’s time for us lay people to take the Beatitudes seriously, admit ourfailures as a church, and bind up the wounds of the suffering people in our midst. As my opening quote reminds us, bringing love to the victims and the perpetrators of abuse will require a love beyond our human capacity. God will support us in bringing this new vision into being.

    Copyright © 2018 Margaret Wehrer. All rights reserved. Posted to https://stmarysandstjoans.org with permission.

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