Awake Milwaukee presents “Courageous Conversation” on the role of racism in the abuse crisis

The scandal over the conduct of French Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, who recently admitted to engaging in “reprehensible” acts with a 14-year-old girl 35 years ago, has been met with shock and anger from members of the Catholic Church. “How can one still believe that the Church will pull through, that it has the means to reform itself, when it is so deeply damaged?” wrote Isabelle de Gaulmyn, senior editor at La Croix, reflecting a prevailing reaction of Catholics around the world.

Cardinal Ricard’s revelation came just a year after a report was released estimating that 330,000 children in France were sexually abused over the past 70 years. Additionally, Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims revealed this past week that 11 current or former French bishops have been accused of sexual abuse by civil or church authorities.

Hearing of these wounds to the body of Christ, and the damage they have done to sons and daughters of his church, makes one thankful for the work of organizations like Awake Milwaukee. Awake is an independent Catholic nonprofit organization, not affiliated with any particular parish or diocese, whose mission is “to awaken our community to the full reality of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and work for transformation and healing in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and beyond.”

On Thursday, November 10, Awake hosted the first of a two-part event, “Erased from the Narrative: The Role of Racism in the Abuse Crisis.” The event was part of Awake’s “Courageous Conversations” series. A separate “discernment and discussion” session will be held on November 17 at 7:00 p.m. CST.

Thursday’s presentation featured panelists Fr. Bryan Massingale, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and professor of ethics at Fordham University; Maka Black Elk, the Executive Director for Truth and Healing at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota; and Dr. Jeremy Cruz, a professor of theology and religious studies at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. Erin O’Donnell, a member of Awake’s Leadership Team, served as moderator.

Erased from the Narrative

O’Donnell began by asking the panelists how people of color have been “erased from the narrative” of abuse within the Catholic Church.

Fr. Massignale responded by saying that communities of color are “invisible” when talking about the scourge of abuse. Articles and literature about the issue often feature only images of white people, he said. The impression is that there is no room in the broader conversation “for the trauma that victims of color of clergy sexual abuse have experienced.”

Fr. Massingale also said that the terms “victim” or “survivor” may not resonate with African Americans who have suffered abuse. He prefers the term “coper,” since, in his experience, African Americans tend not to speak of “surviving” abuse but rather “coping” with it.

Maka Black Elk lamented that the history of Native peoples is unknown in the U.S. He stressed that Native peoples do not experience prejudice rooted only in their skin color, but also in their attempted genocide and the eradication of their families.

The history of the Catholic Church’s involvement with Indian boarding schools adds another layer to the problem, Maka Black Elk said. These schools were “rooted in dehumanization” that separated families. Abuser priests were often relocated to tribal communities. Abuse was seen as less “consequential” in Indian boarding schools.

Maka Black Elk mentioned that Canada had roughly 150 residential boarding schools, compared to 500 in the U.S. The Catholic Church ran over 100 schools in the U.S., for which they received federal funding. The church’s history for Native people is “rooted in this greater colonial project” that promulgated abuse, he said.

Dr. Cruz related the erasure of people of color from the narrative of abuse to broader political, economic, and structural injustices that create trauma. He stressed that racism “is not simply another social issue alongside sexual abuse” but rather “the very landscape within which sex abuse occurs,” both inside and outside the church.

Barriers to Reporting

To the question of barriers people of color may find in reporting abuse, Fr. Massingale said that some victim-survivor-copers may not feel “credible” in making their reports. “If you are perceived as not being able to speak standard ‘white’ English, then your testimony is seen as uncredible by white listeners,” he said.

Distrust of police within the Black community, fear of drawing attention to one’s own legal history, and skepticism that one’s claim will even be believed may make some survivor-copers wary of bringing their testimony to law enforcement, Fr. Massingale said.

Because of their fear of financial crises, bishops and clergy have lobbied to limit the statute of limitations laws for survivors of abuse in boarding schools in South Dakota, Maka Black Elk said. The laws make it difficult for survivors to pursue reparations and redress through the court system.

Dr. Cruz said that language barriers, fear of law enforcement, and concerns around deportation dissuade members of the Latinx community from reporting abuse. Dr. Cruz noted that not all priests who serve in Latinx parishes are “culturally competent.” If a parish does get a charismatic, “culturally competent” priest who is liked, there may be increased pressure not to report him, even if he is an abuser.

Dr. Cruz also mentioned the “culture of productivity and moving on” in the U.S. that leads to a kind of “historical amnesia.” This attitude can lead church officials to think they can “move on” from the problem of abuse instead of implementing necessary changes as part of their ministry.

“Clericalism is the big elephant in the room,” Dr. Cruz said.

Gaps in Data

Dr. Cruz noted an “egregious” gap in data to document the extent of the problem of abuse in communities of color. What we can do in the absence of data, he said, is “lift up stories” and “look to the patterns that exist in other institutions where power and vulnerability intersect.”

Fr. Massingale said that a lack of existing data to address racial or demographic information leads to the presumption that victim-survivor-copers are all white. It can be difficult and time-consuming to go to each diocese’s website to piece together data, and without knowing the racial and ethnic composition individual parishes, there is no way to grasp the prevalence of abuse in communities of color.

The Church’s Response

Asked what needs to change in the Catholic Church’s response to the abuse crisis, Dr. Cruz emphasized the need to identify and challenge structures that allow the church to avoid accountability. Alluding to the book of Ecclesiastes, he said that “This season is a time to tear down” structures that are enabling violence and abuse.

Dr. Cruz suggested that members of the church look to mutual aid groups, the theories of community organizing, and other direct actions to pressure the church to change practices and policies. He also suggested taking inspiration from various “models of church life” to reconstruct communities “more capable of carrying out the mission of the gospel with integrity.”

Fr. Massingale stressed that “We’re only now beginning to talk about” the abuse crisis. Church leadership has not voluntarily chosen to address this issue, he said, so change must come from outside pressure, court settlements, and other mechanisms.

“Safe environment training” is not enough, Fr. Massingale added. He suggested that future court settlements require “that systems of religious and seminary formation deal with the power dynamics that are racially and ethnically based,” and that these questions become part of church leadership training. The church should require dioceses to hire culturally competent people to work with communities of color, he said.

Maka Black Elk pointed to the “sense of abandonment” Native American Catholic communities feel from the church. He expressed sorrow that the church invested so much energy on evangelizing Native communities and comparatively little on healing and reconciliation.

Intentional Outreach

Organizations who wish to welcome communities of color should practice “intentional outreach” and “intentional seeking of story,” Maka Black Elk said. There is a real need on the part of these communities “to be heard and identified,” and a “deep need for learning” among those who would welcome them.

Fr. Massingale asked organizations to remember that communities of color “can’t tell our stories without talking about how our racial identities have affected our experience.” He urged organizations to allow victim-survivor-copers of color to come together in their own spaces to process some of their own healing first before entering into majority white spaces, where they are often expected to help white people talk with them about race.

Dr. Cruz challenged organizations not to simply “reach out”—a metaphor that “implies hands.” Instead, he said, “move your feet” to really accompany communities of color by partnering with and supporting existing community leaders.

Action Steps

Mary Gentile, a member of Awake’s Leadership Team, concluded the presentation by asking the panelists to provide “action steps” for attendees.

Maka Black Elk reiterated Dr. Cruz’s advice to “move your feet” to accompany communities of color, and to take time to learn about the history and current situation of local Native communities.

Dr. Cruz asked people to approach conversations about race with a spirit of curiosity and openness. He acknowledged that these are difficult conversations to have, and that people should be open to being corrected, learning from their mistakes, and working to do better.

In majority white gatherings, deliberately keep asking who isn’t present, Fr. Massingale said. Fr. Massingale concluded by asking attendees to pray and to “stay rooted in something bigger and deeper” than themselves. This means not just saying prayers, but becoming people of prayer and cultivating a genuine spirituality of courageous hospitality and prophetic speech. ♦

A full recording of “Erased from the Narrative: The Role of Racism in the Abuse Crisis” is available here. A follow-up discussion will be held on Thursday, November 17, at 7:00 p.m. CST. All are welcome to attend, and the discussion will be kept confidential. Further information, including event registration, is available here.

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