Below we present two interrelated pieces on the clergy sexual abuse crisis. The first, “Reflections on Letter to a Suffering Church,” is a response to Bishop Robert Barron’s 2019 book on the abuse crisis. The second, “Letter to My Catholic Son,” is a personal appeal that addresses questions about the crisis within a family context. The author writes that the two pieces “are best read together as a two-part Ignatian spirituality exercise highlighting perspectives of Catholic parents (Joseph and Mary) addressing this issue at the level of a) the domestic church (‘Letter to My Catholic Son’); and b) the institutional church (‘Reflections’).” Additional resources for confronting and recovering from abuse follow at the end—Ed.
Reflections on Letter to a Suffering Church
Father, forgive them . . .
– Luke 23:34
Letter to a Suffering Church is an book-length essay on the clergy sexual abuse scandal by Bishop Robert Barron of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota. The book begins with a claim that the abuse scandal is a “diabolical masterpiece.” Bishop Barron then elaborates upon deviant sexual behavior among historical biblical figures and clergy over two millennia, and calls out the offenders for “spiritual incest” with their faith family.
After highlighting various spiritual gifts bestowed by the Spirit through the Catholic Church and enumerating saints and reformers as models of faith, Bishop Barron urges readers to increase personal holiness. He also reviews recently revised procedures for handling new allegations of abuse, but dismisses several proposals for clergy reform. The book ends with suggestions to “stay and fight” rather than leave the church, as approximately a third of members intend to do, based on polls.
Bishop Barron’s book is well intentioned, easy to read, and woefully inadequate from a lay Catholic or abuse victim-survivor perspective. Why so? Consider the following:
1. A clergyman’s history of clergy abuse.
Imagine reading the story of the Passion written by religious and Roman authorities. Their version of the story would likely highlight the “causes and context” of the events rather than the betrayal and agony of their innocent victim. Sadly, this book reads that way, with no mention of the stories, journeys, and outcomes of the abuse survivors walking their via dolorosa. After all, it is a clergy-promoted book about clergy abuse, written by a clergy member! One can only hope that someday we will have the opportunity to read a people’s history of clergy abuse.
2. Celibate clergy are not husbands or parents.
Now imagine reading this book through the eyes of the Holy Family, the model for all Catholic families. Would the persistent and recurrent pattern of abuse, revealed to Joseph in a dream, encourage the protector of the Holy Family to stay or flee from the institutional church before his little boy became another victim? And if that happened, while tending to her wounded and abused son, would Mary draw any consolation from the Genesis excuse (the devil made me do it) or a modern-day Caiaphas exhortation (it was unfortunate that your son had to suffer rather than the system change, but be more holy if you want to reform the institution)? And would not Jesus cry out with the young innocent victims through the ages: “How long, God?” (Ps 6) and “Why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22). This book offers no answers to any of these concerns of families, as they continue “sighing and weeping in this vale of tears.”
3. Shifting the blame hinders the healing process.
Two actions that hinder healing are avoiding accountability (Genesis excuse) and placing additional demands on the wounded (Caiaphas exhortation). This kind of advice adds to the heavy and lonely burden of survivors and their families, and has no place in a book written to a “suffering church.”
4. Healing requires treatment, not just diagnosis.
While the author diagnoses “spiritual incest” using biblical references, he does not follow through with remedies for grievous sins recommended by Jesus (Matt 18:6-10) or Paul (1 Cor 5:2). How can healing occur without adequate treatment of the cause of suffering?
5. System-level problems require system-level solutions.
As part of a root-cause analysis and intervention, it is much easier to address superficial-level problems and make personnel and procedural changes rather than tackle deeper, system-level causes. The former alleviates problems temporarily, the latter requires challenging the status quo and culture for sustainable and meaningful change.
According to the John Jay report, the USCCB-commissioned study on the “Causes and Context of Clergy Abuse,” the Catholic Church has an organizational structure and culture that makes system-level reform difficult. This is due to its inherent systemic proclivities for authoritarianism, secrecy, and clericalism. (Some commentators have suggested that the report did not go far enough in naming and accounting for these institutional elements.) Is it any wonder then, that this clergy-authored book summarily dismisses potential system-level changes, while holding up recent procedural modifications as reform? If the underlying tendencies to deviant behavior are as deep, ancient, and pervasive as the author proposes, why not address the systemic factors outlined in the John Jay report? For instance, if the author, as a lifelong clergy member, was not aware of any instances of clergy sexual abuse, doesn’t that suggest extreme secrecy among church leaders? And if clergy were aware, but whistleblower reports were ignored or ineffective in curtailing abuse, doesn’t that indicate an authoritarian and clericalist culture? Are proposed measures, which are only now aligned with secular standards for reporting of abuse, sufficient to address these systemic and cultural barriers to reform?
Meanwhile, as we ask these questions, Christ continues to suffer with his church—a church that, on the one hand, hopes that clergy will read Matthew 23 as a “Letter from a Suffering Church,” and, on the other, prays to the Father to “forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). ♦
Letter to My Catholic Son
September 11, 20__
My beloved son in whom I’m well pleased (Mark 1:11),
September 11 is a day to mourn the loss of human life and dignity, and stand with all those affected by violations of human rights—not only the events of 9/11, but also all those events that haunt our minds and hurt our hearts long after the deed is done.
I am proud of you for being you, and nothing will ever change that. I thank God that you have lived your Catholic faith, even in the face of persecution. At school, work, and on social media, you have been a champion for those who were excluded from the mainstream, or relegated to the fringes of society. You befriend the stranger, comfort the distressed, and use your talents to inspire youth and advocate for social justice.
So I cannot even begin to tell you how my heart breaks when you tell me that you “are done with the Catholic Church.” I know you feel betrayed by the shepherds who preyed on the flock, instead of praying with and for the flock. I see your point that if Joe Paterno was dismissed for what happened on his watch, why not the bishops, or even the pope? I don’t know what to say when you wish the clergy who abused their power and violated the children of God would be excommunicated. I am as disturbed as you that the focus of attention is on those who inflicted and covered up the violations of the “temples of the Holy Spirit,” while the victims whose lives and spirits were shattered are still waiting to be held in love and healed. And yet, young Jedi, as your Jedi-master, I ask you to reconsider. . . .
The dark side of the force has breached the city gates, wounded many, and is holding some of the faith family hostage. Remember that the dark forces grow stronger through fear, isolation, and hate. They are called “legion, for they are many” (Mark 5:9). So rather than taking on the forces of evil on your own, join forces with your BFFs (Brothers of the Faith Family), for “Where one alone may be overcome, two together can resist. A three–ply cord is not easily broken” (Eccl 4:12). Recall the promise of the Supreme Commander that “where two or three are gathered in My Name, I am among them” (Matt 18:20).
As you get ready to do battle on behalf of the children of God, who walk the earth as sons and daughters of mankind, charge up your light-saber (Matt 5:14). Draw upon the power of the Supreme Commander at all times by becoming a prayer (Mark 9:29) who “prays without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17) (code: ora et labora). Your light-saber is love and your superpower is compassion. Use your light-saber to overpower the enemy—“the darkness cannot overcome the light” (John 1:5)—and let your superpower hold and heal those who are the victims of evil, so that they may live. (Did you notice that “evil” is “live” spelt backwards?)
The Jedi fight evil in all its forms, so that every person “may live, and live abundantly” (John 10:10). You were chosen to be a Jedi by the Supreme Commander (John 15:16) and tested during your youth to prepare you for your mission. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to dispel the darkness, heal the wounded, and protect those who are on the way to the Eternal Abode of Peace (code: Jeru-Salem). You cannot complete your mission by deserting the flock. So stay, and fight. Prevail, you shall.
May the Force be with you!
Confronting and Recovering from Clergy Abuse:
Resources for the Faith Family
Background Materials on the History and Scope of Clergy Abuse
1. The John Jay Report, a USCCB-commissioned investigation into clergy abuse
- 2004 edition (The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons, 1950–2002)
- 2011 edition (The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950–2010)
2. BishopAccountability.org, a database of accused clergy, current news, and documents
3. Background information on “Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church,” the 2019 Vatican sexual abuse summit
4. Pope Francis’s concluding address at “Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church”
Confronting Clergy Abuse
1. The Great Catholic Reformers: From Gregory the Great to Dorothy Day by C. Colt Anderson (Paulist Press, 2007)
3. Examination of Conscience, a documentary series on the abuse crisis produced by Netflix
4. “Reclaiming Stolen Lives,” a series of resources from Root & Branch (UK) for those who want to understand more about the abuse of power in the Catholic Church and its impact on victims and survivors
Resources for Survivors and Healing
3. Abuse of Trust: Healing from Clerical Sexual Abuse by Allen Hebert (Broussard Press, 2019)
4. Healing of Memories and Healing for Damaged Emotions by David A. Seamands
O’Neill D’Cruz retired once from academic clinical practice as a pediatrician and neurologist, a second time from the neuro-therapeutics industry, and now spends his time caring, coaching, and consulting from his home in North Carolina, known locally as the “Southern Part of Heaven.” He is a wounded healer who works to heal the wounded, in order that All Shall Be Well.