Dear Pope Francis,
First, a thank you. Thank you for saying alarming, beautiful things, for elevating Jesus, for seeing Him on the face of the downtrodden, for loving our earth and demonstrating humility. You have been a breath of spring air, a reminder of the dignity of Jesus’ church.
It’s in light of your heart for Jesus that I am writing this appeal.
While I have not been abused by a priest, I am a sexual abuse survivor. My husband encountered an abusive priest in his teens (and thankfully was spared being preyed upon). As one who has worked through years of healing and recovery, I have had the unique privilege to hear hundreds of sexual abuse stories. All are heartbreaking. Every incident of sexual abuse has wrought devastation to the souls of its victims.
Three factors make spiritual recovery in the aftermath of sexual abuse even more difficult:
- When that abuse is performed by a member of the clergy
- When that same abuse is forced to be kept secret (or the victim is re-victimized by sharing, then shunned for disclosure)
- When the perpetrator is oddly “Teflon,” meaning nothing sticks; there are no penalties for his actions (ever); and he simply moves on to new locales to continue his abuse.
All three things have happened in the Catholic Church (and, too, have occurred quite egregiously in the Protestant church as well. Many have not acted on behalf of the victims in a Jesus-like manner). So please hear me. This is not a rant against a particular segment of the church. It’s simply an appeal to you as the leader your unique area of influence.
For the church to be a healing, safe place, a place that Jesus would call home, it must be a place that includes and shelters victims. This means people who have been abused must be welcomed, and their stories encouraged. I’m grateful you took the time back in September to hear people’s stories. I’m thankful you said,
“God weeps for the sexual abuse of children. This cannot be maintained in secret, and I commit to a careful oversight to ensure that youth are protected and all responsible will be held accountable.” Pope Francis
What has happened in the past, unfortunately, has been the opposite: the perpetrators were allowed a loud voice, while the victims were mercilessly silenced, maligned, and, often, forced to evacuate the very place that should heal them.
If I place Jesus in the middle of this situation, I cannot picture Him stiff-arming the victim and allowing the perpetrator to harm more and more and more children. No. Just as He welcomed the woman with the issue of blood–an outcast, unclean, broken–He welcomes those who have been abused and used by others. He is a champion of the marginalized. (And, He loves to redeem. Even the pedophile is not outside of the cleansing blood of Jesus).
So when the church dismisses a victim’s story and shuffles perpetrators to different places, hoping that perhaps this will mean a priest will suddenly be restored and no longer abuse others, it ceases to become a haven or a safe place.
And even now, so little has been done to dignify the stories of the thousands of victims over the course of decades who have often had to suffer in silence, many leaving the faith.
What can be done? How can we highlight and salve this egregious injustice? Some ideas:
- Honesty. Give full disclosure to all sexual abuse allegations. Transparency breeds trust. Hiding encourages distrust. The records of abuses have been sent to the Vatican. Make them public.
- Apology. From the Vatican, issue a repentant, genuine letter (or a video) directed to victims and families of victims. Acknowledge that the church was wrong to protect its “reputation” over its integrity. You have done this to a certain extent on American soil, and I’m grateful, but Like Nehemiah who confessed sins he didn’t commit (but his nation did), I ask you to humble yourself and issue a similar confession on behalf of the systems, the hierarchies, and the leadership who failed to report crime, failed to dignify victims, and failed to be agents of justice and mercy. “I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned.” (Nehemiah 1:6). This should be a planned, proactive apology and policy statement in clean, clear language (no “mistakes were made” type of verbiage.)
- Accountability. If a priest harmed others, fire him. Seek to get him the help he needs–intensive therapy, etc., but do not let him continue in his position. He must be removed, no matter what the fallout. Safety and justice trumps the reputation of the abuser.
- Reparation for the victims. Not merely hush-hush money, settled out of court. But genuine counseling, help, and education and a public commitment to radically dignify those who have dared to speak out.
- Task forces within the church–one that helps local congregations discern sexual abuse, one that educates congregations about how to respond to allegations, one that helps congregations offer resources and counseling to victims, one that studies why some priests abuse and how to discern their struggles early on in their training, one whose sole purpose is to honestly disclose further allegations in a life-giving, authentic, justice-centric manner. I know some of this is in place, and I pray there is more being done to prevent sexual assault in the future.
I believe the greatest weapon in Satan’s arsenal is sexual abuse because it mars the soul of the victim. As image bearers of Christ, we have such dignity, beauty, and intrinsic worth. But when a predator harms a child, while that instance may be a moment (or it may be after grooming and over a period of years) the intrinsic harm will last a lifetime.
And if that abuse happens from a member of the clergy, it creates a crisis of faith, a swirling darkness of questions (Why did this happen? Why didn’t God protect me? Is this what God is like–a predator–like this priest?).
Couple this with silence and shunning and you have a dismal formula for genuine life. An untold story never heals.
And a told story that is not believed or forced to live underground further victimizes.
If you truly believe that Jesus loves both the victim and the victimizer (and it appears that the church seems to side mostly with the latter, at least by inaction), then it’s time to put feet to that belief. The Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans 12: 15 that we must weep with those who weep.
Pope Francis, would you consider weeping afresh with the sexually victimized?
Would you consider the powerful image of Jesus bearing the weight of every sin (yes, even every sexual sin) upon His sacred and scarred body, exposed and naked? This Jesus, oh how He loves the hurting, the suffering, the marked ones.
Would you consider being like Jesus in this way, opening wide the gates of the church through honesty, transparency, justice and deep mercy?
Would you consider truly embodying the words of the apostle John:
“God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants” (John 3:19-21).
Pope Francis, it’s time the church comes to the light, creates a safe environment for all children, brings justice to bear for their sake, and welcomes the sexual abuse victims home.
Wow. A voice of truth. Love the part about reparations. And as a mental health therapist, counseling helps with those specializing in trauma work. Amen.
Yes, agree on counseling. And thanks for your kind words, Jennifer.
You’re welcome . I love spirtual radicals , ( if you will) …who talk about things no one else does!
I love this! We have much in common and I too felt the shame and silence. I share my story in my book, “Out of the Darkroom, Into the Light : A Story of Faith and Forgiveness After Child Abuse.” Together we can make a difference to bring this topic the attention it deserves!
I’m so sorry you have that story (of child abuse). So difficult. But I’m grateful you’ve found healing and have a heart to help others.
How great that you’ve managed to publish such a personal and meaningful book. I’m writing mine now. I wonder if you’d be willing to exchange a few emails, as I’d like to ask you a handful of questions about your book and process.
I have your email address so I’ll catch up soon.
Thanks so much!
Hi Mary. I was sexually abused by a Catholic priest and in all honestly I would not feel comfortable going to get help at a Catholic Church. I had no case against the church because my perp died before I remembered and I didn’t remember when I was 19 (civil lawsuits say you have to file a charge one year after you turn 18 or 1 year after you remember – it took me longer than a year to truly remember what happened). I believe and pray that the church would open Healing centers funded by the church but not ran by the Church because seeing a priest or a nun is a huge trigger for me. I have to fight off flashbacks when I do encounter them. No lawyer will help me because I Remembered in my 30s, the process took about 2-3 years and I still remember stuff all the time. I now know the priest not only molested me but prostituted me out to several other men. Some of it Happening right on the church grounds. He was caught so many times and no one helped me. They believed his weird excuses. I would love to write a book about my story of redemption. I know Jesus saved me during the attacks because I was a praying child. And he saves me daily now. It is a miracle I believe in God after all I have been through. The stories are horrendous. I have so many ideas to help others that have been in my shoes but I don’t know whose attention to get to help me make a difference for those that suffered this wrong doing. Please let me know if you can help direct me in the right path. I would love to help the church right this wrong. For the record, the priest who abused me is on the Catholic abuse registry list for another victims and the church had never ever contacted the churches where he so called ministered. So I don’t think the church does what they need to do to notify families that they had a perpetrator lurking around even when they know.
I am so sorry for your pain. Wow. Way too much. I hear you about triggers. I wonder if there could be something funded by the church that doesn’t have that kind of triggering?
I do think you need to write that book, even if it’s for your own healing. (Warning: it will be hard).
Oh I have it all planned out in my head. It would be a facility for those dealing with these issues. A place to go for different coping therapies and if it was separate from the church it would be a safe place. Things like places to do all different kinds of art, exercise, swimming, yoga, prayer rooms. The YMCA where I go is a place where I was also molested by the priest. There are not a lot of affordable options for me in my town. So I deal with one thing so I can enjoy something that makes me feel better which is swimming. Some days it doesn’t bother me some days I don’t go back for months. Thank you for the encouragement. I start my book then stop. I’ve thrown away journals because they hurt knowing what’s inside them. But I do believe that my journey can help someone else, maybe even someone across the world.
I do believe your journey WILL help others. (It already has, here on this blog). And I love your idea for a facility to help sexual abuse victims heal.
One of these days I hope to see it through. Thanks so much. You give me so much hope especially with your art and books and your blogs.
Depending on the state in which your abuse occurred, you may find that the growing SOL Reform effort may very well either preparing or engaged in the effort to change legislation and subsequently the SOL, creating a chance for your case to go to court.
Please visit SOL-reform.com and see the status in your state. You can also likely email the director, Marci Hamilton, to ask if she is aware of useful news regarding your state.
PS: I am very interested in creating an organization design specifically to help victims who are currently engaged in the litigation process. It’s extremely traumatic and daunting and no support unless you’re independently wealthy.
I have a background in brand and marketing strategy, so really all I need (other than sustainable day to day stability – not there yet) is money and a non-profit advisor.
Maybe we could exchange emails and share leads and contacts as we each pursue our respective projects?
I am so glad you’re working on this. So important. Victims are re traumatized going through the litigation process.
Mary, what you have asked is being or has been done. Honesty: they are more forthright than they ever have been. Are they completely transparent? If you want to judge, go ahead. Apology: three popes have apologized multiple times and met with victims. Accountability: it is the polity of the Catholic Church to laicized a priest if he has abused a child. Period. Reparation: every diocese makes counseling available. Ours had offered me so much emotional support from their office (victims advocate). They have had healing services in parishes in the diocese. Task force: It’s a good one! Read about it here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontifical_Commission_for_the_Protection_of_Minors
I’m so glad to hear you’ve experienced counseling and help. This is lovely, amazing news. Thank you for sharing your experience, Teresa.
Thx for sharing the link . Seems like there’s still much to be done. Will keep this in prayer.
If I were to accept an offer to engage in counseling at the local parish, as a victim of priest sexual abuse, I would be putting myself in am incredibly volatile environment and situation. I’m not Catholic. I cannot stand being anywhere near priests or clergy members and typically become incredibly panicked. If I’m in such an environment, I highly suspect no one there would be prepared or equipped to intervene or otherwise assist or support me in such a vulnerable position. I find it ultimately arrogant, dismissive and condescending to make such an offer to me instead of providing access to professional treatment.
I’ve been hospitalized ten times and diagnosed with PTSD, the Church’s offer is grossly insulting and further traumatizing. They know very well how difficult my life is and how badly I need treatment, if I ever expect a chance at recovery.
No one from the Church has EVER contacted me to apologize or acknowledge my experience, pain and suffering. Pope Francis’ special commission is an outright farce.
How can they exhibit such audacity and expect that recovery for me is avaliable and appropriate at one of their churchs? The arrogance is suffocating.
They will indeed get what’s ultimately coming to them, and be forced to face the burning flames that they so arrogantly condemn, while at the same time playing with darkness, the same way they forced me to suffer repeated sexual assaults by their despicable priest.
It won’t be long.
I am so sorry no one has contacted you. This is just terrible and sad.
Well said, my friend!
Thanks, Jim. I appreciate it.