The Cross We Have to Bear
Image Credit: Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault
I was fifteen when the Bergen County Prosecutor showed up to my house. In fact, I was cleaning my bathroom when I heard the knocking at the door. I knew I was the only one home, so I ran to my front door to stop my dogs from mauling whoever was there. Two men in suits stood at the threshold like something out of an NCIS episode. I kept the screen door closed, both to protect them from my dogs and to protect myself from these strangers. Displaying badges, they explained that everything was fine, they just needed to talk to my mother about Father Fugee. Just as I was about to say that my mother wasn't home, her car rolled into the driveway and out she came with my brother carrying the Chinese food they were sent to get. My brother and I were quickly sequestered in the kitchen, where we tensely ate our sesame noodles, wishing to hear what was happening in the other room.
Just to be clear, my mother is not a criminal. Father Fugee, however, is. In 2003, Father Michael Fugee was charged and found guilty of groping a child, but due to an error in court proceedings, the charges were overturned. He made a deal with the Bergen County Prosecutor's office that he would "enter sex-offender treatment and have no unsupervised contact with children as part of his church duties" (Goodstein and Santora). However, a newspaper revealed in April of 2013 that he did have contact with children by "hearing their confessions, attending youth retreats and... posting photos of himself with boys on his Facebook page"(Goodstein and Santora). The County Prosecutor's office arrested Father Fugee for breaking his agreement, the newspaper called for the removal of Archbishop Myers, and the Church had the general opinion that they were being unfairly slandered by the press. The Bergen County Prosecutor's office investigated how the Archdiocese could have allowed Father Fugee to continue working with kids.
That's where my mom comes in. She is the Director of Safe Environment at the Archdiocese of Newark and works with child sexual abuse prevention training and policies. She ensures that parishes background check volunteers, employees, and clergy, and she teaches classes such as Protecting God's Children, Teaching Touching Safety, and Internet Safety. She doesn't deal directly with abusers, but rather teaches others how to be aware of warning signs so abusers can be found and caught before they inflict too much damage. However, she was still dragged into the Father Fugee mess because her boss and her boss's boss were involved. Ultimately, the Vicar General ("like the 'Chief Operating Officer' in a company," to quote my mom's response when I asked her what a Vicar General was) resigned and the Archbishop remained, much to the dismay of the press and many others.
At this time, my parents disclosed to me what my mom did at work, so I was able understand the problem; but I did not yet understand the scope. Between 2004 and 2014, the Vatican received over 3,400 allegations of abuse. 848 priests were laicized (Vatican mandates that they be removed from the priesthood) and 2,572 received a lesser punishment ("For the First Time, Vatican Releases…"). Significantly, though, many cases of abuse are not reported to the dioceses and, of those, many are not referred to the Vatican. Deacon Bernie Nojadera, Executive Director of the Child Protection office for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, explains how to interpret the numbers: "'It's like an iceberg; that's what we see above. Lord knows how many are suffering or in pain[...]The data we have is just our marker for what we have'"(Boorstein). Although this abuse had gone on for centuries, it was not known to the public until 2002, and even after that, people fail to recognize the scope and severity of the problem. How do we as a Church continue to fix this problem so we can make the Church safer for everyone?
Sexual abuse, and the cover-up of said abuse, has existed in the Church since at least the seventeenth century. St. Joseph Calasanz, patron saint of Catholic Schools, knew about abuse going on in schools in the religious order that he founded and consciously deterred priests and victims from going public in order that the scandal not "come into the hands of outsiders" (Luxmoore). While it may have been around for centuries, the amount of abuse grew significantly during the late twentieth century (John Jay Study 78).
Most of these abuse cases follow a similar plot line: a charismatic priest comes to a parish and charms the parishioners. He is entertaining at Mass, relatable to the younger parishioners, and always willing to help out, especially when it comes to kids. He'll offer to lead the altar boys or the Boy Scouts and will offer to assist parents by taking their kids out for ice cream. Once he earns the children's trust, he starts sexually abusing them. It starts off slowly with grooming (getting the victim used to being uncomfortable by introducing them to alcohol and drugs, pornography, shoplifting, or anything else that begins to lower inhibitions) but eventually escalates to full on abuse. The victim does not tell anyone for a variety of reasons, but someone eventually finds out and complains to the pastor of the parish or the bishop. The bishop then promises the victim and their family that the priest will be dealt with and be put where he will not have contact with children. The bishop then either moves the priest to another parish, or sends him to be treated until he is pronounced cured, and then moves him. No one at this new parish is informed of the priest's past, so he is able to repeat the cycle. The issue did not become major public knowledge until 2002 when the Boston Globe published a series of articles revealing multiple abusive priests in the Boston Archdiocese as well as efforts by Cardinal Law to cover up the abuse. The first and most impactful article told the story of Father John J. Geoghan, who abused more than 130 children over multiple decades (Rezendes). Until this story broke, no one knew or even considered such a thing could happen.
Now, I'll be honest, before I started researching this topic, I did not really know what constituted abuse. There is a distinct degree of separation between what actually happens and what the public knows and understands. Certain things are done to a victim, but when the victim reports it, if the victim reports it, they will only relay so much information because some of it is too painful for them to talk about. This information is again filtered by the press and books, such as the book Sacrilege by Leon J. Podles, because some of the information is too graphic and unsettling for public media. While this filtration is necessary for the pure reason of decency, it inhibits the public's ability to fully grasp the severity of the situation. Some victims resent the loose terminology that the press uses in order to make the information more digestible to the public. One victim states, "You read media coverage and hear a word like 'fondling.' People need to know the details"(Podles 252). Marc Serrano, another victim, explains that "It's not fondling to strip a child naked, after manipulating him emotionally and mentally, and then performing sexual acts on the child"(Podles 252).
It's easy to believe that all of this abuse is far away and is only with sleazy priests. That's why I was surprised when I found out there had been abusive priests at Notre Dame. In 1973, John Salveson came to Notre Dame and, in his sophomore year, Father Robert Huneke, a priest who had been continually abusing Salveson for years, got a job at the University in order to continue the abuse. Hueke continued the abuse until Salveson finally ended it in his senior year. Salveson did not tell anyone about the abuse until many years later. In 1996, he told Father Hesburgh. As he was telling Father Ted, "His demeanor changed entirely. He looked ... angry and disturbed. When I finished my story, he told me he wished I had come to him when I was a student. He said he would have removed the priest immediately"(Salveson). Unfortunately, very few priests are like Father Ted.
To put this into perspective, I am the fourth person in family over three generations to attend Notre Dame, my great Uncle was a Holy Cross brother, my nickname in high school was "Rudy," I have a Notre Dame wall in my house, and instead of a star, my family puts a Notre Dame leprechaun atop our Christmas tree. To us, Notre Dame is a perfect and holy place. When I found out that Notre Dame had been tainted by the stain of the scandal, I experienced the same emotions I had felt when I found out Santa wasn't real; I felt devastated, lied to, and so utterly stupid for believing in such a thing in the first place.
While not everyone feels as my family does about Notre Dame, some people did and do react in a similar way when they first find out about the scandal in the Church. They cannot believe that something that is so holy could be able to have this dark side. My knowledge of the abuse never shook my faith in God because I was able to separate my belief in God from my belief in the Catholic Church, but I was furious at the Church as an institution, especially Archbishop Myers, my mom's boss. I did not realize how angry I actually was until I arrived to Mass a little late with my brother one Sunday. As we were sneaking in behind the standing congregation, I couldn't see the altar, but I heard the pastor saying "We are so happy to have you with us, Archbishop." I stopped dead in my tracks because the wave of rage that swept over me was so nauseating that I could not move. I turned to leave the church and walk out, which is significant because in my family, Sunday Mass is an obligation and my leaving would have meant skipping a week which was not okay, but I refused to attend a Mass presided by someone who failed to keep a convicted sex-offender away from children. However, I was finally able to see the altar and realized it was a visiting archbishop and not Archbishop Myers.
People are always angered and shocked when they find out about the scandal. Often, people ask:"How could this happen? How could these kids not tell? How could the parents not realize?" To explain this, I'm going to use some ninth grade World History terminology. One of the only things I remember from ninth grade history is that in ancient China, the rulers were believed to have the "Mandate of Heaven" which means their right to rule came from the gods. For the ruler, this had some pros and cons. Pro: They could rule in whatever way they wanted and they would have to be obeyed because their word was the word of the gods. Con: Should the kingdom suffer a natural disaster such as a flood, not only would all the crops be washed away, but so would the ruler's right to rule, as natural disasters were a sign that the ruler had lost favor with the gods. Now imagine this phenomenon without the safeguard of tornadoes and floods. That is kind of what modern Clericalism is like. Modern clericalism is "the erroneous belief the clerics form a special elite within the Church that because of their powers as sacramental ministers, they are superior to the laity, are deserving of special and preferential treatment and finally, have a closer relationship to God"(Podles 415). Priests are believed to be Jesus's voice on Earth. Children, especially, are taught this. Since priests are believed to be in such high status, Catholics find it "unthinkable that a priest could be capable of crimes against children"(Goodstein). As an expert on predatory behavior, Tracy Tolbert, states, "Priests are seen as the next thing to God...If [Catholics] have strong religious beliefs, they think it's impossible for him to do wrong, even if you put the evidence right in front of them"(Olson). In Betrayal, the book version of the Boston Globe's investigation, Patrick McSorley, a victim of Father Geoghan, explained the added difficulty of having a priest as an abuser: "I was at that preteen age when I knew right from wrong, but because it was a priest doing it, it set off a whole wave of confusion"(Investigative Staff of the Boston Globe 83). The priests also threatened the victims with their clericalism. One priest "molested [the altar boys] before Mass and then told them to be quiet because he 'had the power to send them to hell'"(Podles 252).
This mentality also affected the parents and the adult members of the congregations. They would see the priest hanging around children and feel completely safe. They would allow their children to be alone with the priest because they would be honored to have someone so high up in the faith-filled world paying attention to their children. It was especially prominent when the family was having issues, like financial difficulties or a death in the family, because for them, "The help of a priest was a blessing from God" (Investigative Staff of the Boston Globe 82). Also, because the priests are often charming and charismatic, when abuse stories break or a priest is accused, the parish will vehemently defend the pastor. As David Clohessy, the national director of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) explains, "after almost every allegation of priest sexual abuse, at least some parishioners vocally defend the accused, a reflection of the deference toward and admiration of priests among many congregants"(Olson). It is difficult enough to admit to being abused, but it is almost impossible when you know the Church and the people around you will attack you for coming forward.
Spotlight is a 2015 Oscar-winning movie that explores the issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church through the story of the Boston Globe's investigation and it was a very big deal in my family. My mom saw it the day it came out because she wanted to be able to explain to the parishes how to deal with the reactions people would get from watching this film, (e.g., anger at the Church or the press, or victims reliving their abuse). The first time I watched Spotlight, I was with my family and I specifically remember my dad looking at the reporters on the screen and saying "Thank God for these people."
Not everyone really felt that way, though, especially when these stories first began to be published. The Catholic Church has a tricky relationship with newspapers. Before 2002, some newspapers were complicit in covering up the abuse, since bishops had influence on which stories were published and which were killed (Podles 438). However, for the most part, newspapers and the Catholic Church have had a rather aggressive history. When The Boston Globe published an abuse story in 1992, Cardinal Law was not happy: "The paper likes to focus on the faults of a few. We deplore that...By all means we call down God's power on the media, particularly the Globe"(Marantz). During the Father Fugee affair, the Star-Ledger, a newspaper in Newark, New Jersey, took a very strong stance opposing Archbishop Myers and called for his removal. While this view is hinted at in the articles examining Father Fugee, it is explicitly (and aggressively) expressed in the editorial section: "After all the Catholic Church has been through, it is beyond infuriating that Newark Archbishop John J. Myers can be so neglectful of his duty to protect children from sexual predators," and, "In the meantime, for the sake of the children, Myers should step down"(Star-Ledger Editorial Board).
This animosity between the Church and the press is one of the reasons that some Catholics are not taking abuse claims seriously. They assume the newspapers have biased views of the story and are printing exaggerations and even lies to attack the Church. The Sunday after that editorial from the Star-Ledger was published, I went to church with my family as we do every Sunday. During the homily, our pastor, Father Sean, whom my family usually has the highest respect for, was explaining with his thick Welsh accent that he had cancelled his subscription to the newspaper because all they did was attack the Church. I looked around the church and saw much of the congregation nodding in agreement. Even now, more than three years after Father Fugee, my mom hears people at her work talking about how they cancel subscriptions to papers because they spread lies about the Church.
To better understand their view, I did some digging and came across an article on Catholic Answers entitled "Three Great Lessons of the Abuse Scandal." I began reading: "The first is often considered but seldom mentioned due to fear: The secular attack on the Church is profoundly hypocritical." I'm going to stop here and mention that every time someone starts off like this, I get a little bit hesitant because I personally see this as deflecting the blame away from the Church and equate this to the bishops covering up for the abusive priests, but I swallowed my opinion and read on: "The second lesson has come to light again relatively recently, though it is a truism in the Church: The manner in which most local bishops handle internal problems is determined by the example set in Rome. The third has not been mentioned often enough, though I believe it is finally starting to sink in: A renewal of ecclesiastical discipline is essential across the board" (Mirus). The argument for the first lesson is that secular institutions are too eager to criticize the Church because they dislike the Church's conservative stances on sex and sexuality. The author, Jeffrey A. Mirus, explains that there is limited "similar effort against other institutions, including public schools, where the rates of abuse are higher than in the Church," the Church is getting blamed for a guilty few, and that people who are attacking the Church are being hypocritical because they are not "calling for a return to sexual self-control and sexual restraint in order to address the problem at its root"(Mirus). All of these points are quite valid, even if it does sound like he is passing the blame. He amends this by starting off his second argument with, "Unfortunately, recognizing this hypocrisy—and knowing that we will have to live with it—is no excuse for not resolving the very real problems that we have"(Mirus). The problem is, many Catholics do see it as an excuse even if they don't do it consciously. They are the people in my church who cancel newspaper subscriptions because they feel it is attacking the Church. They feel they cannot accept the truth of the scandal without being disloyal to the Church. Some see the reactions to the Church as either leave it or defend everything it does, but there needs to be a middle ground in order to heal the Church. Using the motto of Catholic activists after the Boston article, "Keep the Faith, Change the Church"(Investigative Staff of the Boston Globe 184).
Some people outside the Church and some forms of media accuse the institution of being just as bad as the height of the abuse, which is not accurate. The issue of abuse has gotten better since 2002. In 2015, the amount of credible allegations was a third of the amount from 2005 (Boorstein). While this is excellent progress, abuse still exists in the Church and the topic still is not discussed in the Church. The Church still tries to protect itself by fighting to keep statutes of limitation in courts (Boorstein). The Church needs to stop fighting the victims and should instead continue its efforts to fight the abuse. We as a Church also need to put our current definition of Clericalism into check because the view we have on priests is an inhibitor to protecting children. We also need to be open about learning about the abuse and not shooting the messenger, whether it be a newspaper or a victim, and assuming that our doctrines are being attacked because in most cases, they're not. We as a Church are not going to be able to fully solve the problem if we assume it's non-existent just because it's better than it was.
I will be the last person to say that my family is perfect or should be used as an example for anything, but one thing we excel at is our ability to communicate about tough topics. I can ask and tell my parents anything and they will not shush me for bringing up taboo topics or chastise me for asking questions that I shouldn't be. They will sit down with me and will discuss it, explaining their viewpoints and the viewpoints of others so that I can fully understand the topic and recognize its importance. Communication is the key thing that is missing in the Church's handling of the situation. They need to have open conversations with their congregation so that everyone can better understand the problem and better understand what steps are being taken to fix it. Instead of preaching to cancel subscriptions to the paper, Father Sean should have explained that yes, the Church still has issues; the media might present it a little aggressively, but that doesn't change the fact that the issues are still there and need to be fixed.
Abuse is hard topic to talk about and it can be overwhelming. It is very easy to look at all this information and just be completely disgusted and upset. It can make a person feel like it's impossible to fix such evil. A church volunteer who was taking one of my mom's classes had a reaction such as this. He told my mom that he wouldn't even read the articles for the class because he was afraid that he would just become distraught because it was so awful and there was nothing he could do about it. He told her that he didn't know how she did it. My mom looked at him and said, "If I thought about how many children are being sexually abused and exploited, and how many abusers are protected, and moved without any restrictions, I wouldn't be able to sleep at night. You just need to think 'is it better today than it was yesterday? Are there more people trained to look out for predatory behavior and willing to tell someone when they see something? Are more children willing to tell, knowing that they will be believed? Are there fewer priests willing to abuse now that we are more proactive, and informing the civil authorities? And, ultimately, are kids safer in the Church?' I believe that the answers are 'Yes,' and that gives me comfort. If we think like this - that by working day by day to fix the problem, then, eventually, it won't be a problem. It's awful that we have to work with this and talk about it now in order to make tomorrow better, but that's the cross we have to bear."