Many devout Christians within the Catholic community are suffering confusion and shame related to the recent revelations of clerical sexual abuse and its cover up by trusted bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and popes. There is hope and healing even in the midst of such painful weeping wound upon their mother church. Reform does not begin with the pope and trickle down to the laity. Reform begins with the laity.
The first step for reform is within oneself. Any Christian, but especially sincere Catholic Christians, must reflect upon oneself. All sexual abuse is the fruit of spiritual abuse. Assessing one’s own spirit is the first step towards healing within the Catholic Church community. Do you know what codependency means? Were you taught that it was holy to be self-sacrificing? Were you raised to believe that other people were somehow holier than you? Was your childhood family a place where it was considered appropriate to cover up for other family members who suffered with addictions or mental illness? Are you confident in your ability to define yourself to others? How well do you really know yourself? Are you able to tell other people in your church community “no” and walk away? In order to bring healing to such a wounded church, each person within the church community must begin with assessing themselves and their own contribution to dysfunctional relationships in society.
The second step is assessing one’s own family system dynamics. Are there relationships within your own family (the domestic church) where there are secrets, or a lack of communication, or even abuse? Do you and your family members respect each other? Does your family support each other by providing for each other’s needs for food, safety, medical care, education, and meaningful employment? A church is only as healthy as its members. Healthy families all have problems. Healthy families support each other in conflict resolution. Unhealthy families enable dysfunctional dynamics, keep secrets, and ignore problems (much like the Catholic bishops have)…
Finally, the third step for healing within the Catholic community involves one’s own role and interaction within the parish community. In a church community where there is sexual abuse, there is often an abuse of power all across the board. Many secrets are kept by many people who are accustomed to keeping secrets from themselves and from their family members. These individuals simply perpetuate their dysfunction inside the parish community because they don’t know anything different.
Being raised in a Catholic Church with two credibly accused pedophile priests in the 1980’s, as well as being a survivor of clerical sexual abuse, I have come to identify the characteristics of sexually abusive clergy members. As a Catholic, if you were to confess any kind of sexual sin in the confessional, a sexually abusive priest will often ask for extra unnecessary details. You can sense a sick spirit of voyeurism that is wrong and should not be brushed aside or kept a secret. Whereas a healthy priest will have healthy emotional and sexual boundaries. He will not be prying for intimate details from people in confession. Healthy pastors of any denomination are engaged in their own spiritual growth and have accountability professionals in their lives.
Church communities that enable abuse will attempt to silence people who try to speak the truth. In dysfunctional church communities and dysfunctional families there are secrets to be kept and reputations to protect. It is essential that lay Catholics have the courage to shine the light of truth on ALL dysfunction. It is not wrong or unholy or disrespectful to bring conflict to the light. The light of Christ shines brightly on the divisions THAT ARE ALREADY THERE. It is important for lay Catholics to realize that they are NOT the cause of conflict when they risk speaking out about dysfunction. Lay Catholics cannot change the Magisterium. But they can make their Catholic church communities safer places by speaking up when they see or experience any kind of abuse.
Sexual abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse, and physical abuse are all fruit of spiritual abuse. If someone’s spirit isn’t seeking the Will of God first and foremost, there will be abusive fruit falling from that tree. You cannot change your bishop, archbishop, cardinal, or the pope. But you can be honest with yourself, with your family, and with your fellow parishioners. May Christ alone be the King of your life.