On September 12, 2018, Roman Catholic Bishop David O’Connell helped move the Episcopate into a new day. A healing Mass at Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Claremont, California was celebrated for the victims of clergy sex abuse. They were humanized, spoken about reverently, prayed about to heal, to sacredly be acknowledged in their pain, to be known how priests and bishops were guilty and had their direct part in the hurtful abuse of children. This Mass was said in the hope of healing our collective wounds, I believe it has helped turn a new chapter in our church.
The service did not stop at the end of the mass: Bishop O’Donnell had an open Q&A with the people in the pews who came, many attending had been abused, not all by priests, but others. Among them were a man abused by a woman when he was four years old, a woman whose sister was abused by a priest, a woman abused from six years old until twelve by a male. The victims were all a part of the prayers said for this healing mass dedicated to the victims of clergy sexual abuse, particularly from the recent revelations of sex abuse by the Grand Jury in the Pennsylvania dioceses.
This was a new moment for the admission by priests and this bishop of the evils of clericalism, of admitting their guilt in causing this abuse to happen even by association. There can be no other words used because this evil clericalism is systemically endemic in the church and needs to be restructured and ended. A new structure needs to take formation and the lay people need to be involved because this is the only way that our church can move forward, become better and remove the entitled, reified clericalism that has been evident in the church for decades, if not since Constantine accepted Christ in 313 AD and made it the official, imperial religion of the Roman Empire.
One can say, at long last, as I commented last night to Bishop O’Donnell, “Finally, the priests are saying a mass specifically for the victims of sexual, psychological and verbal abuse in the Church. And I hope at the SCRC (Southern California Renewal Communities) Conference in Anaheim at Eucharistic Adoration when you (Bishop O’Donnell) broke down in sobs and crying that it was for the victims and for the wrong that your fellow bishops and priests did to the most vulnerable and trusting innocents under your pastoral care.” He responded without hesitation, “Yes, my sobs were for them.”
There were others there who had attended the SCRC Conference in Anaheim and witnessed Bishop O’ Donnell cry and sob heavily for the victims for several minutes. It was a sacred moment of contrition, of consolation for the lay episcopate and their children who are the victims and the sufferers. The sufferings of the perpetrators and other priests needs to be acknowledged as secondary, not primary. This happened on that September night, that our clergy has failed us was admitted openly and directly. “This turned a page,” I told him – at least for those present.
This is what has been lacking since the first abuse scandals broke out in 2002. Even though some parts of the church responded almost instantaneously with Virtus training and Protect the Children programs, it has not sufficed because the guilt of the clergy responsible has never been properly acknowledged. The privileged, inherent hubris of ordination, of Holy Orders has separated and elevated the priesthood into an elite group that has thought of itself as above all recrimination.
After that September night, humility permeated the church as never before. Bishop O’Donnell said in meetings of the bishops in November, he would recommend that all the bishops and priests do a year of ‘quiet listening’, a year of reflection on clericalism, on the authority of the people of God, of the victims and their pain, on the healing of victims who have left the church and how to reconcile them back if that is possible, on those who are victims of abuse of any kind by any one, whether it be physical, psychological or verbal because the pain-inducing effects are the same — they need to do hard listening and hearing before real change can happen and it needs to be done now. Some things are already being done and it will take time, but listening is of primary priority to learning how and what needs to transform to bring our church into a new day, a renewed church of holiness of safe space, of real love.
It must also be addressed that this is not an issue of homosexual priests, and eliminating them from priesthood is not the answer. Some of the holiest priests I know are ‘gay’. But the doctrine on homosexuality needs to be well perused and a way made to accept this sexuality for men and women and all those who identify in between, because they are also Imago Dei, because they are our human sisters, brothers, parents, aunts, uncles and friends and they need to be treated as such. Their sexuality comes from God as well as any heterosexuality. Straight people need to stop being homophobic. The LGBTIQ community can teach us much about ourselves because they have learned on the margins. We need to stop marginalizing them! My brother is ‘gay’ and has had a monogamous relationship for over thirty years. Let’s stop this ridiculous fear of those who are our own family members.
The same goes for women. Women are already in conversation with the Vatican, but there needs to be a lay advisory committee at the level of the Episcopate that involves women who are mothers, single and married, single women, academic theologians who are all leaders already in the church, but not acknowledged or recognized enough or promoted to positions of leadership and decision-making, as such, in dialogue with priests, bishops and archbishops, as Francis has stated — dialogue is key.
Included ought also to be interreligious; women and men of other faiths who can be brought in as consultants as to how they have addressed issues of abuse in their denominations and what has worked and what has not. We need as broad a representation as possible because this can only help the church move forward, be what it needs to be for the people and its priesthood who are all disciples and apostles of Christ.
With this, our faith tradition can become the solution, rather than the problem in solidarity with each other and with Christ.
Janice Poss is a Ph.D. student at Claremont Graduate University in Religion and Women’s Studies, holds MA.Th. from Loyola Marymount University and BA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, sits on the parish council at her church and whose interests are in theological, philosophical and spiritual aspects of religion as they are expressed aesthetically in the visual arts.