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When I read the grand jury report on the Catholic Church from Pennsylvania, which after two years of combing 70 years of records found that over 300 priests sexually abused more than 1,000 known victims, I saw a lot that I recognized and have experienced myself — and much that could be changed if there was the willpower to do so.
I’m a Catholic priest who himself survived sexual abuse from a member of a clergy, though not in Pennsylvania. The perpetrator was a visiting priest who repeatedly molested me when I was a 15-year-old altar boy from New Jersey and who I remember telling me about the others — that is, the other boys and the other priests he sometimes shared them with. In 1991, eleven years after he abused me, I filed a complaint against him with Archdiocese of New York. And for nearly two decades after, I tracked his movements throughout the country and fought to remove him from the various positions he held across several states: as a pastor (including at schools) and, after he was defrocked in 2006, as a hospital chaplain, among others. I kept notes. I investigated and found other victims and spoke with them. I was stunned by the responses I received from Church officials. One monsignor, later a bishop, dismissed it as “a summer romance” — as if it could ever have been consensual. I recall an Archdiocesan official suggesting I made it all up, and accusing me of having committed incest with my own mother prior to the events, which he said inspired some kind of projection onto the priest. I remember that some asked why I wanted to ruin the man’s life — that I was the abnormal one.
These conversations did not happen because the Church or the police came to me with their own investigations. Had I not devoted myself to my own work — fueled by my need to protect my sanity as those in power called me a liar — I could well be one of the countless other survivors who remain unknown — including in Pennsylvania, where the grand jury relied heavily on documents provided by the dioceses. The perpetrators that those official records don’t include remain uncounted.
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The Pennsylvania report is the largest investigation of its kind. It is not large enough. The report plainly presents evidence that the Church’s deliberate cover-up frequently resulted in expiration of the statutory limitations period — which legislators should extend or eliminate — and that law enforcement was overly deferential to the Church. To remedy this wrong, every legal jurisdiction in the United States and its territories should convene an exhaustive grand jury investigation modeled on Pennsylvania’s. The grand jury describes how dioceses had a “common playbook” by which they “managed” the crisis. This enabled them to escape “public accountability.” It is time for national transparency, accountability and justice.
But this need not come only from law enforcement. The National Church has become adept at offering shallow and hollow apologies, statements about shock, disgust and pledging promises. Dioceses are releasing statements emphasizing these crimes concern the past and not the present, stating there are policies in place for a safe future. It sounded more like a capital campaign slogan, not a call to action and reform. These pious platitudes do not create transparency or promote trust. Church officials must tell the truth — all of it, without varnish. They must admit to the wrongdoing without making justifications and excuses. They must speak from the heart and truthfully.
That they haven’t so far should signal to the Church that it is developing the wrong sort of leaders. We must therefore reform the way Bishops are selected. As the report confirms, the current system relies on cronyism and what could be called a kind of nepotism: the bishops reproduce themselves, and thus no new blood enters the system. The early Church let God’s people choose their priest, who was then vetted and confirmed by the surrounding local bishops. We need to involve more people — clergy and laity — in the selection process, which is currently secretive. The primary criteria ought to be a man who is a seasoned pastor of souls, not a bureaucrat or functionary or even just a friend of the nominating bishop. Pope Francis has considered this, but it has not come about.
To this end, there should be a screening process for candidates in seminaries — one that should include screening seminary professors and formators. When discussing the Anglican Church’s plan to psychologically test ordinands, professor Leslie Francis of Warwick University said, “It is wise for the Church [of England] to consider pathologies.” The same is true of the Catholic Church. He specifically cited narcissism, machiavellianism and psychopathologies as the “dark triad” to be vigilant against. We too must prevent candidates who exhibit these pathologies, which are already present in our seminary systems, to keep them from spreading.
And finally, we must let those who know most deeply how this evil spreads feel welcome — and enable them to come forth and speak, and to teach what they know. The Pennsylvania grand jury rightly said that they need us to “hear” the “odious stories” of what happened to survivors. It is beyond time for Church leaders to invite us through the door to help their diocese overcome inertia, by including us on all panels and decision-making bodies, including diocesan review boards. Sincerity on the part of bishops should include the establishment of an independent truth and reconciliation commission, in which they voluntarily release all their records without the threat of subpoena. Let the truth come out, a national reckoning be made and a path to reconciliation be opened.
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While bishops may be afraid of us holding them accountable and speaking uncomfortable truths, they need us even if they don’t want us — even as they think of us as a children of a lesser god. Yes, we are angry. But St. Augustine taught, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are and the courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” Survivors have the courage to face this evil.
There are many faith-filled and faithful survivors who desperately want the Church to succeed. They are not the enemy within.
Every time the Church fails to resolve the crisis, these survivors hurt. Bishops hurt. Priests hurt. God’s people hurt. And God hurts for us. It is time we let our common hurt be the common ground upon which we can stand, in conversation and dialogue, for the common good of all.
The Very Rev. Bambrick is pastor of St. Aloysius Church in Jackson, N.J.; he is a member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, and a founding member of both Jordon’s Crossing and Catholic Whistleblowers, as well as a board member of New Jersey Child Assault Prevention; in 2002, he testified before the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.