Category: Catholic Sexuality

A Christian Voice In A Changing Culture

Merciful Discipline 6: Humbled, We Shine

This is the sixth post of six in the Merciful Discipline Series. A complete list of available posts will be at the end of each article as they are made available.

Merciful Discipline 6: Humbled, We Shine

‘When You disciplined us, we could barely whisper a prayer.’ (IS 26:16)

‘Christ’s abiding presence in the midst of our suffering is gradually transforming our darkness into light.’ Pope Benedict

The sexual abuse crisis in the Church brings us to our knees. We do not kneel politely but painfully, a sprawl rather than a pose. On behalf of those felled by the weight of a priest’s perversion, we too stumble and fall. Behold the scandal we share: the Greek word ’skandalon’ means stumbling block, a sizable obstacle in the path of another’s salvation.

Pope Benedict is right. Our ‘skandalon’ has “obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing.”

Lent redeems our falling by redirecting it. Lent points us to another stumbling block, the Crucified Christ (1Cor 1:23), who draws us magnetically to Himself amid the suffering and shame of abuse and its cover-up. He invites us to fall forward into Himself, the sole Source that can bear the unbearable. Any momentum toward obliterating the stumbling block of sexual abuse in the Church begins facedown before the Cross. We repent for the disintegration of lives, the shattering of trust, and how abuse mocks the Church and her championing the dignity of each life.

Shame is transformed into substantial good at the Cross. Just as there is a momentum to the evil of abuse, fanning out like fissures from an earthquake, so repentance before the Crucified overcomes evil. Jesus Himself assumes the web of wounds and rouses the darkened Church, preparing her to shine once more. Our resurrection is founded on His justice and mercy. We arise in humbled passion for the integrity of our Church.

Brimming with new life, we must act. Shame’s transformation requires more than mystical transactions. Will we follow Benedict’s call to bear witness with our very lives of a transparent, integrated Church who lives the truths she upholds?

From the beginning of his papacy, Benedict faced a hemorrhaging crisis of abuse. He realized that the dignity of all people, beginning with the education of children, required the transparent integrity of the Church. To him, sexual abuse was more than an isolated problem of priestly perversion; it signaled a disturbing shift in the entire culture toward sexual values that dehumanized others.

‘Children deserve to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships. They should be spared the degrading manifestations and crude manipulations of sexuality so prevalent today.’ (Address to US Bishops, 2008)

Degradations and manipulations like the priestly abuse of children! More than ever, we need a humbled witness from the top down of sexual integration. What does it mean to live chastely? How do we acquire self-control and pass it on to a generation already exposed to more filth than at any other time in history?

The church must reclaim its beautiful (and bravely counter-cultural) teaching on chastity–beginning with her priests. We must discover together how Jesus and His community help us to actually integrate God’s will for our sexuality into the fabric of our real lives. That means more than preaching another round of conservative sexual ethics; we must also wrestle honestly with our ‘ethos’–our desires and conflicts.

Jesus wants to transform our hearts–our affections, our attitudes, our motives– that we might embody a living morality. Repentance before the Crucified is key. While sexual abuse is the ultimate ‘disintegrator’, Jesus’ redeeming power in our lives always points to integration, toward wholeness. The stench of abusive priests must be overcome by the fragrance of those priests who live chaste lives through the cross and its community. Following their good lead, we too can embody what it means to offer our chaste selves to one another.

We the laity must do our part. As the numbers of priests are declining, we must increase our commitment to transparent service of the Church. We can ensure that our dioceses have solid systems in place for responding quickly and impartially to abuse charges, and especially to the abused. These systems must become normative!

The abuse crisis has struck an inspired blow against clericalism. It has altered her ‘in-house’ mentality, and she is learning to yield substantial control to empowered laity and civil authorities. As with any organizational shift in values and praxis, this will require time and vigilance on the part of all.

Change takes time. Change is taking place. We now have a better grasp of the horror of priestly abuse and how to prevent it than we had 10 years ago. In spite of our problems, the US Church has exemplified candor for the worldwide Church whose abuses are just beginning to be revealed. Their ‘skandalon’ is ours; we have much yet to endure. We can do so through the One who endured all in order to transform our shame into glory.

Abuse has struck us down, but we are not destroyed. (2Cor 4:9) Our dying is not fatal. We see life-signs–the fruit of God’s purifying, disciplining hand. He is judging clericalism, and inspiring a more humble, candid hierarchy; He is weeding out ill-equipped candidates for the priesthood and empowering solid clerics and laity; He is calling the Church to a new integrity in how she embodies her truth.

Merciful discipline. God is having His way with His Bride.

‘The truth must come out; without the truth we will never be set free. We must face the truth of the past; repent it; make good the damage done. And yet we must move forward day by day along the painful path of renewal, knowing that it is only when human misery encounters face-to-face the liberating Mercy of God that our Church will be truly restored and enriched.’ Dublin Archbishop Martin, 2010

‘We must be confident that this time of trial will bring a purification of the entire Catholic community, leading to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier Church.’ John Paul II

‘For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake, I will not remain quiet, till her righteousness shines forth like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch.’ (IS 62:1)

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Merciful Discipline 5: Hopeful, We Fight for the Dignity and Integrity of Our Priests

This is the fifth post of six in the Merciful Discipline Series. A complete list of available posts will be at the end of each article as they are made available.

Merciful Discipline 5: Hopeful, We Fight for the Dignity and Integrity of Our Priests

The fine work and selfless dedication of the great majority of priests should not be obscured by the transgressions of some. – Pope Benedict

I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest who will do what is in My heart and mind, and his house will be firmly established. (1 Samuel 2:15)

As a new Catholic, I have a fresh appreciation for the honorable, difficult office of the priest. I rely upon three priests in my parish for daily Mass and confession; each has exemplified Jesus in a way that puts me to shame. Decades of involvement in the evangelical church have not prepared me for the spirit of sacrifice and humility that I see in these three men. I have grown in virtue through their service to Jesus. As I seek to honor Christ, I am committed to honor them, His priests.

The essential role of the Roman Catholic priest plays in the life of each congregant grants us a powerful opportunity. We who benefit from his offering can fight for his dignity, his renewal and his integrity. How? We can prayerfully encourage him and verbally champion him amid the scorn now associated with his office due to the perversion of a few.

We must not mimic the world and bite the hand that feeds us. We uphold him in gratitude and ask for eyes to see the phantom hand that slaps him with each new exposure of priestly abuse. Well over 96% of priests have clean hearts and hands. Might our honor of them be their balm?

Out of these scandals, the entire Church, beginning with her priests, can avoid the pitfalls that made a handful of priests deadly to their sheep. And we the sheep have a role to play in understanding these vulnerabilities and prayerfully empowering our priests to avoid them.

The John Jay Report (‘The Causes and Context of the Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the USA from 1950-2010’) cites the sexual revolution—the moral and socio-cultural quake that occurred in the sixties and seventies, as the driving influence that multiplied the number of sexual abuses by priests in that time period. A moral ozone layer burned off and all of us, including priests, experienced a new nakedness. That ‘unveiling’ was not adequately countered by Catholic seminaries in their choice of candidates and in the sexual formation needed to prepare priests for the moral challenges ahead.

Especially hard hit were priests who suffered from poor social adjustment and who lacked the capacity to form adequate bonds with colleagues. Already isolated, these priests would tend to pursue teenagers—targets who were sexually ‘mature’ but emotionally undemanding.

Add to this the easy access to virtual pornography that an isolated priest might employ to stoke unattended, unacknowledged desires with any false image he chooses.

Cowardly, evil, worthy of the indignation Cardinal Ratzinger expressed in his pre-papal meditation for Good Friday 2005 when he lamented: ‘How much filth there is in the Church, and even those in the priesthood who ought to belong entirely to Him!’

We also must seek to understand these vulnerabilities. Priests who abuse are essentially disintegrated, having never done the hard work of being reconciled to their sexual selves. That requires hard work for a celibate, and for those mentoring him. To know one’s desires and needs and to work them out fruitfully with others while remaining pure: that is chastity. And it is an expression of integrity that we must insist on for our priests.

We must pray and prod for priestly training in self-awareness, mutual confession, and healthy, transparent friendship. That lines up with Benedict’s commitment. In 2008, addressing the US Church in light of the abuse crisis, he said: ‘We [the Vatican] will do all that is possible in the education of seminarians for a deep spiritual, human, and intellectual formation for the students. Only solid persons can be admitted to the priesthood and only persons with a deep personal life in Christ…’

Out of such training, in an increasingly disintegrated world, let us pray that St. Paul’s words may be exemplified by our priests as they stand “blameless and pure, children of God in a crooked and perverse generation, in which they shine like stars in the universe as they hold out the Word of life.” (Phil. 2: 15, 16)

O my Jesus, I beg You on behalf of the whole Church, give us holy priests. You Yourself, maintain them in holiness. O Divine and Great High Priest, may the power of Your Mercy accompany them everywhere and protect them from the devil’s traps and snares which are continuously set for the souls of priests. May the power of Your Mercy, O Lord, shatter and bring to naught all that might tarnish the sanctity of priests, for You can do all things. (1052) St. Faustina

It is more important to have good priests than to have many priests. – Pope Benedict

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Merciful Discipline 4: Hopeful, We Rebuild Trust

This is the fourth post of six in the Merciful Discipline Series. A complete list of available posts will be at the end of each article as they are made available.

Merciful Discipline 4: Hopeful, We Rebuild Trust

We do not want you to grieve…as those who have no hope. (1Thes. 4:13)

Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. (1Cor. 4:2)

Cursed is the man who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord…He will dwell in the parched places of the earth. (Jer. 17: 5, 6)

One struggles to consider a more profound violation of trust than priestly abuse of children. Based on the trust Catholic parents grant the Church, they have entrusted their children to a handful of priests who used that trust to abuse.

Diabolical—the disintegration of young lives and long after, the disintegration of trust in the Church itself. What greater victory could the enemy of our souls achieve than the scattering of the sheep through such a violent abuse of trust?

We overcome evil through good. And that good comes through acknowledging the mistrust that remains and choosing to begin a process of forgiveness. Our wounds united with Christ’s, we have access to the antidote: Mercy. We can apply that Mercy to both abusing priests and those who unwittingly sustained the abuse through its mishandling.

Forgiveness is neither weak nor a set up for ‘revictimization’. Forgiveness is power. In the Spirit of Jesus, we entrust all involved in the abuse, including our own damaged hearts, ‘to Him who judges justly.’ (1P2:23) We choose to place the hemorrhaging mess into the only Wounds that can heal it; we gratefully remove ourselves from the role of Redeemer and Judge. In forgiving our captors, we begin to be released from an unbearable weight. Little by little, we chip away at the burden of another’s sin until Jesus alone bears it. Forgiveness is the power by which we triumph over beloved enemies.

Forgiving spiritual leaders means that we are growing up. As the laity, we have authority to name a leader’s sin against us or loved ones and to do something about it. In that process, which includes forgiveness, we strike a death blow to clericalism. We refuse to grant Catholic leaders the magic of perfection. We cease to be children and become discerning, engaging colleagues with clergy.

We can disagree with them. And we can go directly to Christ ourselves—to trust more in Him than in the priest or bishop. Jesus always wanted it this way. God wants to use the sexual abuse crisis to free the laity from childish reliance upon mere men, and to mature into wise and helpful members of Jesus’ body.

Trust must be earned. We forgive our offenders in obedience to Christ and to free our own hearts. Yet reliance upon those we have forgiven is wise only when their trustworthiness is evident.

There is evidence that the Church is repenting of her lack of transparency in failing to protect her young. Pope Benedict has championed reform here. He has repeatedly acknowledged the Church’s scandalous track-record and has exerted enormous energy in insisting on strict measures of accountability, discipline, and prevention in the world-wide Church. (He would be wise to keep doing so!)

The US Bishops have established arguably the highest standards for transparency and accountability and victim-care for the US Church than any other branch of the RCC. For that to become a living reality, ‘all diocesan leaders must be committed to transparency about their actions, ensure that immediate and appropriate responses to abuse become routine, and ensure that all such actions are adopted by all church leaders.’ (John Jay Report, p.93)

Having stumbled recently, the Kansas City Diocese under Bishop Finn has set up a new and solid system of checks and balances that line up entirely with recommendations from the Graves Report. Instead of alleged abuses going to the Vicar-General, an Ombudsman receives them and reports them directly to the police and the DFS, while initiating an investigation, which includes a Victim’s Advocate. An Independent Review Board operates as well, investigating whether alleged perpetrators should continue in ministry.

Jennifer Valenti, the new and apparently dynamic Ombudsman, urges all of us to do our part as faithful, discerning members of the one Body. She implores us:

In order for the safety net to be effective, you must take a stand. You cannot stand in silence when you suspect abuse. It takes courage, but you must report it.

If we discern any possibility of abuse, we are to call DFS at (800) 392-3738.

Our hope is in God, the Author and Finisher of His Church. To love the Church and to be whole-hearted in our service of her, we must forgive her grievous failures even as we discern her repentance. In so doing, we destroy the will of the evil one with good. Evidence of change in the ‘system’ still requires that we keep growing, learning how to trust others with a new maturity. That maturity requires that we do our part to ensure that the Church is a safe place for children.

Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him. He will be like a tree planted by the water, that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has now worries in a year of drought, and never fails to bear fruit. (Jer. 17: 7, 8 )

Since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced secret and shameful ways. We do not use deception, nor do we distort the Word of God. On the contrary, be setting forth the truth plainly, we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (2Cor 4: 1, 2)

O Blood and Water, that flows from the heart of the Savior as a fount of Mercy for us, we trust in You! – St. Faustina

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The Merciful Discipline Series of Posts (updated with each new post as they become available):

 

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Merciful Discipline 3: Broken, We Endure Shame

This is the third post of six in the Merciful Discipline Series. A complete list of available posts will be at the end of each article as they are made available.

Merciful Discipline 3: Broken, We Endure Shame

In the Church, God has put Himself into hands that betray Him again and again. – Pope Benedict

Do not hold against us the sins of the fathers;
may Your mercy come quickly to meet us,
for we are in desperate need.
Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of Your Name;
deliver us, and forgive us our sins for Your Name’s sake.
Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?”
(PS 79:8-10a)

We repent on behalf of the abuse-broken church. We do not raise a defense for churchmen who did the right thing; we confess the sins of those who did wrong—bishops who failed to adequately discipline priests, negligent care of victims and their greater communities, the failure of the powers-that-be to steward existing policies of protection for minors.

We the Church are brought low. Our failures have leveled us. Just as the abuse of one is the abuse of us all, so is her discipline the discipline of the whole. Jesus prophesied on the eve of His crucifixion that ‘the shepherd would be struck, and the sheep would be scattered.’ (Matt. 26:31) As various Church leaders have been struck down by their mishandling of abuse, we too are cast down.

Will we scatter or fall forward unto the Crucified? We can repent on behalf of the abuse-broken Church. We can wait and pray. With Him, through Him, on His behalf, we can endure shame in the hope of new life.

I faced such a choice many years ago. Under my charge, a close colleague had abused two minors. That instigated a 10-year-process of discipline which included: purging the staff, tending to the victims, searching out other potential victims, and establishing new policies of prevention. In the eyes of the law and (arguably) God, I was the one ultimately responsible for the abuse. I became the subject of countless interrogations and the agent of raising huge sums of money to repair the damage done.

We as a ministry surrendered to God. He was disciplining us. Though we had much to do, my posture was face down. Had we not discovered the Crucified we would have followed the counsel of most who urged us to dissolve the ministry in light of our new financial burden.

‘When You disciplined them, they could barely whisper a prayer.’ (Is 26: 16) We had no strength to run from His refinement. We stayed down and discovered that only His wounds could heal the shame of the wounds we had inflicted on others. Our hope lay in faith: ‘He only disciplines those He loves.’ (Heb. 12:6)

Similarly, the Church today must learn to get low and stay low in this season of discipline. We err in raising fists at greedy lawyers, godless journalists, or an outraged public. We look to the Lord of our discipline, who uses many agents to refine those He loves. Through the Crucified, we can endure the shame and accept His discipline as a severe mercy. In the words of Benedict: ‘I wish to exhort all of you…to reflect on the wounds inflicted on Christ’s body, the sometimes painful remedies needed to bind and heal them.’

Enduring the shame means accepting a loss of credibility, especially in regards to the Church’s advocacy of the dignity and integrity and inviolability of every life. Sexual abuse mocks her beautiful sexual ethic, and weakens her authority to uphold it. Referring to decades of unrestrained minor abuse in Ireland, Benedict exhorted the bishops there: ‘All of this seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness.’ We glimpse this in the Old Testament. After Eli failed to restrain his sons, Israel suffered a terrible defeat. She fled the Philistines who then captured the ark of the covenant. (1Sam 4:17)

We can endure the shame because of Christ. He endured the final shaming at Calvary to grant us grace to endure ours. Take heart! We become more like Him as we submit to discipline. Maybe that’s why Lent is so long: 40 days along a thorny ascent path that ends before the broken body, crowned with thorns.

Lent is for slow learners like us. Change takes time. Discovering how to bear the shame of our corporate abuses is a lesson in endurance. In time, He will assume it wholly and transform us into transparent witnesses of our own failures and defenders of the weak.

Our discipline need not be morbidly introspection. He actively refines our hearts—their values and practices—employing real shame generated by the real damage done. As we turn toward Him, He burns off ‘the worldly sorrow that brings forth death’ (2Cor 7:10).

We ‘fix our eyes on Himself, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame…Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.’ (Heb. 12: 2, 3)
The hope of resurrection sustains us in this season of crucifixion, His merciful discipline. We are reduced to the bloody God. Like Him, we endure shame for the joy set before us.

It is likely that the rest of Pope Benedict’s pontificate will be consumed by this scandal. Sexual abuse in the Church will most likely define it. – Gregory Erlandson and Matthew Burnson Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis

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The Merciful Discipline Series of Posts (updated with each new post as they become available):

 

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Merciful Discipline 2: Broken, We Repent for the Church’s Mishandling of Abuse

This is the second post of six in the Merciful Discipline Series. A complete list of available posts will be at the end of each article as they are made available.

Merciful Discipline 2: Broken, We Repent for the Church’s Mishandling of Abuse

‘This crisis isn’t about sex abuse. It is about covering up sex abuse.’ Spokesperson for victims of priestly abuse

‘God’s justice summons us to give account of our actions and to conceal nothing.’ Pope Benedict to priests who abused children

As the Church, we are united as members of one Body. When one is abused, all suffer. When abuse is covered up or mishandled by Church leaders, the abused are abused further. We all are exposed.

Only the truth sets us free. In order for the wound of abuse to heal, it needs to be acknowledged and aired in order for all sufferers to be delivered. Healing requires that the full extent of the damage be brought into the light.

The Church has historically excelled at damage control.

Our corporate shame is overcome through repentance. Church membership grants every Catholic the authority to repent on behalf of the whole Church. We can implore God for His Mercy, and ask Him to change us.

As one Body, we must become a transparent witness of our own failures and of painstaking effort to repair the damage done to minors. We can then become transparent safeguard of minors—of their dignity, inviolability, and integrity.

We begin by acknowledging the failure of many Catholic leaders to be transparent safeguards. When aware of priestly misconduct, they failed to act on behalf of victims and the greater community.

In the Old Testament, overseer Eli failed to act. The elder knew his 2 sons—both priests—were having sex with women in the temple. He failed to act in a way that stopped the abuse. God addressed Eli through Samuel the prophet: ‘I told Eli that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons made themselves contemptible, and Eli failed to restrain them.’ (1 Sam 3:13)

Serious business. Spiritual overseers release and restrain God’s servants in order to build a strong, clean Church. We are all secured in love when a leader acts rightfully; when he fails, as Eli did, the most vulnerable are unprotected.

Historically, the Church has tended to protect herself, not victims or surrounding communities, in cases of minor abuse. A careful review of the most comprehensive study done on the sexual abuse of minors in the US Catholic Church over the last 60 years (‘John Jay Report’) reveals several disheartening themes.

Before 2002, Church overseers who became aware of minor abuse tended to focus on the priest-abuser more than the abused. Rarely did she subject her priests in question to legal scrutiny; she became a law unto herself. Due to the complications of canon law, these priests were not dismissed but rather put on leave or transferred to other communities who had no knowledge of the new priest’s ‘vulnerabilities.’

Overall, victims’ needs were minimized and the needs of the communities surrounding the abuse were kept in the dark.

In 2002, the Church sought reform. Dioceses throughout the US adopted a new set of norms for handling priestly sexual abuse. These norms include speedy and diligent inquiry of alleged abuse, priority-tending to the victims and their communities, removal of priest from office, and full compliance with the law.

The St. Joseph/KC Diocese adopted these norms, and today stands as a cautionary tale of sliding back into damage control, as the Bishop’s own confession and an investigation revealed (‘Graves Report’).

2 years ago, a KC priest was discovered to have a computer full of child porn. The vicar-general (second in command to the bishop) took matters into his own hands. The matter was not submitted to the diocesan review counsel, nor was the computer turned over to the authorities. A therapist claimed the priest was depressed, not dangerous; Bishop Finn reassigned him to a community house where he soon began engaging with children again, all ignorant of his ‘discipline.’

By God’s mercy, diocesan mishandling was exposed, the priest arrested. Six months had elapsed between the seizure of the porn and the arrest. Within those six months, a father lamented plainly to the Bishop: ‘That monster was in my house to prey on my kids and you let him in because you felt you were above the law and made that decision not to turn in photos of my kids.’

The norms of reform protect only when followed. With Bishop Finn who takes full responsibility for the damage done by damage control, we cry out for mercy, and ask that we would change. We can and must become transparent witnesses of the damage done. Only then will victims and their communities be healed, and minors safeguarded in the future.

How a man who has said ‘yes’ to Christ…could fall into such perversion is hard to understand. It is a great sadness also that Church leadership was not sufficiently vigilant and sufficiently swift and decisive in taking necessary measures. On account of this we are living in a time of penance, humility, and renewed sincerity. We must renew and learn again absolute sincerity. Pope Benedict

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The Merciful Discipline Series of Posts (updated with each new post as they become available):

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