I have been ordained for twenty-three years now and my entire priesthood has been lived under the shadow of the clergy abuse scandal. It began when I was in seminary in Chicago. I remember spending the days in prayer, class and formation for priesthood and then watching the six o’clock evening news as the latest wave of the scandal broke. Talk about a disconnect! But seminaries (by their nature) exist in a bubble. After ordination there was the news from Boston and other parts of the country but that was “out there” – still somewhat removed. It all came crashing home when the bishop who ordained me was accused of abuse and admitted to this abuse. He spent the remainder of his days praying and working in the laundry room of a monastery. A priest from my diocese (former pastor to the parish to which I now serve) was arrested and is currently in prison for abusing a child. A priest classmate was removed from ministry for inappropriate contact with a minor. And now it is all stirred up again with the recent report from Pennsylvania. My whole priesthood and the priesthood of now at least a couple of generations of priests has been lived under the shadow of this scandal.
Yet, the people of God continue to amaze. Even through all of this they have remained committed to the Church and to their priests. Even now they are rallying in support of their priests and bishops and they recognize that not all should be tainted by the sinful actions of a few. This is heartwarming and appreciated but I do feel a need to say and clarify something.
I am not the victim here. No priest, no bishop is the victim here. I appreciate the kind words and thoughts and expressions of concern but we must commit ourselves to remembering and remaining focused on who the true victims are.
The victim is the man who has not been able to enter into authentic relationships throughout his life because he was wounded by a trusted priest as a young boy. The victim is the person who died of a drug overdose trying to numb the pain of sexual abuse. The victims are the parents who did their best to raise concerns but watched as abuser priests were moved from one assignment to another. These are the victims and we must not let our focus shift from them and we must stand with them.
I hate that we are back in this again. I hate that this ugliness steals so much attention and energy from the true work of the Church. I know that there will be consequences to this and that these consequences will be painful and that these consequences will affect and handicap the ministry of the Church. It all sickens me. Priests will be viewed with suspicion once again. There will be rude comments and jokes and possibly worse but we must be clear – no priest is the victim here and we should avoid the temptation to fall into that role.
The healing that is needed can only come if we remain focused on who the true victims are – those men and women who suffered at the hands of abusing priests and bishops within the Church who valued damage control over the pain of the people entrusted to their care. Any temptation to paint the priest, the bishop or the institutional Church as the victim in this must stop. It goes nowhere and it does nothing good. It is, in fact, a form of narcissism that only further victimizes the very men and women who have already endured so much pain.
When the news broke about the bishop that ordained me I was chaplain at one of the high schools in my diocese. I remember so much prayer and concern offered for the bishop (even over the school intercom) yet hardly anything being offered for the victim. Maybe it is human nature. The bishop was known and was loved by so many people and he did good things as our founding bishop and the victim … well, he was not known – just a name from a different state. But the victim was more than just a name. He was a person who had been hurt and who only wanted what we all want – an authentic and human life.
If there is one thing that these years of priesthood under the scandal of the clergy abuse crisis has taught me is that I am neither the victim in this situation nor the perpetrator of these heinous acts. There is a freedom found in this recognition. I am simply a priest ordained at this time and in this context of church and my duty is to strive to be the best priest that I can be.
Please, if you truly love your Church and want to support your priests, do not turn any of us into the victim in this moment of pain and do not allow us to make ourselves the victim. Shifting focus away from the true victims does no good. It is tempting but it is not right nor is it ultimately just. Sometimes the most caring thing to say to another disciple is that, yes, there are crosses to be carried in life. Is it fair? No, but this is the cross we are given at this time. Only when we let go of the temptation to view ourselves as victims or allow others to paint us at the victim can we as priests, bishops and Church honestly stand with the ones who are the real victims and together find the truth of God’s Kingdom in this whole sad, ugly and sinful affair.
I am not the victim here.