These are a pilgrim’s reflections. They come from my own experiences and learning as a seminarian, pastor, jail minister, attorney, and Capuchin Franciscan provincial, including conversations with survivors of sexual abuse by clergy and religious, offenders, victim assistance coordinators, experts in the field, and others involved and affected.

For a Church that has healing and reconciliation at the core of our mission, the overreliance on litigation to resolve allegations and help victims and survivors should strike us as odd, even a scandal and a sign of failure. Is there an alternative?

In this reflection I hope to offer an alternative framework to promote justice, healing, and reconciliation; to make the Church a safer place; and to help us become truer to our mission. This framework is already part of our Catholic tradition: the spiritual works of mercy.

Comfort the Sorrowful

Help victims and survivors of abuse to heal.

The first duty the Church has in addressing the issue of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and religious is to assist the victims and survivors, particularly those persons (along with their families) who have been directly harmed. They are the primary victims.

Each person experiences and deals with a trauma like sexual abuse differently. Recovery can be a lifetime process. Because of the diversity and uniqueness of the harm, we need to patiently listen to people’s stories and walk with them in the ways that they need. This requires time, flexibility, and creativity.

It is also important to recognize that those who have come forward to date are likely a fraction of those who have been harmed. This is a painful dimension that we must accept: there is no way that the Church will be able to completely “move on” or put this painful part of our history behind us. The nature of the harm militates against it. This should spur our efforts to create a safe and hospitable environment for people who will continue to come forward.

Admonish the Sinner

Hold offenders accountable.

A big challenge facing the Church today is the effective supervision of priests and religious who have abused minors. Few of the priests and religious who have sexually abused minors in the past are likely to be arrested, prosecuted, or convicted for their crimes. Though they are barred from public ministry, and some may have also been dismissed from the clerical state or from their religious communties or dispensed from their vows, others are still considered part of their respective dioceses or orders. How can they be effectively supervised?

An effective supervision and safety plan begins with thorough professional assessment. Writing a supervision and safety plan is one thing; following it and monitoring compliance are even more critical—and challenging. The Dallas Norms encourage priest offenders who have not been dismissed from the clerical state but who are otherwise banned from public ministry or publicly identifying themselves as priests to “lead a life of prayer and penance.”

One significant unmet need in the Church is to create more communities of true prayer and penance, accountability, and rehabilitation for offenders. The mission of such communities would be to not only prevent their members from re-offending but also engage them in the positive work of repairing the harm that they have done in the ways that they are able.

Instruct the Ignorant

Bring light to drive away the darkness and fear.

Although the crisis of sexual abuse in the Church has brought with it a host of losses and burdens, it has also produced elements of grace. One such grace has been a greater awareness of
sexual and other forms of abuse both within the Church and in the wider community.

According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB’s) 2009 Survey of Allegations and Costs, nearly seven million children, teens, and adults in parishes, schools, and other ministries received safe-environment training that year, along with priests, deacons, and candidates for ordination.

Two keys to making these prevention programs effective are repetition and reinforcement. If prevention is no more than a box that needs to be checked off for an audit or accreditation, then the Church will have wasted an opportunity.

Our efforts to effectively address the problem of sexual abuse by clergy are destined to fail if we focus solely on the grave misuse of the gift of sexuality. We also need to address the more fundamental issues of clericalism and the abuse of power.

Clericalism is a form of elitism, one that is often cultivated and reinforced by the distinctive education and formation, dress, and titles that priests and religious receive, as well as the reservation of particular offices and roles.

While it is not unique to the Church, elitism can lead to a distorted sense of entitlement, the assumption that one is not bound by the rules that govern everyone else, and that other people exist to serve one’s own needs. It can lead to a whole range of abuses, including sexual abuse.

Our Church needs a strong and committed laity to push back against clericalism and demand higher degrees of accountability from priests and religious, especially those who are in positions of authority.

Counsel the Doubtful

Help to restore trust and deepen understanding.

One significant challenge in educating the public and the media about the Church’s responses to the sexual abuse of minors by priests and religious has been to understand not only what was done at certain points, but also why it was done. My own experience suggests that we need to put more authority toward prevention and responding to clergy sexual abuse more firmly in the hands of more independent groups and organizations led and controlled by the laity.

This would enable the Church to draw from the gifts and competencies of our well-educated and professional Catholic laity and not put the onus on bishops and religious superiors to use gifts and skills that they may not have. It may be humbling and even threatening, but it could also be liberating. It would also enable those of us who are ordained to devote more time and energy to the work we were actually trained to do.

Bear Wrongs Patiently

Encourage healing in the body of Christ.

While the support and healing of survivors of sexual abuse by clergy and religious must be a pastoral priority in the Church, it is important to remember that the crisis has also created an entire class of what might be called secondary victims or survivors. Many everyday Catholics have felt dragged into this. Some have seen their faith in the Church and its leaders shaken. Others have left the Church in frustration or disgust.

The financial impacts of the crisis have caused a number of dioceses and orders to eliminate offices, programs, and services and lay off dedicated employees. Priests and religious are troubled by a sense of collective shame or guilt by association. People who work with survivors of abuse find themselves emotionally and spiritually exhausted.

Bishops and religious superiors need healing, too. We (and they) sometimes forget that they are very human and imperfect beings and pastors, trying to address what can be very complex, difficult, and emotionally charged situations that are rooted in events that often occurred decades before they assumed office.

The Church needs to provide support and opportunities for healing for those millions of members for whom the sexual-abuse crisis has become a relentless source of pain, frustration, embarrassment, distraction, and confusion. Yet each Sunday morning many still head out the door for Mass to hear the word of God and to be nourished by Christ’s body and blood. How many pastors are aware of this? How many are prepared to deal with it? Recognizing the need, however, is the first step in addressing it.

Forgive All Injuries

Create opportunities for reconciliation.

One of the core elements of the Church’s mission is reconciliation. We follow one who reconciled the human and the divine, the sinner with the saved, male and female, slave and free,
death and life.

The sexual abuse of minors, particularly by adults who were supposed to nurture and care for them, is an extremely grave sin. How can these wounds be healed? The Sacrament of Penance offers us a model for healing and reconciliation. It includes five elements: (1) confession (stating the sin), (2) contrition (expressing sorrow for the sin), (3) penance (repairing the harm caused by the sin as well as seeking to avoid it in the future), (4) absolution (allowing the penitent to “move on” in a way that reinforces accountability and supports change), (5) satisfaction (performing the penance).

Confession calls for a heightened level of transparency by dioceses and religious orders in addressing the issue of sexual abuse by clergy. Contrition, sorrow for what we have done and failed to do, is most frequently expressed in sincere, personal, and public apologies. Words must also be followed by action.

Penance requires trying to repair the harm done by the sin and doing what is possible to prevent it from being repeated. Absolution and satisfaction are interrelated and will demand additional time, thought, and effort. The engagement of the Church in a process like this will require a role reversal of sorts, with bishops and clergy in the form of penitents and the laity in the Church and the wider community serving as our confessors.

Pray for the Living and the Dead

Remember, reflect, and renew.

From the beginning, the Church has relied upon prayer to give voice to the suffering, healing to the brokenhearted, hope to the despairing, courage to the fearful, and a sense of gratitude to the
troubled. The power of prayer can help us to work through this crisis just as surely as it has helped earlier generations of Christians to weather storms and use scandals as opportunities for reform.

Prayerfully remembering and coming to terms with the past includes commending offenders to the mercy of God. It is tempting and perfectly understandable to want to curse them or attempt to erase their memories. But our faith invites us to overcome those instincts.

In addition, we need to pray for and encourage the many priests and religious who are striving to be faithful to their vows and in service to and with the people of God. Research shows that 90 percent of priests surveyed reported being happy in their vocations. The source of their joy is that same Source to which the Church and each of us must turn again and again for inspiration and transformation.