Child Protection as Survivor Ministry

By Rev. Lewis S. Fiorelli, O.S.F.S. [1]

Like everybody else, the sex abuse scandals have affected me in many ways and on many different levels.  I am a priest. When I began to read accounts of the abuse scandals that clustered around the Church and its clergy, I was amazed, first, that it existed among the clergy at all and, then, by its incredible scope and time-span.  In turn, I was dismayed, saddened, and angered to learn how poorly many Church authorities had handled accusations against pedophile priests early on.  Accounts continued to reveal the often hostile or at least indifferent manner in which many victims were initially treated by Church authorities when they finally began to come forth with their accusations. I was beginning to feel the shame of “guilt by association” and asked myself:   “Are people wondering about me too?”

Doors of our offices and confessionals had now to contain an unobstructed window. For every new assignment, our fingerprints had to be taken and checked against the database of sexual offenders. We were never permitted to meet with children for, say, altar serving training without the presence of at least one other adult. The list could go on and on, but the picture is clear. Many experiences in my daily life and routine as a priest have had to change in light of the sex abuse scandals in the Church. Because of the horrible actions of a few priests, it seems that no priest will ever be easily or fully trusted again. The heart of the Church has been deeply wounded.  Along with all my fellow priests, I must now bear that wound in very personal terms—not, of course, in ways that could ever compare to what survivors of pedophile priests have had to bear, but real and painful nevertheless.

Along with my embarrassment and shame at past Church practice and with my feelings of guilt by association, I began to wonder whether the Church could ever be part of the spiritual healing of those whom some in the Church had violated so grievously as children and then so miserably failed to help when they finally sought justice and redress. I told myself that I would endeavor to be there for them if any victim ever came to me for confession or counseling or spiritual guidance. Beyond that, I was not sure what else I could do or how I could help. In my work since those days I see that many priests, sisters, lay ministers and educators feel a similar sense of wanting to help but not being sure how to help beyond the power of prayer.

A turning point came when I was offered the opportunity to give victims of abuse a day of recollection. As is so often the case, I was far more enriched by that ministry to brave and good people than I could possibly have imagined. It is just one more instance of the “hundred fold in this life” that was promised by the Lord. Every time I have been invited by survivors and the Arlington Diocese’s survivor ministry to participate in retreats and workshops has been an answer to my prayer to be of some help and healing to adult victims of child sexual abuse by clergy.

I have learned a very important lesson from the wonderful stories of many inspiring Catholic survivors.   It is this: any ministry to those who have been wounded by sexual abuse by clergy must take what at times may seem like extreme measures to ensure that no child, teen or vulnerable adult is ever again harmed in any way when they are in the care of our Church. A great deal rides on the little-known and often uncelebrated work of those in our Church who promote child safety in accordance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and Essential Norms issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. I am honored to offer this reflection in connection with the work being done by these good people and those who support them.


Rev. Lewis S. Fiorelli, OSFS, offers workshops, retreats and spiritual guidance to survivors, their families and those who minister to them in the diocese of Arlington, Virginia. Fr. Fiorelli taught dogmatic theology and Salesian spirituality in the Washington DC area before he was elected as 10th Superior General of the Oblates. He has served as chaplain to several Salesian lay groups and is the Auxiliary Religious Assistant to the monasteries of the Order of the Visitation in the United States. In 2007, Father Fiorelli was appointed to General Formation Coordinator for the Oblate Congregation.

[1] The above essay is adapted from Father Fiorelli’s book, Veronica’s Veil: Spiritual Companionship for Adult Survivors of Child Abuse – Integrating Faith with Recovery, A Christ-Centered Support for Healing from Child Abuse (co-authored with Teresa Pitt Green).

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