Reclaiming Integrity Lost to Clergy Abuse

Introduction

Teresa Pitt Green, Co-Founder *

When Mike suggested I introduce his reflection (below) on the distressing news of seminarians and priests suffering the fate of our shared experience of abuse, I couldn’t understand why. What Mike has to share reflects, already, everything The Healing Voices Magazine stands for. In short, we come together to heal with all in the Catholic Church together, processing with the insight (and burden) of faith the evil of abuse in our Church.

We survivors of child abuse have unique experiences and dispositions. No one person’s reflections will be the same about anything, including this recent shock. That’s why working with co-founders and other clergy-abuse survivors on this magazine has been enriching for me – and for our readers, so we are told.

And, yet, some concerns unify us. Mike captures a core issue we all likely share — the need to take time to see, acknowledge and heal.

For those like us, who have been abused within the Church, there is a loss of sanctuary. It is a distinct spiritual wound. So, it has been with particular grief we read about how deeply evil has reached into our Church to wound all the faithful, again, and to wound our priests.

I’ve been grateful how our magazine has proven to be a place where survivors and families and priests and sisters are being seen, acknowledged and supported as they find healing.

Which brings me back to the image of Mike anxiously sitting in a pew during a Mass in Chicago in 2012, as described below.

Hundreds of miles away, in Virginia, I was reading what the Cardinal said at that same Mass. I was comforted by his understanding. His words filled me with hope. His leadership remained a beacon for me. News of that Mass, with its sermon, ushered grace into my life just as it was doing for Mike and others associated with The Healing Voices Magazine.

I would not meet Mike for three and a half more years.

Yet, we were already connected in friendship at the Lord’s holy altar by the words of a holy priest — and Cardinal. To me, the right order is the former, then the latter.

So, even as we grieve and are rightly outraged about this breaking news, let’s remember that our fury is not simply against the evil of abuse and corruption, but for the sake and integrity of something wonderful, that is, for the sake of a royal priesthood, a holy people.

Of course, this includes, we know, Mike and all my friends at The Healing Voices Magazine, as well as the steadfast ministers in child protection and survivor ministry, and many of the Catholics who may be more than ever aware of abuse, perhaps, we hope.

But this honor is especially due our religious, deacons and, even more so, our priests for whose gift of life we raise our prayers with gratitude for the many unsung acts of saintliness, and the many unknown crosses of abuse, for the many Masses such as now described by my friend in Christ.

Reclaiming Integrity Lost to Clergy Abuse

Mike Hoffman, Co-Founder *

As a clergy abuse survivor, I find my thoughts conflicted as I read the flood of articles from many reputable sources about credible allegations of sexual abuse by Theodore Cardinal McCarrick. Pope Francis removed him from public priestly ministry and, then, most recently, accepted his resignation from the College of Cardinals. I feel unsure about the speed of these actions. It took a lot of courage for the victims to come forward and tell their story so investigations can take place and for the Church at the highest levels to act, but these courageous steps also underscored how no action had taken place for a very long time. Less comforting is how, from my vantage point as a survivor of clergy abuse, I am wary of any actions that could be mistaken for another way to “get over” this problem quickly, to “get it behind us.”

I remain an active Catholic despite the sexual abuse I endured at the hands of a Catholic priest beginning when I was a 12-year-old boy. The experience of abuse is still with me. Trying to heal from the abuse drives me to promote child protection in our Church and in our area as President of the Board of Directors of Prevent Child Abuse – Illinois. It affects me daily, even in my choice of words. For example, I do not use the word “touched” in a positive way, as in ‘touched in a heartfelt way,” to describe the powerful impact someone has had on my life. Even words remain laden with the shudder of the experience.

And, most importantly, most needed now it seems, I can say with certainty that my life and heart and spirit have been powerfully impacted by many good and faithful priests over the years, in stark contrast to my abuser, a very bad man, who was our parish priest many years ago.

So, the speed of Cardinal McCarrick’s removal from public ministry and the speed of our Holy Father’s acceptance of his resignation from the College of Cardinals still leaves me uneasy.  It might tempt people with a dangerous pitfall right now, because it is not a substitute for the real process of healing. Believe me, healing is not fast. It wasn’t for me, and it won’t be for these priests (or former priests) abused as seminarians, or sisters abused by a bishop.

Being fast to react is important, but it does not automatically help to reclaim the integrity which is lost when we face the truth of Cardinal McCarrick’s abuse of children and vulnerable seminarians … and his betrayal and manipulation of right and good moral relationships.

Trying to get it right in my own head and heart, I remain conflicted.

These stories shocked me. They were all too familiar stories of abuse. They were too close to my story.  Yet, remaining unsettled, my thoughts turned to my experience at the Mass of Atonement and Hope in 2012 in the Archdiocese of Chicago. In this darkness and deep sadness in our Church, I feel it’s a good moment for a survivor of clergy abuse to share a hopeful message from a priest, in fact a Cardinal, that helped me get it right in my own mind.

Francis Cardinal George, OMI, was the Archbishop of Chicago at that time of that Mass in 2012.  He was the celebrant of the Liturgy. The Mass of Atonement and Hope focused on healing from abuse and also acknowledged the ten-year anniversary of The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The Scripture readings for the Mass included a passage from Lamentations and the Beatitudes from the Gospel According to St. Matthew.

I was not then as I am now. I was a clergy-abuse survivor. Participating in this Liturgy was one of my first tentative steps into a different relationship with the Church after reporting the abuse. I was sitting in the pew, anxious to be there and also anxious to hear what the Cardinal had to say.

Cardinal George focused his homily on the need for balance and integrity in every human life. Lamentations, he said, expresses the isolation of an individual who is completely at odds with himself and his own self-understanding. The Beatitudes express the mercy and love God shares with the community of believers.

“This stark contrast in the words of holy Scripture reflects the experience of people in their journey of life which takes them and us through good times and bad,” Cardinal George said. “The expression of who they are is a combination of lamentations and beatitudes, of isolation and of life with God.

“In our own experience, life with God and with one another is always a balance. In good times, we recall the bad times in order to make realistic plans and avoid a sense of hubris, and, in the bad times, we need the help of others to recall the good times to prevent despair, to prevent being caught in a trap, in a box. We need one another to remind us that God is with us, and therefore there is hope.”

Cardinal George continued his reflection, noting how victims of clerical sexual abuse, often years or decades after the abuse occurred, often talk as though they have put that experience in a box and closed it off from the rest of their lives. But, to stop the abuse being able to cause further damage in their adult lives now, they must open that box to live fully integrated lives. He seemed to understand our struggle as survivors as few priests did at that time. He continued.

Priests who have abused children or young people also put that part of their lives in a box. It seems to have little to do with the rest of their life, which often includes many good and generous acts. But, without opening that box and acknowledging what they’ve done, they cannot overcome it, he added. They cannot stop the harm.

As I sat in the pew, I was convinced I was hearing a heartfelt and necessary statement. It was shocking, especially coming from a Cardinal, Prince of our Church. And it was wise, because this Cardinal knew that alone and together we are charged with seeing and believing, working through to the truth so we are free.

Back in 2012, Cardinal George’s comments helped me to reconcile myself to the truth of the abuse imposed upon me when I was a little boy and how that affects me today.  Coming to terms with my own story, opening my own box, so to speak, helped me reclaim what was lost within my family relationships so I may once again be “in balance” and live a rich and fulfilling life.

Cardinal George’s perspective and his message also motivated me to help others heal. Since then, I have become dedicated to promoting child protection, but also am a co-founder of The Healing Voices Magazine, chair of subsequent archdiocesan Masses for Healing and Hope – and a participant in a group of survivors, priests and others who helped plan and build a Healing Garden for abuse survivors and their families in the middle of downtown Chicago.

That’s why I write this today. I feel what Cardinal George said then has bearing now, in these dark times, as all Catholics reflect on the Cardinal McCarrick story.

I’ve been reading Cardinal George’s words a lot lately. I believe, despite the difficulty such an allegation against Cardinal McCarrick may cause himself or the Church, it is important to open the box, not try to speed past all of this. I am open to acknowledging the good and generous acts throughout Cardinal McCarrick’s career as a priest, but I believe in listening and respecting his victims who courageously came forward to tell their story, despite the very real difficulties. In this complicated reality, Cardinal George’s words are a heartfelt and necessary message of reconciliation in our Church today.

So that’s why, for this clergy abuse survivor, the speed of resignation and speed of removal from public ministry isn’t necessarily a comfort. It concerns me that its speed could also undermine healing. I am happy Pope Francis took corrective steps quickly, but, despite the pain and difficulty, I believe that we must together rough it out, opening that box entirely to acknowledge abuse perpetrated by a priest, a bishop or a Cardinal.  This is the only way to stop the abuse from causing further damage, for victims or for prospective victims – and for our Church as a whole. Opening that box is the only way to reclaim the integrity lost to the truth of the abuse.


For additional inspiration, Cardinal George’s presiding over a Mass of Hope and Atonement in 2014 was covered in the Chicago Tribune here.

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