Pope Francis: Side with the Victims and Heal This Church

The week before Pope Benedict announced his resignation, I found myself at my parish on both Saturday and Sunday without quite managing to go to Mass. I did facilitate a workshop with a good friend on Saturday and attended yet another planning meeting on Sunday, but didn’t take the few steps upstairs to the sanctuary, where a good friend was presiding. Walking home, I realized I didn’t make it to the sanctuary because I didn’t feel reconciled to the Church, and therefore not prepared to participate in something as significant as the Eucharist. I realized that typically when I’m not feeling reconciled, it is connected to something within myself, and I address it through reflection, seeking a resolution with the person with whom I have a conflict, speaking with good friends, or making use of the sacrament of reconciliation. Then I can be fully present to the Eucharist.

But in this case, the obstacle was the weight of newly compounding revelations of how leaders of the Church hierarchy—all the way up to John Paul II and Benedict XVI—have covered up violent sexual assaults on children for decade upon decade, choosing to protect fellow clerics rather than the Body of Christ. This criminal cover-up has fragmented our church and likewise calls for reconciliation so that our community throughout the world can truly be present to the Eucharist.

I quickly recognized (with the help of good friends and honest priests) that I do belong in the sanctuary, but that part of my presence should be directed to using whatever voice I have to invite the hierarchy itself to repentance. So I am trying.

I am hopeful that Pope Francis will take the opportunity this Holy Week to ask for forgiveness on behalf of the hierarchy, and that in the coming weeks we will see concrete actions that will begin to heal the Church. In his first Angelus address, he spoke of human resistance to asking for forgiveness:

God never, ever gets tired of forgiving us!…The problem is that we get tired, we don’t want to, we get tired of asking forgiveness. He never gets tired of forgiving, but we at times, we get tired of asking forgiveness. May we never tire, let us never tire of it! He’s the loving Father who always forgives, who has a heart of mercy for all of us. And even we can learn to be merciful with others.

Let us hope that Francis will never get tired of asking for forgiveness for the crimes of the Church against its most vulnerable members.

Los Angeles

In this context, we need to face up to the recent developments in Los Angeles. In late January, Cardinal Roger Mahony, the retired Archbishop of Los Angeles, finally lost his battle to hide files that provided further evidence of his brazen failure to protect the faithful. These new revelations were painful to me because the Los Angeles Archdiocese has held a special place in my life ever since I had the privilege of volunteering with immigrant survivors of sexual, physical, and emotional violence. Placed as a paralegal at a Salvadoran community center in Los Angeles, I explored my faith through helping women tell their stories of how they were molested, raped, stalked, and beaten by trusted family members. Being connected to the Church community gave me the strength to stay present to them, allowing me to witness their courage as they fought to create futures for themselves and their children that would reflect their dignity as human persons. One day, my client Xiomara, who had just received her green card through the immigration provisions of the Violence Against Women Act, brought me to La Placita Olvera to share a celebratory lunch. In the 1980s, this plaza and its church, Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles, became a sanctuary for Central Americans fleeing repressive regimes that indiscriminately killed and disappeared several hundred thousand men, women, children, and babies. It embodied what it means for the Church to take care of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. In this place, talking with Xiomara about the new future opening up for her, I was tangibly connected to the Body of Christ.

So when I saw how Cardinal Mahony had actively protected a priest who preyed on undocumented children while publically acting as a protector of immigrants, I felt nauseous. Records made public by the courts and published by the LA Times solidified my disgust:

[T]he memos written in 1986 and 1987 by Mahony and Msgr. Thomas J. Curry, then the archdiocese’s chief advisor on sex abuse cases, offer the strongest evidence yet of a concerted effort by officials in the nation’s largest Catholic diocese to shield abusers from police[.]

One such case that has previously received little attention is that of Msgr. Peter Garcia, who admitted preying for decades on undocumented children in predominantly Spanish-speaking parishes. After Garcia’s discharge from a New Mexico treatment center for pedophile clergy, Mahony ordered him to stay away from California “for the foreseeable future” in order to avoid legal accountability, the files show. “I believe that if Monsignor Garcia were to reappear here within the archdiocese we might very well have some type of legal action filed in both the criminal and civil sectors,” the archbishop wrote to the treatment center’s director in July 1986.

The following year, in a letter to Mahony about bringing Garcia back to work in the archdiocese, Curry said he was worried that victims in Los Angeles might see the priest and call police. “[T]here are numerous — maybe twenty — adolescents or young adults that Peter was involved with in a first degree felony manner. The possibility of one of these seeing him is simply too great,” Curry wrote in May 1987.

Reading this, I felt a tremendous disconnect between my lived experience of a church that incarnates itself within the most painful realities of its people, and a church that uses its privilege to evade accountability at all costs.

Mea Maxima Culpa

On February 4, HBO aired Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, a documentary of the sexual abuse cover-up leading to the highest reaches of the Vatican. It is framed by the courage of four deaf men who unsuccessfully fought for decades to obtain justice for themselves and over 200 children sexually abused by Fr. Lawrence Murphy of Milwaukee’s St. John’s School for the Deaf. In his review, Andrew Sullivan writes that “the detail I cannot quite recover from is that he picked out for abuse those deaf boys who had parents who could not use sign language – so that even if the boys had the courage to say what had happened to them, their parents would not understand.”

Even though the now-adult deaf victims went to the police, the district attorney, their archbishop, and Rome, Murphy was never arrested or defrocked. The case was presented to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the 1990s. While he initially ignored requests to take action against Murphy, eventually a canonical trial was begun. But when Murphy personally asked for clemency from Ratzinger due to his poor health, the Cardinal intervened to halt the proceedings against him. Murphy remained a priest until his death.

In 2010, when the sexual abuse scandal erupted in Europe, Cardinal Angelo Sodano—who as Dean of the College of Cardinals presided over the Conclave that elected Pope Francis—addressed new evidence of the cover-up at the highest levels by telling Pope Benedict XVI, “The people of God are with you and do not allow themselves to be impressed by the petty gossip of the moment.” As of this writing, the hierarchy at the highest levels still refuses to accept full accountability for these wounds to the Body of Christ, instead proffering an endless stream of excuses: it is a result of the cultural tumult of the 1960s and 1970s; it is the fault of gay priests; it is blown out of proportion; it is an attack on the church, since others also prey on children; or it is only the responsibility of individual priests, and not their enabling superiors. But long before the inaction of Mahony and Ratzinger, the church hierarchy had been put on notice that this was a problem that could not be ignored. Since the 1940s, church authorities have known of the crimes of priests:

I myself would be inclined to favor laicization for any priest, upon objective evidence, for tampering with the virtue of the young, my argument being, from this point onward the charity to the Mystical Body should take precedence over charity to the individual, […] Moreover, in practice, real conversions will be found to be extremely rare […] Hence, leaving them on duty or wandering from diocese to diocese is contributing to scandal or at least to the approximate danger of scandal. –Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald, 1947

In 1963, Fr. Fitzgerald met personally with Pope Paul VI to warn him of this threat to the Church. Fifty years is enough.

Facing up to the Scandal

Paul writes, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” 1 Cor 11:27-29. We most often read his warning to mean that we shouldn’t receive communion if we haven’t gone to confession or continue to persist in committing the same sin. This interpretation isn’t all bad, but it doesn’t get at the power of Paul’s argument. Paul is talking about something much deeper than whether I got into a fight with my mother or forgot and ate meat on a Friday during Lent, and then failed to go to confession on Saturday afternoon.

Rather, he is exhorting us to make sure that we, as the entire Body of Christ, are living in honest, right relationship with one another as a community. If we aren’t, we shouldn’t pretend that we’re honoring Jesus’ sacrifice, or even really participating in it: “I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you…So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?” 1 Cor 11:18-22. Today, our universal church is like the assembly in Corinth, with divisions and factions motivated by self-interest and self-protection. In Corinth, the poor were humiliated when they went hungry. Today, victims of abuse and their families are those who are being humiliated.

I do not believe that the hierarchy engaged in cover-up in order to enable criminal activity or to extend the suffering of children. I take the hierarchy at its word that its secrecy has been an attempt to avoid “scandal.” But this is a response based on shame and fear, on the all-too-human instinct to hide and “hold the truth shackled in injustice” (Rom 1:18). It is not a response based on the freedom we have as members of the Body of Christ. We need to understand what scandal really is. Paul tells us that we shouldn’t avert our eyes from skandalon. The better response is to proclaim its reality: “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block (skandalon).” 1 Cor 1.23.

My hope is that Pope Francis will not avert his eyes or become immobilized. As a person formed by St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, he was brought face to face with the sin of his society and world and then his own personal sin during the first week of his retreat as a Jesuit novice. The purpose of this week was not to make him fall into immobilizing shame and despair, but to experience that beyond the absolutely real evil that he has become aware of, grace, life, and redemption ultimately have the last word. The week was designed to give Francis (and everyone who has completed the exercises) the strength to act with compassion and honesty in the very worst of circumstances.

As this Holy Week closes, I hope that Francis will use this strength to pray, perform penance, and engage in concrete actions to begin to heal these wounds of the Body of Christ, caused by the criminal behavior of priests against our most vulnerable members, and exacerbated by the unwillingness of bishops, cardinals, and popes to look upon this injured body with honesty.

As a Cardinal, he stated:

When [pedophilia] happens, we must never turn a blind eye. You cannot be in a position of power and destroy the life of another person. In the diocese it never happened to me, but a bishop once called me to ask me by phone what to do in a situation like that and I told him to take away the priests’ licenses, not to allow them to exercise the priesthood any more, and to begin a canonical trial in that diocese’s court. I think that’s the attitude to have. I do not believe in taking positions that uphold a certain corporative spirit in order to avoid damaging the image of the institution. That solution was proposed once in the United States: they proposed switching the priests to a different parish. It is a stupid idea; that way, the priest just takes the problem with him wherever he goes. The corporate reaction leads to such a result, so I do not agree with those solutions.

Now is his time to unequivocally place himself at the side of the victims, to prohibit dioceses from spending money to hide abuses, to hold criminals accountable, and to institute a “no tolerance” policy for cardinals, bishops, and all others in positions of leadership who are anything less than fully transparent.