A publication of Sacred Heart University
Summit at the Vatican was a Large Leap Forward
How to Have a Younger Church

This is Our Problem

By now, the sins of the fathers are well known. 

Seemingly weekly headlines underscore that the Catholic Church is riven by clergy sexual abuse, not only locally but globally, with reports on abuse cases surfacing from Australia to Africa.

The intensity and immediacy of the current coverage make it easy to forget that this is not a new problem, newly revealed. It was 1985 when the U.S. bishops were first handed a report warning of an abuse crisis, and three decades since news broke of systemic crimes in both the Irish church as well as at Mt. Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s, Newfoundland. These were harbingers of headlines to come.

It has taken us this long, as an institution and as a collective of members, to begin to admit — and react — to the inescapable rot from within. But as a recent conference hosted by the Faculty of Theology at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College revealed, the glacial pace at which we’re responding is simply unacceptable.

One of the key takeaways from the colloquium, titled The Wounded Body of Christ: Listening and Responding to Abuse in the Church, was that while we’re finally confessing publicly that the church is gravely wounded by the crisis, we have yet to listen and respond in a meaningful way to those who suffered at the hands of priests. Our response right now still rests at the institutional, rather than the personal level, and healing the church means nothing if we do not first heal our neighbor.

A case in point: at the conference, a panel discussion with survivors included a man named Mark Hawkins, whose vast experience in educating others about the trauma of childhood sexual abuse has taken him everywhere from teaching police and social workers to an appearance on Oprah. It has also earned him awards from Queen Elizabeth II and the Ontario Provincial Police. Yet, he noted, this was the first time in his years of speaking on the topic that a Catholic organization had invited him to talk. 

Another participant, Leona Huggins, was just back from Rome, where she had been the sole Canadian representative at the Vatican summit on ending abuse.

“I’d love to stop telling my story,” Huggins said, but then noted that one of the 21 talking points to come out of the Rome meeting was a suggestion to create a handbook of protocols. “It’s shocking that’s on the table. (The church is) still parsing what abuse is. We need to continue to tell our stories,” she said. 

The third panelist, John Swales, said of the survivor participants, “we are the lucky ones.” For Swales, participating was a way to speak for Michael, a friend who succumbed to the resulting horrors abuse sufferers can experience, and for all those who do not have a voice. 

“I’m actually okay,” Swales told the assembled. “You’re not. You need to figure out what to do.”

Attendees heard searing testimony, calmly delivered, of the many challenges survivors can face, from the costs of therapy and medication to loss of faith; from substance abuse and mental health issues to marriage breakdown and loss of income. 

It was noted, for example, that while the world-renowned Southdown Institute just north of Toronto offers therapeutic services to Roman Catholic and other clergy, survivor participants couldn't name a comparable site for them.

“There aren’t the same supports for victims as for perpetrators,” Swales argued. “I don’t expect a blank check, but I shouldn’t have to grovel to get therapy.”

For Hawkins, the manifestations of his trauma included finding himself “super protective” of his children and having difficulty trusting anyone. “This impacted my faith,” he said. “Why did God allow this to happen?”

Toronto lawyer Simona Jellinek, who has pursued cases for clients against a number of religious organizations, Catholic and otherwise, argued that the church’s first task is to turn its attention to the people who have been hurt — and then focus on fixing the church.

“Right now the church can tell its lawyers that instead of doing what insurance companies do in court (fight for the lowest settlement), they can send a clear message that we’re trying to make this a survivor-centric church,” she said. “The church is to do the work of God. It is not to be caught in in battles with its people.

“Defendants who come early and say ‘sorry’ are very helpful. That’s where the healing begins,” she added, noting that financial settlements tend to be lower when defendants show a degree of contrition. 

(As one person in attendance quipped, “What would Jesus do is not meant to be a financial decision.”)

Jellinek called for transparency and respect for the courts, arguing that any institution that keeps the crime of sexual abuse secret is complicit. 

“The biggest crime is the cover-up,” agreed Huggins, who discovered the priest who’d served time for abusing her was subsequently assigned to a parish in Ottawa.

It was a somber day, but there were notes of hope and suggestions for how to make progress. One attendee, for example, told the room that, frustrated by a lack of institutional response, she and several other parishioners formed a discussion group to research the problem and lobby the church for change. 

Another noted that only a quarter of the colloquium was devoted to survivors, stressing that for academics to learn and contribute to solve the crisis, they need first to hear and absorb victims’ statements, an assertion that prompted applause.

And from the survivors themselves, grace and guidance.

“I’m glad to be here and glad the church I grew up in is talking about the issue,” Hawkins said. 

“You have the power to make change,” Swales told the crowd. “This is a church that will defend its predators against young children. 

“This is our problem,” he said, gesturing to the assembled. “If you can walk out of here unscathed it says something about you.”


Catherine Mulroney is programs coordinator at the faculty of theology at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.


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