Churches Must Be Honest to Confront Sexual Abuse
"Ultimately, this will be good for us." This is what Fr. Greg Battafarano told my husband and me as we visited in his Canadian rectory last fall.
He was speaking of the pressure being placed on all denominations to stop the cover-ups of sexual violence by clergy. Initially, his exposure to the issues came from working with offending priests.
On the same trip, we had deepened our friendship with Roman Catholic survivor Bill Bates and his supportive wife, Joan. Earlier that week, she had echoed some of my own feelings.
"You know, Dee, we've really put a rock through the stained-glass window," she said without bitterness or sarcasm.
Last year a series of dialogues between Fr. Greg and. the Bates couple helped the priest see how his over-identification with those of his own profession had partially blinded him to the suffering of the masses.
Eventually, he recognized his own hurt, caused not by the speaking out of innocent survivors, but by the sinful professional malpractice of his colleagues. Only with this new insight was he able to begin the painful-but-necessary process of grieving.
His struggle is an example of what Baptists--far behind Catholics on this issue--will have to do in days to come. In the end, we will find courage to heal as a body.
A few weeks ago I began an intensely personal struggle with breast cancer. The conscious suffering, which I am told will eventually lead to restored health, has been interrupted only by four hours on the operating table. It is far from ended.
Legally, the surgery was "elective." I could have gone on living without life-altering changes, perhaps for several years, pretending I was fine. However, it didnít take long to decide; as a nurse, I have repeatedly witnessed the consequences of deadly decisions.
In reality, the choices I faced were no less grim, no less painful, than the challenges of the community of faith today. The adjustment to my new reality will be a long process, but not nearly as lengthy as the one facing churches as we try to confront our centuries-old "happy family" myths. That will take generations!
Do we throw up our hand in desperation and let the "cancer" remain? Or do we face it, talk about it, grieve the loss and struggle toward a healthier body? Is there a choice? Are there really a lot of gray areas, as some would have us believe?
Guilt and fear stand in the way of honesty. Guilt stems from the mistaken notion that "we must have done something to cause this" - the misconception that virtually every survivor struggles to overcome.
The profession stands in danger of misplacing blame, either on itself or survivors who are speaking out.
Fear of breaking the silence is normal; but silence only perpetuates the problem. Exposing the evil in the body will not destroy us. It will free us to grow!
Fear of our own anger, as well as feeling guilty that we have it, will stifle healing. Anger, often unwelcome in this Body, is Godly. It is this anger Christ used to cleanse the temple.
In our "Christian" activities, we must stop medicating ourselves by focusing primarily on the problems of the "lost." There is little we can offer the world until we confess one of our best-kept secrets.
As I listened to Fr. Greg, my mind wandered back to another conversation with an American pastor, just a few weeks prior to this one.
By his own admission, he had covered up sexual and/or domestic violence by several colleagues and was furious with my suggestion that these men had scripturally disqualified themselves from the ministry. "You have to understand, this is hard for us," he pled desperately.
"I do understand," I replied. "I know all too well." As a survivor entrenched in the system, I have done my grief work. Now, I stand alongside others, praying that some day many will be able to appreciate Fr. Greg's perspective.
Yes, ultimately this is going to be good for us. God help the body of Christ as we journey through the valley ahead, learning to clean up our own front yards!
2015 UPDATE: Fr. Greg passed away earlier this year. His voice of advocacy continued to be a comfort to many Catholic survivors, including Bill Bates, for a full two decades after this article was published.
In 2014, Bates published his memoir. In it, he tells what a difference Fr. Greg made in the lives of both Bill and Joan as the two found the strength to pass all of this along to others while raising their family, reaching out in many ways to their community.
Other articles in this series: Dee Ann Miller is the
author of Enlarging Boston's Spotlight: A Call for Courage, Integrity, and Institutional Transformation (2017) How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct (1993)
The Truth about Malarkey (2000)
Article 1: Struggles with Cancer Teach Disciplines of Patience, Hope
Article 3: Denial and Ignorance Hinder Answers to Severe Problems
Article 4: 'Hold Hands in the Dark' with Victims of Violence
Article 5: The Kingdom Is Not Served by Self-Seeking Secrecy
Article 6: Christians Need Courage to Break the Silence Barrier
Article 7: Victim Asks: "What If's?" about Clergy Sexual Abuse
Article 8: 'A Mistake of the System' Calls Out for Compassion