QUESTION: I am not sure how to ask any of the priests I know, but I wonder what priests feel when so much appears in the newspapers about clergy sexual abuse?
ANSWER: Of course, I do not know what all priests think about that. But in 2018, I would expect that most people have encountered someone who has been abused or who is a loved one of an abuse victim. Priests are no different. It may have been spousal abuse or elder abuse, sexual abuse in the workplace or sexual abuse by a relative, neighbor, teacher, coach, youth leader or a Catholic priest.
In these encounters, we clearly hear of the anguish and suffering of those who speak with deep sincerity. The trauma is clear, as are the feelings of a person who has suffered greatly. Every such encounter is one of deep sadness for the person speaking and the person listening. No one who has spent any time with people who have been abused comes away with anything but respect for them and their courage to speak about what has happened to them.
When priests listen to people who have been abused by a Catholic priest, what is heard takes on an added dimension. Priests are deeply disappointed by brother priests who have committed such offenses. Aware of the horrible consequences, priests feel ashamed and betrayed that those with whom they share the bonds of sacramental ordination could commit such crimes.
Priests are also deeply concerned for those whose faith may be challenged or shaken because of abuse. There is a terrible sadness to think that discussion of clergy misconduct will mean for some a temptation to abandon the active practice of the Catholic faith. When that happens, emotions run so high that there is little opportunity for discussion.
Priests today have spent years helping their parishioners understand the critical importance of our safe environment policies. We have done so much to educate adults and children about potential abuse. We have brought thousands of people into compliance with safe environment policies, and yet almost no one speaks of these efforts. Our attempts at doing everything possible to ensure that abuse does not happen again in our parishes and ministries often seem ignored by discussions and the media.
Priests are aware that some people will paint with a very broad brush. Every priest will be presumed by some to be a potential predator. While those in other professions commit abuse, it does not seem to be treated in the same way as it is with priests.
Priests are worried about fellow priests. They’re concerned especially about young priests who are just beginning their ministry, and they wonder if all the good that they hope to accomplish will fall within the shadow of the shame of abuse.
There is a play about Martin Luther by John Osborne. In the play there is a scene where Martin Luther is standing next to his spiritual director in front of his monastery that is now burning. Martin Luther is reflecting on his responsibility for what is occurring in his own nation and much of Europe. His spiritual director looks at him and says: “Martin, Martin, never forget that there were good men here.”
Priests mourn the loss of respect for the good men who continue priestly ministry. Good priests who daily give their lives to pastoral ministry are almost speechless when asked about what all this means. Every one of them is turning over and over in their minds the incredible toll of abuse. They realize that while they are an active part of what is in place to ensure that it does not happen again, they are also aware that somehow that will never be enough to bring full healing to those who have suffered abuse.
Priests are very grateful that in these challenging times people pray for them and provide them with support and encouragement. In times of the greatest struggle, our faith is strengthened by the bonds that unite us.
Father Bober is pastor of
St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.