Like many Catholics, I learned of the gravity and scope of the latest clerical sex abuse allegations on the feast day of the Assumption of Mary. As I sat quietly in reflection waiting for morning mass to begin at St. Michael’s Cathedral here in Toronto, I couldn’t help but imagine the tears of our Mother looking down on us as she takes in the full breadth of the current disarray that has befallen our Church. What a mess we’ve made of what was so lovingly bequeathed to us through divine grace.
No doubt, many of us within the Catholic community feel a deep sense of betrayal, and to a larger degree, a feeling that we have been abandoned and set adrift on our spiritual journey. I think it’s safe to say that when the architects of Vatican II addressed how the Church must intersect with the “modern world”, they had no idea of the turbulent seas that lay ahead. The latest statistics indicate that fewer than 25% of North American Catholics attend mass regularly. Yet, it is within our churches that we receive the sacraments, hear the liturgy, and reconfirm our faith amongst community. The growing clerical sex abuse scandal is by far the greatest exigent threat facing the Catholic Church today, so how each of us chooses to respond to that threat will have a direct impact on the lifeblood of our Church going forward.
For the purpose of complete transparency, I should disclose that my relationship with the Catholic Church is “complicated”, to say the least. But having said that, I feel that my relationship with the Church is separate from the communion I have with the faith that runs through me. And I say this because I, too, am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, albeit not by a member of the clergy, but I do believe it allows me insight into the catastrophic aftershocks of sexual abuse.
When a child or youth is sexually abused, two things invariably occur. First, the physical violation leads to a dramatic deadening of the natural course of one’s psychological development and wellbeing. And second, the profound breach of trust that has taken place mars a child’s innocence and results in great emotional disequilibrium. Perhaps the most toxic legacy of sexual abuse is that the self-protecting behaviours enlisted at the time the abuse took place and immediately afterwards—the self-imposed withdrawal, avoidance, and emotional numbing—become the same protection strategies that inevitably morph into the self-destructive behaviours that continue to derail the survivor of abuse throughout his or her life. In my case, my never-ending attempts to numb the corrosive shame and unworthiness bubbling up inside me resulted in years of drug and alcohol addiction, not to mention severely compromised mental health.
Despite being raised in a very Catholic home and being afforded the luxury of a Catholic education, I decided to leave the Church in my mid-teens. In the ensuing years, I justified my withdrawal from the Church as tantamount to a condemnation of all the hypocrisy and denial taking place in the wake of the clerical sex abuse scandals and the preachings of the ultra-conservative wing of the Catholic Church that, to me, felt grossly out of step with the changes taking place within the community at large. In other words, what I viewed to be the failings of the Church echoed the discord I was so desperately struggling with as the result of the trauma I had yet to compassionately address.
But then two years ago, after an absence of more than 30 years, I decided to reconnect with my faith, and that meant a return to mass. The irony is that it wasn’t until I again opened my heart to the beauty of the mass, that I was finally able to fill that aching emptiness inside me and find a place of divine inner stillness. So today, when I read about the widespread depravity of clerical sexual abuse, my heart goes first to those who endured the unthinkable at the hands of the shepherds entrusted with their care. I also believe that although it may be initially jarring and disruptive, shining a light on the darkness and evil that exists within our Church’s ministry and those whose negligent actions protect the predators, is the only true path back to the sacred mystery of our God. Today, I choose to remain steadfast with my church and reaffirm my faith because choosing not to, only allows evil to win, as it takes me further away from my relationship with Jesus Christ.
At every mass, the priest invites the faithful to the Penitential Act when he declares: “Brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.” The greatest impediment to receiving those “sacred mysteries” is the workings of the Devil who continues to live among us. Acknowledging that evil may reside in some members of the clergy and the hierarchy that protects them is not to acknowledge the inevitable demise of our Church, but instead, it is evidence of the continued battle we must undertake to receive the riches of our Catholic faith. In fact, I’m reminded of this each day I attend mass at St. Michael’s Cathedral. At the end of every service, the celebrant leads the congregation in reciting The Prayer to St. Michael:
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray; and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the Power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits, who prowl through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.