Now What?

IMG_9370.JPG

I wrote this column over a week ago and sent it to my editor at the Arlington Catholic Herald early on the morning of Wednesday August 15, the day after the Pennsylvania Attorney General's report. Yesterday, I got word that the Herald will not print it.

I am passionate about this topic. I believe that victims deserve to have their voices heard. And I believe, from the bottom of my heart, that our churches should be sanctuaries for the most vulnerable among us. Until any victim of abuse can feel safe in any Catholic church, we have not adequately cleaned up this mess. Please help me to help them be heard. It is discouraging to be denied my usual platform, but we have the Internet, right? And I have you. I'm so grateful. Please read this, and then pass it on.

These columns are due a week before they are published. When I want to respond to a current event, that’s always a little tricky. What will change as the story unfolds in the next week? Will the content even be relevant by then? This time, I intended to write before the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was published. I knew—or I thought I knew—that the report was to be devastating, and I wanted one last reflection before the world of the Catholic Church in America tilted on its axis. But I was traveling with my daughter early last week and time was elusive, and instead I sat on the floor of New York City hotel room on the morning of August 15, after having spent a good bit of the previous night reading the report, trying to make sense of it all.

My reality is that I’ve known for more than ten years how a report of the abuse of power and sexual misconduct is handled when a victim comes forward. That hard won knowledge has haunted me. The grand jury report is extensive and it is graphic. To read it is to challenge one’s faith in the Church. There is no way around it. For some people, the interior struggle over whether to stay in the Church or leave in disgust will be quickly resolved. They will reflect on the Eucharist, reason that they cannot live without it, and they will press on with whatever part they can play in needed reform. Or, they will decide that this cannot possibly be a place where a healthy soul can grow, and they will leave in disgust and horror, with no small amount of sorrow. 

For others, they will toss and turn and wonder about the two thousand years since Christ promised Peter that he would build his Church upon the rock. They will remember that the Magisterium is true—that the teaching authority of the Church is just as sane and solid as it has been throughout the ages. But doubt will creep in. If the bishops of our time and place can be so complicit in such grievous sin, can bishops be trusted at all? If popes can let such networks of evil grow and become ever more entangled around all of us until they threaten to choke our very beings can they possibly be as prudent and wise as we want to believe they are in matters of faith and morals? They will not easily reconcile all the many doubts and fears and hopes and hurts. They will be tormented by the disparity between the true and the beautiful and the pure evil in the grand jury report. It’s not disloyal to lie awake wondering. It’s normal.

Please consider another group. If you are a person who has ever suffered abuse, if you are a Catholic who is a victim—either of the clergy or of any other sexual predator—this report takes on a new dimension entirely. Church is supposed to be a refuge. It is the safe place where one goes to heal. It is the balm that soothes the injuries of trauma—the embodiment of the promise that God knows and sees and he is faithful even when the whole world seems dangerous and threatening. But if in that very church, evil has been harbored and protected, where do the those seeking refuge go?

Trauma changes everything. Trauma demands the competent binding of wounds over time. Trauma wants wise, healthy spiritual guidance, and it will not easily trust a priest, not now, despite rationally knowing that most priests are good, holy men. Trauma means that the victim needs church to be safe and strong and reliable. The Pennsylvania report means that it is none of those for anyone who has ever been traumatized.  These are the most fragile among us. They need us. 

It is time to make the Church safe for victims. If it is safe for the victims, it will be healthy for all of us. It is time for those who choose to remain to commit to eradicating the rot, so that our churches are strong, stable places of refuge. It is time for us to understand that we sit in the pews with souls who have been grievously injured, and that that makes us all victims. 

The Church is the Bride of Christ. She is a victim. She has suffered horribly at the hands of evil men. There are early reports that she cannot survive the chronic assault and the grievous injuries she’s suffered over time. We are in agony as we witness her pain. But will we leave, or will we find the strength to stay? Can we kneel by her side in fervent prayer in her moments of suffering, knowing that a long convalescence is inevitable? Can we rise to our feet and remind one another of Christ’s call to be the church and so to be a part of reform, knowing  that much will be demanded of us to rid her of disease? Can we turn to the Eucharist, the source and summit of our lives, and draw enough strength to be a person who heals the church? Or will we walk away and leave her to die alone?

 

 

Difficult Conversations

ACS_0068.jpg

When I wear my mother-of-nine badge, one question I frequently get is, “If you could change any parenting decision you ever made, what would it be?” (or some version of that question). Until recently, I never had a good answer. I’ve felt pretty good about the big-picture parenting philosophies we’ve employed, and the small details never seemed worth mentioning. But now, the answer is easy. 

 

I would equip my young children with the words they need to tell me if someone ever takes indecent liberties with them. I was a strong proponent, even in this space, of preserving the innocence of children. I still am. Too much information, too soon, robs them of a precious period of life to which every child should lay claim. Childhood is all too short; let them be little.

 

But we cannot wrap our children in bubble wrap, and even the most protected children are not under our watchful care constantly. Sadly, according to the National Center for the Victims of Crime, one in five girls and one in twenty boys is a victim of child sexual abuse. They are most vulnerable between the ages of 7 and 13, and they are likely to be abused by someone known to them. Darkness to Lightreports that a full 20 percent are abused before the age of eight.  We cannot wait until they are nearing puberty to give them enough information to reach out for help. Even the most careful mother cannot control for every circumstance. Instead, she needs to give her children the power and place to tell a horrible tale if that tale needs to be told.

 

I don’t hesitate now to tell young parents—especially parents who believe in protecting childhood—that children must be intentionally taught how to recognize situations which are wholly inappropriate and even dangerous. They need to know the warning flags. They need the words to tell if something goes wrong, and then to be assured of a safe place to use those words. 

 

These are uncomfortable conversations. No parent wants to look into the eyes of a precious child and tell them that someone might hurt them. No one ever wants to introduce doubt into the life a child that he or she might not be altogether safe in every familiar location. The truth is that the more protected a child is, the more vulnerable she might be. We have to say some hard things, and we have to say them earlier than most of us would have ever considered necessary.

 

It is not necessary to give a very young child too much information. They don’t need to know all there is to know about sex in order to recognize molestation. We can tell them that they should keep their private parts private and introduce the idea of modesty. Then, we need to go a little further. We need to gently teach them that people might put them in a situation where they ask (or force) them to relinquish that privacy over their “private parts.”

 

Children need to understand that those times—and the feelings of fear or anger or discomfort or awkwardness—are red flags; they are a clarion call to get help. We need our children to know to both trust their instincts when something seems amiss, and to override their fear if someone threatens them not to tell. Remember, a very young child might not even recognize the evil of what is happening as it happens. It’s important to teach them that no one—no matter how known or trusted--should touch what is private, and no one should ever threaten them to keep a secret. 

 

Finally, they need to know that if something happens and their private parts are no longer private, it’s not their fault. They need to understand that the hurt they feel requires a trusted adult to help them heal, just as if the pain were a medical emergency. 

 

As difficult as it is to have these conversations, children deserve to be assured ahead of time that the adults in their lives will take care of them if something happens. They need to know that sometimes bad things happen to good kids, and that good guys will always, always hear the secret and help them from the dark place of hiding it to a better place where they are comforted. 

 

Don’t know how to get started? I highly recommend I Said No!: A kid-to-kid guide to keeping private parts privateby Zack and Kimberly King. God bless you as you do this hard thing for your kids. 

 

Tender Surrender

IMG_2407.JPG

Last week, on the morning of Stephen's final soccer game, the heat index was 109 degrees. The air hung heavy, and the haze made it so that I kept continually wiping my glasses, but my vision never cleared. Everything about the morning was oppressive. The weather matched my mood; life felt heavy and hot and enveloping. It was difficult to see more than a few inches in front of me. The familiar landscape was uncertain and light was diffuse — glaring but not illuminating. Please read the rest here.

Memento mori

ACS_0032.jpg

...And then I wonder about me. When memory fades, who will I be at the core? What will remain to stand as a testimony to what mattered in my life? Living in the Sandwich Generation is the perfect introduction to memento mori, the practice of reflecting on death in order to tweak the details of life. Memento mori begs us to consider the transience and the vanity of life on earth in light of everyone’s eventual death. It’s not a morbid fascination with darkness. Instead, it’s an invitation to walk in the light that illuminates what really matters while there is still time to tweak the details of life. Please read the rest here

To Forgive and to Protect

I wonder: in order to forgive, do we have to forget? In order to respect the dignity of a person who has hurt us, do we have to let him or her back into the space where they harmed us in the first place?

Certainly, we are called to bear wrongs with patience and with grace; then, when it is appropriate, we admonish the sinner with kind gentleness. It is an act of mercy to share the faith, to remind another person of virtue and to pray for them and with them for growth — both in virtue itself and in the joy that virtue will yield in their lives. There is a patient persistence in prayer that is our call when someone we love is sinning. We gently poke slow-growing seeds into the soil and then we wait with patient faith for them to bear fruit.

But what if the wrong we bear patiently and the sin we call out is actually an offense against us personally? What if we’ve been hurt by someone else’s actions? We are called to forgive. And we’re called to do so over and over again. Someone recently pointed out to me that we have the occasion to forgive a sin 70 times seven (Mt 18:22) more often than we might recognize. We can forgive a sin the first time, truly releasing its grip in our souls, but then we have to forgive it every time it comes to mind, for as long as we continue to remember.

Often, it’s really in our best interest to remember. Forgiving isn’t the same as forgetting. Instead, someone else’s sins can hold valuable lessons for us — lessons in navigating the tricky waters of complicated relationships, lessons in boundaries, lessons in learning to replace foolishness with wisdom.

Remembering isn’t for revenge. The only one who will repay a wrong is God (Rom 12:19). It’s important to relinquish completely  the desire to hurt someone in retaliation for hurts suffered at their hands. Whenever someone else causes us to suffer by their sins, it can be helpful and spiritually fruitful to call to mind that our suffering pales in comparison to what they will face if they don’t repent and amend their ways. Even in the hurt, we can soften our hearts for compassion.

But compassion does not ask us to let ourselves be victims again. Compassion doesn’t ask us to be silent and let pass the opportunities to share our pain, both for our healing and as a cautionary tale to others. Compassion does not require us to throw open wide the doors of our homes and hearts to someone who might harm us or our families. On the contrary, we have a responsibility to protect ourselves from harm. Certainly, no one would object to refusing to put oneself in physical harm. It is equally right and just to protect oneself from emotional harm. It is entirely possible to forgive someone while at the same time constructing a strong and sturdy boundary against further pain.

That boundary is a mercy to the one who inflicted the pain, too. If we allow ourselves to be victims over and over again, then the people who harm us associate no logical consequence for the damage they have done. Every parent knows that correction requires some consequence in order to be effective, even if it’s the sting of disapproval. So, forgiveness that also results in the consequence of a boundary is not incomplete forgiveness. Protecting oneself from further harm is good self-care. It’s a good idea to be kind and gentle to ourselves when we’ve been hurt. When we forgive, our hearts are transformed. Protecting that healing heart is both prudent and kind.