The Weeks Leading up to Pope Francis: 1in6 Thursdays on the Joyful Heart Foundation Blog
The weeks leading up to Pope Francis’ arrival in the U.S. have been filled with anticipation about the pronouncements and positions of a man many see as a radical reformer of the Catholic Church. For those of us who were sexually abused as children and adults by Catholic clergy, the hope so many others feel is tempered by the repeated disappointments we’ve experienced when past promises of change withered, largely unfulfilled.
It was 28 years ago, in 1987, that I first reported to the Archdiocese of Boston that my parish priest had abused me two decades earlier. I asked that the priest be removed and given help to address his abusive behavior and that the church make a public effort to find other victims. They told me then they didn’t believe me.
Many others who were victimized have made similar requests, with similar results.
Still, being by nature, a “glass-half-full” kinda guy, I try to focus on the great potential Pope Francis has to initiate policies that could, even now, make the Catholic Church a role model for organizations and families working to keep children safe.
In the more than 25 years I’ve spent working to prevent child abuse, and to help people heal, one of my main takeaways is this: whether sexual abuse occurs in a faith community, a school, a youth organization or a family, accountability is the key to establishing an environment of safety.
A revelation of sexual abuse sends shock waves through any community, as it did through the Catholic congregations. How could well-respected holy men be guilty of such offenses?
The widespread misconception that the people who sexually abuse children are like the stereotype image of the monster predators we see on TV works against us. Ironically, it’s actually easier to challenge the harmful behavior of a person we see as “good” if we don’t have to first shift them into the “monster” category.
It is possible, in my mind, even preferable, to hold wrongdoers accountable for their harmful actions without demonizing them. But being accountable has to involve more than receiving forgiveness after a simple apology.
Thanks to the courage of thousands of men and women, boys and girls, who have spoken up about their experience of being sexually abused by members of the clergy, public conversation about sexual abuse is common and prominent now. Groups like SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) have repeatedly offered prescriptions for changing the Church’s culture of secrecy around abusive clergy. Many of those prescriptions are not so different from the request for accountability and transparency I and thousands of others have made over for decades.
In the nearly 15 years since awareness about sexual abuse in the Church exploded in the headlines, not a single bishop has been held to account by the Church for protecting abusive clergy (although two U.S. bishops have recently resigned amidst intense public pressure over their failure to remove abusive priests.)
Pope Francis’ recent promise to create a tribunal to consider consequences for those Bishops who failed to protect children and vulnerable adults is a positive step. But until the tribunal is up and running, many of those same bishops remain in charge of overseeing the safety of millions of children served by Catholic parishes across the world.
Many of my friends who experienced abuse by clergy have waited for years to see significant progress by the Church in initiating a degree of accountability that will effectively protect children and help adult survivors heal. They warn me, “don’t hold your breath.”
Disappointingly, during his first full day in Washington, Pope Francis shocked many, including me, by instead praising the U.S. Bishops’ “courage” for their handling of the crisis.
“I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you,” he told the gathered bishops. “And I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims — in the knowledge that in healing we too are healed — and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated.”
Ever the optimist, I’m still inclined to hold that breath for a while longer, hoping that unlike his predecessors, Pope Francis will find the inspiration to follow through on his promises in meaningful ways. And I continue to dream of the day when, rather than another long, slow, sigh of disappointment, my exhaled breath can take the form of a shout of joy.
Peter Pollard is the Professional Relations & Communications Director for 1in6, Inc. Peter previously worked for 15 years as a state, child-protection social worker and was the Public Education director at Stop It Now! Since 2003, he has served as the Western Massachusetts coordinator for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and also does work for a Certified Batterers Intervention Program. See Peter’s portrait in The Bristlecone Project exhibit.
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