WITHOUT WORDS by Sarah Gregory

In publishing this article Orthodoxy in Dialogue wishes, first, to offer support and solidarity to our many Roman Catholic readers; second, to acknowledge openly that the sexual assault of children by clergy and church workers is not unknown in the Orthodox Church (see Pokrov, the Orthodox affiliate of SNAP); third, to dispel the absurd, shopworn myth—popular in some Orthodox circles—that same-sex attraction equates with pedophilia (see also Randal Rauser’s “Catholics Are Now Trying to Link the Problem of Child-Molesting Priests to Same-Sex Attraction” ); and fourth, to draw attention to our articles by Teresa Hartnett on recovery from clergy sexual abuse in our Archives by Author.
Finally, if you have been a victim of clergy sexual abuse, know that in no way whatever does the blame or fault reside with you. 

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announces release of grand jury report on clergy sex abuse.

I forgot that my friends can see these posts. Via Facebook Messenger last night, one asked me, “So what will you write at that website about the Philadelphia grand jury report?”

I mumbled something about being swamped at work with a project, I really don’t write all that often, just haven’t read news, much less the report. Nothing to say, really. Same old, same old.

Then Thursday, in a work session with a colleague who has become a friend, a question from left field. “Do you listen to The Daily?” It took me a second to reply. “The New York Times podcast? Sometimes.” Well, evidently Thursday’s podcast was about the grand jury report. My friend listened to it. I hadn’t.

Tonight I headed to the Y and pulled up the podcast as I drove.  I didn’t make it to the gym. I had to turn back. I came home and dove into the grand jury report. My initial thoughts:


That blank space holds all of the unprintable expletives, all of the fury, all of the sheer rage that can’t be published here due to the editorial standards of this family blog. Symbolically only—there’s not enough space on the Internet, much less the page, to hold it all.

But that space is also drenched with tears for the victims. The space shakes with this Catholic mother’s utter incomprehension at how this could happen, decades after I’ve known that it can, and it did. The space carries painfully deep empathy for the parents of the children systematically brutalized by the very men they taught their children to trust.  I’m still moved to tears when I think of the times when my child was hurting, and I knew I couldn’t do anything to stop his pain. I speak and write a lot about compassion, and my heart truly breaks for the parents. Could I find compassion for myself, though, if what I did—or what I failed to do—were to lead to my child being a victim?  Tonight I just can’t answer that question.

At this point, there simply are no words left to say. What words can begin to explain EIGHT HUNDRED AND EIGHTY SEVEN PAGES of hell. [Available here.] I’ve read about fifty of those pages so far. I will read the entire report. It will make me cry, it will make me sick—the first fifty pages did that already. But I’m going to read it. Every word. Every. Goddamned. Word.

That’s not an expletive, and I’m not breaking any commandments. God—he God of my understanding, the God of our tradition—that God damns the violations, the rapes, the abuse and the devastation that was wrought on children by men who purported to act in God’s name. God damns the actions—and especially the inaction—by the bishops, the Cardinals, and yes – the Curial officials and the popes who let the horrors continue. God damns the culture of secrecy and especially the deep and profound shame that led the victims to believe that their silence was somehow God’s will. “For the good of all God’s holy Church.”

All damnable. All of it.

Tonight, I’m feeling pretty convicted myself, in that old time religion way, where the Holy Spirit comes down and stares you down about your sinfulness. Yep. That’s me. I knew that some diocese back east was in the news, and saw a couple of Facebook posts from friends who happen to be priests, sharing their sorrow and their willingness to listen. (Thank you. You know who you are. I love you.) But I saw the time and hopped onto my laptop for work.

Thus it was jarring, in the middle of focused work about a Big Important Meeting™, to be asked about that podcast. Nope, I hadn’t listened, but sure. I’ll check it out, I said. So I did, until I couldn’t anymore, and then I stopped.

I found my breath.

I kept listening.

Tonight I’ll be sitting with my own inaction, my own complicity. I’ve got 887 pages of grief on my hard drive right now. I made the mistake of thinking that this really has nothing to do with me.

Because, of course it does. My friend who mentioned the podcast knows I’m Catholic. When that came up in conversation for the first time just last Thursday, he seemed incredulous. Isn’t the Church the source, over thousands of years, of so much destruction, so many horrible things? Yes, indeed. But we’re more than that, too, I claimed.

Today “more than that” takes the form of 887 pages of our own shame.

I’m not a big fan of collective guilt. If someone claiming to be an adherent of Islam blows up a car, all Muslims in the US are unjustly targeted for violence, and end up living in fear. I remember the days when giving a hug to a gay man was viewed as an act of defiance in the face of a mysterious, lethal disease. Collective guilt and shame has no place in the Catholic repertoire.

But silence in the face of injustice? That’s different. Back in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis we slapped stickers everywhere. “Silence = Death.” It’s still true. Silence around the crimes of the clergy and the shaming of those upon whom they preyed will kill any residual trust in the Roman Catholic Church. The Church did—and does—that “silence” thing well. Damnably well. It is 2018, and this report about the crimes in Pennsylvania was just published. Silence = Death.

I’m not fighting the Church’s battles. Above my pay grade, and after all, as a woman—a queer one at that—to many, I’m just here to pay, pray, and obey.

But the Church isn’t just the institution. In one memorable homily several years ago, a beloved priest exclaimed, “Don’t let the Church get in the way of your faith!” I still hear his voice and that admonition, now more than ever.

Every time I’m in South Bend, Indiana, I take flowers to the grave of Fr. Thomas Oddo, CSC. I never had the privilege of meeting him in person, but in a class on Sexuality and Religion in college, during the years that I wouldn’t set foot near a church, I wrote a paper about a treatise on Homosexual Catholics that he and Sr. Jeannine Gramick had published in the early 1970s. Fr. Oddo wrote as an out gay priest, the National Secretary of Dignity, in fact.

To this queergrrrl who wouldn’t go near organized religion but tried to carry the lessons of compassion and justice from the Sisters of Mercy deep in every fiber of her being, the idea that a priest could be out and gay and involved with Dignity and respected and eventually even a University President—it meant the world. It was truly a light in the darkness, a signal that maybe I still had a home of some sort in this messy Church.

Hence the irony now, and even more sadness as pundits are already blaming the latest round of despicable news on the presence of gay men in the priesthood. I’ve skimmed enough of the report and know enough of the history and psychology—not to mention many gay priests—to know that this is a lie. The crimes were committed against girls as well as boys. Homosexuality is not pedophilia. Homophobia drives gay priests into the shadows, the bottle, or out of the Church altogether. Clerical culture kills. An institution that cannot accept sexuality as an integral part of being human and that cannot differentiate between integrated sexual identity and sexually inappropriate behavior can’t claim to be shocked by what happened. Nor can they claim that it won’t happen again. The priests of whatever orientation who have healthily integrated their sexuality with their identity and spirituality—they aren’t the problem. It’s the culture that insists that sexuality be repressed that leads to inappropriate behavior—or worse. The institution created this monster.

What is this thing called “Church” to me tonight if not the institution?

The Church is me. And you too, if you claim it. That’s where my conviction leads me. I will read all 887 pages of the report over the next several days, and I will read the Bible’s Book of Lamentations as well. I will pray. I will fast. I will put myself out there to say how utterly wrong this all is. Nothing less is appropriate for the children and families who were brutally betrayed by priests, bishops, the Magisterium. Casting the horror into the daylight is a first step towards healing and repentance.

But then there’s bearing witness.

I’m writing tonight with a piece of paper by my side. On that paper I’ve written fourteen names—fourteen women and men I personally know or have known who were sexually abused by Roman Catholic priests. If I know fourteen such people, I assume that the real number of people who I know who were abused must be closer to 140. The shame is that deep. Those fourteen people—many of whom I’ve lost touch with, six of whom I know to have died—words failed me. We failed them—even up to this day, if we treat this as just some other news story, and not a profound tragedy in our family.

Bearing witness.

I don’t have a piece of paper with the names of the gay priests I know. Even though I could burn it with the flame from the candle tonight just as I will the other list with the names of the victims, I keep that list in my head and in my heart. Healthy gay priests—the ones who can admit their sexual orientation—they will be scapegoated. This is not their fault.

I cannot and WILL not say that you should read the report. I’m not linking to it here, and that’s intentional. I have to assume that someone reading this may have been victimized as well, and I see no need to suggest to you that you walk back into that fire. But I’m listening. I’m so very, very sorry.

The report is readily available online. Be forewarned: it’s devastating. I imagined that it would be bad after I listened to the podcast, and well… it was so much worse. It just keeps on going.

[As I wrote this, I received a phone call from a friend who sent a note earlier this evening asking for time to chat. I have added another name to my list. Fifteen. I know, and can name, fifteen people made Imago Dei—in the image and likeness of God—who were abused by the priests they trusted, who represented God to them.  Lamentations indeed. How many more, God? How many more?]

Bearing. Witness.

There’s no real ending to this piece. In fact, as I told my friend with whom I just spoke over the phone, the very worst thing that could happen is for this to be preached about in parishes all over the US this week—and then next week, we simply move on.

The sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests, and the cover-up of the crimes by the rest of the Magisterium—this is as much a part of our collective narrative as is the Creed we recite every weekend at Mass. When anyone asks, as did my friend, “Really? You’re Catholic?”—this in part of our story as well.

I don’t yet have the words for how to really respond to that question. When I received the call tonight, my first thought was only to apologize. I believe in the priesthood of all believers, conferred at baptism. I won’t take on the Church’s shame, but I will extend the compassion and love and hospitality. This is our faith, y’all.

I guess that’s all I can write. I need to go sit in silence for awhile.

But I’m listening.

This article appeared yesterday on the website of New Ways Ministry. Republished with permission. Their mission statement reads as follows:
New Ways Ministry educates and advocates for justice and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Catholics, and reconciliation within the larger church and civil communities.
Through research, publication and education about sexual orientation and gender identity, we foster dialogue among groups and individuals, identify and combat personal and structural homophobia and transphobia, work for changes in attitudes and promote the acceptance of LGBT people as full and equal members of church and society.
New Ways Ministry is a member of Equally Blessed, a coalition of faithful Catholics who support full equality for LGBT people both in the Church and in civil society.
See also “The Scandal of Sexual Abuse: A Moment of Radical Conversion for the Church” by Gilles Mongeau, SJ, “In Memoriam: Eric J. Iliff” by Giacomo Sanfilippo, and “Meeting the Monsters: A Restorative Response to the Crisis of Sexual Abuse in the Roman Catholic Church” by David Byrne.

Sarah Gregory is a PhD student in Ethics and Social Theory at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley CA. She hold an MA in Systematic Theology from the GTU and the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University. She is also a mother, writer, and tech worker. See here for the complete archive of her blog posts at New Ways Ministry.

Orthodoxy in Dialogue seeks to promote the free exchange of ideas by offering a wide range of perspectives on an unlimited variety of topics. Our decision to publish implies neither our agreement nor disagreement with an author, in whole or in part.
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