Prior to today’s opening of the long-awaited summit on clergy sexual abuse, the Catholic Women’s Forum provided key participants with the input and concerns of American Catholic women.
Today, February 21, 2019, the summit which Pope Francis convoked of the presidents of all episcopal conferences last September to meet in Rome to discuss the issue of clergy sexual abuse of minors has finally opened; it is scheduled to close on February 24.
The Catholic Women’s Forum has responded to the call of Pope Francis, early in his pontificate, for a more “incisive” presence of women in the Church—this time with contributions to the Church’s efforts to address the sexual abuse crisis. On February 18, the Forum announced its submission of three items expressing women’s concerns and proposals: a letter from the mother of a recent victim of clergy sexual abuse; insights from female seminary professors; and the results of the Forum’s survey of U.S. Catholic women regarding clergy sexual abuse and misconduct. All three items were sent to various members of the hierarchy:
• U.S. bishops and archbishops, “to help in their efforts to restore the Church’s credibility and promote healing within their own dioceses”;
• Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ, President of the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University and a member of the committee organizing today’s summit;
• the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre; and
• Pope Francis (through the nuncio).
Letter from an abuse victim’s mother
The Letter from Letitia Peyton is poignant and remarkably candid. Three years ago, her then-16-year-old son, an altar boy, was molested by their parish priest. Not only had the priest given all six of her children many sacraments over 12 years and been to their house as a friend of the family, but her husband, a deacon, also worked with him frequently. Peyton used to speak of him as an example of a “good priest.” It was an appalling betrayal on multiple levels.
Nine months ago, her son told his parents what had happened. Unfortunately, his pain still is ongoing, with the inadvertent diocesan revelation of his identity and his having to relive the trauma in the police station and court system. Negative effects also continue to impact the whole family and threaten their faith.
As the Forum’s announcement aptly puts it, Peyton’s “letter is a moving reminder that the Church’s abuse crisis is not past history, but a present, terrible reality.”
Seminary professors’ recommendations
“Sharing a Spirit of Discernment: Recommendations from U.S. Women Seminary Professors,” gives the insights and advice of experienced seminary professors (all female) on redressing the problems underlying the clergy sexual abuse crisis.
They begin by introducing themselves and their reasons for offering their counsel:
As women who are privileged to teach in seminaries, our deep love for the Church and concern for her irreplaceable witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ prompts us to offer our recommendations for what measures seminaries might take to help seminarians achieve chaste celibacy and avoid clericalism. Our recommendations are informed not only by our theological and philosophical training, but also by many years of exposure to seminary life and our own experience as members of the Body of Christ. We are faithful daughters of the Church and cannot sit by in silence as we witness the dramatic erosion of trust in her leaders, especially among the laity, faithful priests, and seminarians.1
They also explain why their advice is worthy of consideration:
These recommendations are the fruit of prayer, reflection, and lengthy discussions, and draw on our combined 85 years of experience as seminary professors. We consulted with other women who teach in U.S. seminaries, and their input has shaped our final document. We believe our recommendations are informed by the “feminine genius” attributed to us by Saint John Paul II: the ability to pay attention to details that matter to individual persons. We offer these recommendations in the spirit of co-responsibility.2
These professors’ recommendations for immediate action include the following:
• immediate internal reviews of all seminaries;
• immediate implementation of reporting mechanisms;
• the constitution of regional working groups to discern best practices for formation in chaste celibacy and for avoiding clericalism;
• organization of a national conference on these topics;
• external audits of all U.S. seminaries to assess formation in these areas; and
• mandating longitudinal studies by seminaries.
The seminary professors also offer insights and detailed recommendations on seminary culture, the relationship between bishops and seminary rectors, the formation of chaste celibacy, and how to avoid clericalism.
Survey on clergy sex abuse
In January 2019, Catholic Women’s Forum surveyed 5,038 U.S. Catholic women on their thoughts about the clergy sexual abuse crisis. The Forum described the results in its report, “Giving Voice to Catholic Women: A Survey of U.S. Catholic Women on the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis.”
Why are women’s voices needed in responding to this crisis? Mary Rice Hasson answered this question previously: “We are the mothers and sisters of your priests, seminarians, future priests and religious. We are the Church’s lay leaders, and the mothers of the next generation.” (Mary Rice Hasson, “A Letter to Pope Francis,” penned last August and signed by over 46,000 other women.)
Similarly, in the survey, one participant commented: “Mothers must be a part of the solutions created to protect our children from future abuse…and to promote vocations.“ In addition, 78% of women surveyed felt that the Church hierarchy either “does not understand” or “understands very little” about women’s concerns over the abuse crisis.
The report states that those surveyed were Catholic women in the U.S. who were at least 18 years of age and had at least some awareness of the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Most of those surveyed have a higher-than-average religious commitment, with 94% attending Mass at least weekly. “This data, then, offers a vital window into the concerns of Catholic women ‘in the pews’ who practice their faith consistently, the report points out. “Women who attend Mass weekly are statistically more likely to be regular—and generous—financial contributors to the Church’s needs” (p. 33).
The median age of respondents was slightly higher than that of all U.S. Catholics (49); hailing from all 50 states, they were geographically diverse. Unfortunately, Hispanic women were underrepresented: while they comprise 34% of U.S. Catholic women, only 14% survey respondents were Hispanic.
The report also notes that a high percentage of the respondents (77%) were conservative or conservative-leaning women, but that “the large number of respondents overall permits a robust comparison between the overall sample and a subset (23% of sample =1110 women) of women who identify politically as moderates, progressives, and others” (p. 33).
Overall, the survey “reflects a broad sample of Catholic women, though not statistically representative of all U.S. women who identify as Catholic” (p. 2).
Impact of clergy sex abuse
Another reason the hierarchy needs to hear from Catholic women on this issue is because Catholic women are impacted by clergy sexual abuse, indirectly if not directly. The impact on women in turn affects many others, starting with their families, friends, and parishes, for it can negatively affect their level of trust, involvement, evangelization, and donations.
While immediate or close-at-hand experience is limited: 3% of survey respondents were themselves victims of clergy sexual abuse and 7% are related to such a victim, the numbers go up when the circle widens: “1 in 5 women personally know a non-family victim of clergy sexual abuse and 1 in 3 women personally know a clergy member accused of sexual abuse.” Moreover, “the experience of personal betrayal is widespread. 58% of women say they have felt betrayed by the Church because of the abuse crisis” (p. 8).
Significant distrust of hierarchy
“Our trust in the clergy is shattered as the church hierarchy has lost all credibility”; “My faith in God remains strong. My faith in the Catholic religion has been obliterated” (p. 5). These comments by survey participants are borne out by the numbers: of women surveyed, 64% say their trust in the hierarchy overall has been “seriously damaged” and 70% are not sure whom among the hierarchy they can trust. When it comes to the clergy sexual abuse crisis, 42% have little to no trust in their bishops and 87% have little to no trust in Vatican officials to do the right thing in handling issues related to the crisis.
Declines in evangelization efforts and donations
Without trust, how can these women bring others to the Church? Instead, they are saying things like this:
• “I used to strongly encourage vocations to the priesthood in my home (four of my children are boys). I have stopped talking about it completely.”
• “I am a mother of four children, and I do not let them participate as altar servers or in any camps that their religious formation offers.”
• “I have left the church and am taking my two granddaughters out of Catholic school. I keep them far away from clergy.”
• “I am heartbroken about these scandals. With so many family members that have already left the church, it was already difficult. Now with this, I fear they will never come back” (p.10).
Given the lack of trust, it’s not surprising that 1 out of 3 survey respondents report “someone I care about has left the Church or decided not to become Catholic” because of the crisis. One out of 4 of women surveyed say that due to the abuse crisis, they are less likely to send their children to Catholic schools or to encourage others to do so.
Those under 40 are particularly hit hard: 42% of them “find it hard to encourage fellow Catholics to trust the Church” and 53% say “it is harder now to invite friends or family who have left the Church to come back” (pp. 10-11).
Many survey participants have also decreased their donations to the Church:
• over 15% have stopped donating to the parish,
• over 30% have stopped donating to the diocese, and
• over 5% have stopped donating at all.
Identifying the problems, suggesting solutions
Sexual integrity is a high priority for the vast majority of survey participants. “Clergy who cannot teach, follow, and live by the teachings of the Catholic faith should resign or be fired,” one respondent commented. “Sex of any sort in the clergy is against the vow of chastity. Clergy are married to the church and having sex is committing adultery. It is always wrong,” said another (p. 16).
And when it comes to identifying and addressing the problems associated with the abuse, the agreement is often astonishingly high. Ninety-six percent of those surveyed agree with Pope Francis that clergy living double lives should leave ministry; and high percentages deem it “important” or “essential” that the Church take the following actions:
• address clergy loneliness, geographical isolation, and lack of support in the context of the sexual abuse crisis (81%);
• establish independent lay commissions to restore credibility (88%);
• pursue the truth about ex-Cardinal McCarrick’s behavior and career advancement (92%)
• publish clear, consistent guidelines defining a “credible allegation” of sexual abuse by clergy (94%)
• address inadequate screening of seminary candidates for the priesthood (95%);
• address clergy (including bishops) living double lives involving sexual activity with men (96%);
• establish a code of conduct for bishops that addresses sexual abuse and misconduct with minors and adults (96%); and
• address the culture of secrecy and cover-ups created by hierarchy’s toleration of sexually active clergy (98%).
With regard to the Vatican summit currently underway, 94% of survey respondents deem it “essential” that the definition of “vulnerable adult” be expanded to include seminarians, adult employees, etc., and 96% that the hierarchy “address the problem of clergy living double lives.”
The report also finds that “progressives/moderates, women under 40, and conservatives generally agree on the most important solutions” (p. 26). The highest priority for 96% of conservative women and 97% of moderate/progressive women surveyed is that bishops establish a code of conduct for bishops.
Hasson’s cover letter to the report points out, “While these submissions do not claim to speak for all women, they offer the hierarchy a realistic, though painful, view of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, as seen through the eyes of Catholic women. The voices represented are but a small sampling of the thousands of personal messages we received while surveying over 5,000 women.”
And Hasson concludes her cover letter: “We trust that, guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church will emerge from this time purified and renewed in mission and love. In this spirit, we urge the hierarchy to lead with faith, compassion, and integrity. Thank you for considering this submission—for listening to the voices of Catholic women.”
1Susan Selner-Wright, PhD, Deborah Savage, PhD, Shawn McCauley Welch, PhD, Janet E. Smith, PhD, Theresa Farnan, PhD, http://catholicwomensforum.org/wp-content/uploads/Recommendations-and-cover-letter-from-women-seminary-professors-January-2019.pdf, (Jan 23, 2019), p. 1.
2 Ibid., p. 3.
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