When bishops gather for the summit in Rome this week to address clerical sex abuse, they will have the perspective of thousands of U.S. Catholic women. The Catholic Women’s Forum (CWF) sent three documents to Pope Francis, all the archbishops and bishops throughout the United States, and other key participants, to help in their efforts to restore the Church’s credibility and promote healing.

These documents present an overview of women’s voices:

  • A survey of 5,038 U.S. Catholic women;
  •  Testimony from the wife of a deacon whose son was abused three years ago; and
  •  Recommendations from five women seminary professors on seminary culture, formation, reducing clericalism, and fostering chaste celibacy.

In an interview with the Register, Mary Rice Hasson, fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and director of CWF, explained, “The submissions offer a realistic, though painful, view of the clergy sexual-abuse crisis as seen through the eyes of Catholic women.”

The very reason the international network of Catholic women formed was to amplify women’s voices and to support and collaborate with the Church. It grew out of a 2014 symposium on women and the Church organized by Hasson and Helen Alvaré, professor of law at Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University. Its mission recognizes Pope St. John Paul II’s call to women as being tasked with “assuring the moral dimension of culture” (Christifideles Laici, 51).

 

Survey

The survey came about after CWF wrote an open letter to Pope Francis last summer demanding answers regarding ex-Cardinal McCarrick. It reminded the Pope: “You have said that you seek a more incisive female presence in the Church and that women are capable of seeing things with a different angle from [men], with a different eye.” By the end of August, 48,000 women had signed it.

When one of the summit organizers, Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, president of the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University, announced that he was open to recommendations, Hasson was inspired to conduct a survey among women. Of the 5,038 respondents, 94% reported attending Mass at least weekly.

“These are faithful, Catholic women,” Hasson said. “One of the things I kept hearing is, ‘What can we do? We have no voice.’ Average women are frustrated by their inability to share the pain and bring forth suggestions or even get a response from bishops. There is no mechanism for them to be heard, and yet, women are the most active in the Church. We are mothers; our children are at risk, and serve the Church, and become the future priests.”

Among responders, 3% reported personal abuse by clergy and 7% have a family member who was victimized. And 58% said they felt betrayed because of the abuse crises.

That same number, 58%, still have “complete” or “a great deal” of trust in their priests, while 87% said they have “not much” or “no” trust in the Vatican. Those reporting a great deal of trust in their bishops comprised 29%, and those with little to no trust in them was 42%.

Thirty-five percent have decreased financial support to their parish, or diocese, or stopped giving completely. One-third said someone they care about has left the Church in the last year over the abuse crises, and one-fourth are less inclined to send their children to a Catholic school or encourage others to do so.

Ninety-six percent said it is “extremely important” or “very important” to address clergy — including bishops — living double lives involving sexual activity, and 95% want to see better screening of seminary candidates. There were equally high percentages for concern over issues involving secrecy, abuse of power and establishing a “Code of Conduct.”

Some comments shared in the survey included:

“This has been a devastating time for me as a victim/survivor: emotionally, physically and spiritually. … It’s like I am sucker punched every day and cannot catch my breath.”

“My faith in God remains strong. My faith in the Catholic religion has been obliterated.”

“Better that our Church actually practice what it preaches and have one priest who is truly faithful than 1,000 criminals. Please do the right thing.”

 

Recommendations From Seminary Professors

The recommendations were written by five women seminary professors representing 85 years of experience between them and included consulting with a number of other professors. They made suggestions to properly screen candidates and protect seminarians, for formation of celibate chastity and avoiding clericalism, enhancing relationships between seminarians and their bishops and rectors, and tools for ongoing assessments.

The professors stated: “The sexual-abuse crises must not be dismissed as politically motivated — or as a problem that can be dealt with by a few policy changes. Indeed, it is indicative of a much deeper problem, one that involves the very heart of who we are as Catholics.” As women involved in seminary formation, they explained that they have somewhat of an objective perspective as well as a motherly one.

A critical issue that the recommendations address, according to Hasson, is that the Church as a whole has not been willing to defend chastity or sexual morality. “There has been an absence of fraternal correction which creates a climate where sin is going to grow and in which many people are compromised,” she said. “We don’t want a witch hunt — that’s an abhorrent idea — but we are all called to live lives of integrity.”

 

Personal Testimony

The personal testimony of Letitia Peyton from the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, the mother of a sexual-abuse victim, puts a face on victimhood and reveals that the problem is ongoing. In an interview with the Register, the home-schooling mother of six explained that a priest friend of the family got her then-16-year-old son drunk until he passed out and sexually abused him. When Peyton learned of CWF’s petition last summer, she contacted Hasson. It was with her son and his counselor’s approval that she wrote the letter included in the pre-summit package.

In her letter, Peyton explained that her husband, Scott, who is a deacon, came to her sobbing last May after their son revealed he had been molested three years earlier. Scott also worked as a probation and parole office and went with their son to make a formal report the next day. Like most victims, he had kept it to himself for so long out of shame and humiliation.

Through this tragedy, Peyton learned that their diocese has a history of sexual abuse and a reputation for a lack of transparency and responsiveness. Initially, the accused priest made a full confession; but at his arraignment last month, he retracted his confession and pled “not guilty.” His case will be heard in district court next month.

“We wanted to keep this private,” Peyton explained. “But when the bishop announced at weekend Masses that Father … would not be at the parish anymore, he revealed so many details that everyone knew it was us.” The announcement came the same weekend as their oldest son’s wedding. Peyton began receiving inquisitive texts during the reception. And there has been some backlash and mean-spirited comments, such as one of their son’s co-workers asking if his dad also likes to play with little boys since he’s a member of the clergy.

For three years following the molestation, the priest continued to socialize with the family. “During this time, Father … pretended to care for us as a family as if nothing had happened,” Peyton wrote. “He was counting on our son to never say a word about what he had done to him.”

Peyton said she felt completely broken by the revelation. “I had nothing left but Jesus,” she said. “It’s also been hard with the younger children, who wonder why their brother is not going to Mass.” He is attending counseling and has been given a dispensation from the bishop not to attend Mass as he struggles to overcome his wound of betrayal.

Peyton said that the Diocese of Lafayette was the first in 1985 to have a priest prosecuted for sexual abuse, yet it has not learned to be transparent or responsive to victims. Even the local TV station, KATC, has made an investigative documentary about the situation. The station plans to post Peyton’s letter on its website.

The diocese has refused to release a list of credibly accused priests, Peyton said. “I was told there isn’t a list, but the TV station managed to come up with a list of 36 names.” Their son wondered if others have accused the same priest of abuse. “We were told there is nothing in his personnel file, but we know there are two files; one they keep hidden.”

“The Church is doing a very good job of making itself look bad right now,” Peyton said. “It isn’t the faithful lay Catholics destroying it. We want our Church back. This is not the Church that Jesus Christ gave us.”

 

Going Forward

Regardless of the results from the summit, Hasson said each bishop needs to enact changes. “If we are going to see a difference, every bishop has to do what he can, beginning with committing to integrity in his own diocese,” she said.

Hasson has already begun receiving positive feedback from some of the bishops. “We will follow up, but I don’t know what that will look like yet,” she said. “I’m hoping a year from now that we will see greater transparency and commitment to integrity and that there will be greater trust and holiness and for the Church to do what the Church is supposed to do.”

“We have a lot of good priests and bishops,” Hasson said. “I hope our work encourages them and lets them know how much their service means and how grateful people are. We are here to serve, and that’s the predominant sentiment from the women I’ve heard from. They love God and love the Church, but they want problems to be acknowledged and addressed.”

Register correspondent Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.