‘Mom, Are We There Yet?’ Catholic Clergy Sex Abuse: Our Church, Our Problem

COMMENTARY: ‘We will get there when we get there’; a look at the psychological, spiritual and social impact of childhood sexual abuse.

The Church must deal with past cases, but also make a serious effort to prevent future cases.
The Church must deal with past cases, but also make a serious effort to prevent future cases. (photo: blackcatstudio / Shutterstock)

“Mom, are we there, yet?” This question keeps popping into my mind as I listen to some of the discussions about clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church. I understand why people want to be done with the whole topic. Clergy sexual abuse is embarrassing. The harms to children are revolting. The spiritual cost is overwhelming. I understand the desire to not think about it anymore. 

In my last column, I concluded that the Church has made some improvements, but we are not out of the woods. In this column, I will look at what you might call the “soft” side of the sex abuse crisis: the psychological, spiritual, and social impact of childhood sexual abuse. A candid look at these issues gives a different answer to the question, “Are we there yet?” It also shows that all of us, not just the clergy, can contribute to improving the situation. 


Long-Lasting Impact of Trauma

No doubt about it: sexual assault traumatizes a child, both physically and psychologically. Sue Ellen Browder describes the abuse her husband experienced at the hands of his older brother when they were kids. As she puts it, “The abuse was so severe that for most of Walter’s life, unknown to me, he had been suffering five or six flashbacks a day. After 38 years of marriage, I was at last able to understand the strange anxieties and explosive anger attacks I’d witnessed, which seemed to come out of nowhere and which I’d found inexplicable in a man who was otherwise so deeply loving and sweet.” 

Likewise, my friend Moira Greyland Peat gave a speech at one of our Ruth Institute events about sexual abuse she endured at the hands of both of her parents. After that speech, her PTSD symptoms were so severe, she could barely walk out to her car. 

Often the whole family suffers. I interviewed the brother of a clergy sex abuse survivor. He talked about the impact on his parents, his younger siblings and himself. 

Sexual assault is a life-threatening event. Sexual assault on a child is worse. Sexual assault on a child by a trusted spiritual leader is an earth-shattering betrayal. Repeated sexual assaults amount to a complex trauma, which is even more long-lasting and shattering. Living with the trauma alone because you’re afraid to tell anyone, is even more devastating. 

Until all the victims are healed, we aren’t “there yet.” 


The Role of the Community

This brings me to the role of the community. Healing from trauma lies well beyond the competence of law-enforcement, the criminal justice system or Church policies. Trauma survivors need the chance to talk about their experiences and feelings. They benefit from professional counseling, to be sure. But they also benefit from simple friendship and kindness that anyone can provide. You can be that person. 

You can avoid saying unnecessarily hurtful things. “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” “Why didn’t you just run away?” Even worse, “I don’t believe you. Father Bob would never do a thing like that.” 

You can avoid platitudes. “You just need to pray more,” as if all the pain will go away automatically. I’m not saying anything against prayer. I’m saying that word “just” minimizes the severity of the person’s situation. 

This is why we at the Ruth Institute have started a new feature, “Ask a Survivor.” Authored by clergy sex abuse survivor Faith Hakesley, this column will answer questions about surviving sexual abuse, and offer tips for how you can help survivors. 

Until each member of our Church community realizes that he or she may have their own role to play in being a friend or a listening ear, or just refrain from saying something stupid, we aren’t “there yet.” 


Special Considerations for the Church 

The Church must deal with past cases, but also make a serious effort to prevent future cases. As I said in my last column, the number of cases of currently reported abuse are lower than in the 1980s and recently ordained priests seem to be less likely to abuse. However, the recent case of Cleveland priest Father Robert McWilliams shows that we are still have problems. He was ordained in 2017. And he was sentenced to life in prison for preying upon four boys in a Catholic family who looked to him for spiritual care. He died in prison Feb. 4, allegedly by his own hand. 

Listening to the account by the victims’ mother, reveals that McWilliams groomed the whole family, indeed the whole Church community for years. McWilliams was a bold predator and manipulator, sometimes tormenting the boys right under their parents’ noses in their own home. (You’ve got to read the whole story to believe it.) 

I’m willing to take the leaders of the Cleveland Diocese at their word that they did their best to vet and monitor their seminarians. Their best wasn’t good enough. Therefore, we’ve got to do better. We aren’t “there yet.” 

Until all of us, including bishops, seminary rectors, parents, grandparents, teachers and friends become more astute at recognizing the signs of grooming, we aren’t “there yet.” 


Critics of Church Teaching: Mom, He’s Bothering Me! 

Finally, from the backseat of the car, we may hear a full, 4-syllable “Mom!” when little Jimmy cries, “Mo-ah-ah-om, are we there yet? Johnny’s bothering me!” 

“Johnny, keep your hands to yourself. Jimmy, get a thicker skin, and get over it.” 

We don’t have the authority to tell the Church’s critics to shut up and leave us alone. We do have the power to develop a thicker skin about their censure. (I must say, though, I’ve noticed that critics of the Church’s sexual teachings, have been comparatively quiet about clergy sex abuse during the Francis pontificate.) 

What people say about us is beside the point. The point is we’ve got to deal with our errant members. We must defend our sexual teaching because it is quite literally the only thing that has a prayer of stopping the abuse that is endemic throughout all of society. We have the doctrine, the tradition and the intellectual resources to deal with it. (Do we really believe Hollywood is going to clean up its act, for instance?) Besides, no one loves Hollywood or politics or the Boy Scouts the way we love our Church. 

We want every guilty priest to truly repent and make amends. We want every innocent priest whose reputation has been ruined to be fully exonerated and restored. We want every victim to be fully healed and return to loving communion with God and with the Church. 

Let’s listen to the Dad Voice from the driver’s seat. “We’ll be there when we get there.” 

And not a moment sooner. 

Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D, is the founder and president of the Ruth Institute. She recently delivered an address called “Baked In From the Beginning: Pedophilia and the Sexual Revolution” to the Eighth Day Institute in Wichita, Kansas.