From a #MeToo Catholic Woman, A Message to Seminarians, Priests and Bishops

COMMENTARY: Stop the silence. Peace and healing will come only when you come into the open, tell the truth and be willing to go wherever that leads.

Antoine Coypel, “Susannah and the Elders,” c. 1695
Antoine Coypel, “Susannah and the Elders,” c. 1695 (photo: Public Domain)

In recent weeks and days, the Catholic priesthood has begun to look like a hostile work environment of #metoo proportions, rife with same-sex sexual abuse and harassment. I am outraged by the revelation of predatory actions of some priests and bishops, and I am heartbroken for the seminarians and priests who found themselves experiencing the horror, betrayal, shame and pain of abuse at the hands of someone they trusted.

Abuse of a minor is no doubt the most serious offense, but as someone who was sexually assaulted at age 20 by someone I knew from a work environment, I also know how painful it is to be exploited as an adult.

Treating a person as an object to act upon for one’s sexual gratification is never okay. It appears that the sex-abuse crisis the Church is facing is more complicated than pedophilia or homosexuality — and may speak more to compulsive sexual addictions and power dynamics that would be abusive no matter the age of the victim.

I received healing from my sexual assault, in great part through my Catholic faith. Hours spent in Eucharistic adoration slowly thawed my guard and helped me remember I was loved, even if others hadn’t always treated me that way. I started to take my sexual actions more seriously in relationships, as well, turning to the theology of the body for consolation and guidance as to what healthy relationships should truly look like.

I turned from doubting and mistrusting all men to believing that love could exist — and that, in fact, God had great plans for relationships between men and women to flourish.

Now, more than 15 years later, I have come a long way from that painful past. As headlines of sex abuse came out over the past decades, I thought — one priest here, one priest there — you can’t judge the Church by the sins of some people who have made horrific choices. I viewed the Church as the one place where sexual immorality was still called what it is, as opposed to being explained away by people’s sexual expression, experimentation and desires.

So, even if some men were acting badly — abhorrent behavior deserving of punishment — I was at least thankful the Church teaching as a whole still stood up for good sexual behavior and gave a model for what it should look like, a vision of human respect that I found nowhere else in society crystallized as clearly as in Church teaching.

While I believe priests should be held to a higher standard because of their vows, I also figured that the Church was experiencing more of the same of what the rest of society was experiencing. Increased numbers of sexual abuse across all facets of society somehow didn’t surprise me in a world that pumps out rape porn in abundance to anyone with a smartphone.

But now, with reports suggesting networks of harassment and abuse of adults in the priesthood and seminaries — networks of protection that have been covered up or overlooked because “it’s not as bad if it’s two adults” — I am very angry.

I wonder if those who covered up things for years were fearful that exposing serial harassers and abusers like McCarrick would hurt the faith of Catholics in the pew. I wonder if, in their twisted reasoning, they think that exposing poor Father Joe Schmo will hurt the faith of his local congregation. I wonder if that’s why they moved numerous priests to different churches, as they did in countless cases since we first heard about it in Boston.

To those who may have been motivated by such fears, let me tell you something: I am deeply offended that you feel you need to “protect” me from a loss of faith. The reality of assault is horrible, but my acknowledging its reality in my life didn’t hurt my faith — it allowed for true healing to begin.

How could you be so foolish to think that secrets and lies could somehow protect people’s faith? It’s ugly and patronizing to imagine Church officials kept things silent to protect the image of the Church, to protect one retiring cardinal’s honor, to “protect” us, the faithful from the truth.

It’s hurtful and demeaning, but it’s not quite demoralizing, because the faith and hope and love that Jesus established is still stronger than sin.

Hiding the truth is not only theologically impossible to defend — it is also psychologically harmful for all parties.

Consider how psychological guidelines tell us, if a parent has done a grave wrong such as gambling away the family’s money or committing illegal sexual offenses, the best course of action for everyone involved is for the criminal-behaving parent to make a full disclosure of the truth to their spouse, age-appropriate disclosures to the children, and to be willing to pay in full for their crimes.

Nowhere in psychology would it say that keeping things in secret from your spouse, or lying to your children, would be for their benefit. In fact, an entire specialty has evolved on betrayal trauma and recovery, highlighting of the benefit of telling the truth fully, and how that’s the best way for all parties to heal — not only for the betrayed but for the betrayer as well, who would continue the harmful, self-betraying behavior if they didn’t face stubborn, often legal repercussions. We’re talking about people who had developed these serial behaviors by continuing to keep secrets and push boundaries; it won’t stop until there’s no more people giving ear to their lies, and no more space to budge further and wiggle out of consequences.

I may be closer to St. Mary Magdalene than to any of the 12 disciples, but I have something to say to the priests, bishops and seminarians today: Stop the silence. Stop the secrets, however wrongfully you came to view them as well-intentioned. Those were all lies you bought into, but you don’t have to anymore. Be a real father, be a real man, and come clean. Peace and healing will come only when you come into the open, tell the truth and be willing to go wherever that leads.

Does that mean paying for a crime? That will be hard, but it will be good for your soul, for the healing of your victims and for the protection of others. Does that mean telling the truth about an injustice you’ve witnessed? That will be hard, but it will be for the good of many souls, including yours and that of any priests that need to be turned in.

Life will go on, and there’s a life even after that. Pick up the cross, and don’t fear Calvary. Start building the ark and don’t fear the flood. Or, as the Wailin’ Jennys put it compellingly in a folk song, “Don’t run from the coming storm / no there ain’t no use in running.”

Even in my different state in life, I can relate to the shame some in the priesthood and seminaries must be feeling. So as a Catholic, a survivor of sexual assault, and now someone who wants to combat it in the culture, I implore you: Zoom out from your fears and see the big picture again. Remind yourself how Jesus provided a much better way than the mess we’re in. His teachings endure far longer than any problems we may experience today.

Let’s trust in that, and let go of whatever is holding us back. He has a plan for us to get through this and to make the suffering count, so that renewal may follow.

Alice Owens is author of Good Catholic Girl: The Harm of Hookup Culture and How One Woman Transcended It.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick arrives at the Vatican on March 5, 2013.

The McCarrick Report: A Timeline

Published by the Vatican Nov. 10, the report examines the “institutional knowledge and decision-making” regarding Theodore McCarrick, the former cardinal found guilty of sexual abuse of minors and seminarians in 2019.