Laity Mobilize to End the Sex-Abuse Crisis and Reform the Church

Throughout the Church’s history, the laity have proved essential to the reform of the clergy, and the present crisis is no exception.

Members of the Society of St. Peter Damian pray the Rosary Sept. 27.
Members of the Society of St. Peter Damian pray the Rosary Sept. 27. (photo: @Damianites Twitter)

WASHINGTON — Peter Isley, a sex-abuse survivor, has seen the sex-abuse crisis erupt in the Church three times. But this last time is different: The scope of the crisis emerging is global, the responsibility of the bishops for the cover-up of abuse is laid bare, and the laity are now taking the reform of the Church into their own hands.

“I’ve not seen this level of laypeople angry,” he said. “They’re just not tolerating this anymore.”

For Isley, a U.S. spokesman for the Ending Clergy Abuse coalition, this moment in the Church’s history comes after decades of a via dolorosa, where he and other victims suffered enormous persecution as they tried to wake up the lay faithful to the sex-abuse crisis and the cover-up by bishops and their chanceries.

But Isley said now lay Catholics are beginning to wake up to the global scope of the problem and how the bishops and other clergy behind this crisis “destroyed a significant portion of the next generation of Catholic leadership” — young people who had also come from “incredibly Catholic families.”

Not even a year has passed since reports emerged about ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s alleged history of sexually abusing minors, seminarians and young priests, which were followed by explosive revelations about the extent of episcopal malfeasance in covering up hundreds of cases of sexual abuse in Pennsylvania.

Those revelations fueled more victims to come forward and showed a global crisis where the victims of abusive clergy and enabling bishops included both children, laymen and women, seminarians and religious sisters — and the cover-up included horrific crimes such as aborting unborn children.

Though decades late for survivors, the sleeping giant of the lay faithful is finally stirring in response to these enormous crimes. New coalitions are forming to create alliances between the laity and those clergy and bishops committed to reforming the Church and delivering it from the evil that has scourged so many victims and bled it of countless disillusioned faithful.

As Pope Francis dampened expectations around the Vatican’s February summit of presidents of bishops’ conferences, lay faithful groups began educating and mobilizing each other to reform the Church’s governance within the parameters of the Church’s doctrine.


Lay-Driven Reform and Initiatives

One such new initiative is the Society of St. Peter Damian, a penitential society that started to form in August after Catholics on social media decided the Church needed the laity to provide a “Catholic response” to these crimes and found a champion in St. Peter Damian, the doctor of the Church who exhorted the laity to work with reform-minded bishops and clergy to fight the scourge of clerical immorality that had poisoned the papacy and nearly overwhelmed the Church in the 11th century.

“We are an entirely lay-driven apostolate of Massgoing Catholics,” Jonathan Carp, the executive director of the St. Peter Damian Society, said. “We’re really a cross section of faithful Catholics from across the country.”

The group calls on its members to perform acts of penance on Wednesdays in order to strengthen their resolve to engage in the reform of the Church. It advocates lay oversight into the Church’s records on sexual abuse and reform of the Church’s justice system, including excommunication and mandatory laicization with the “rite of degradation” for both abusers and their enablers.

Carp said celibate clergy who engage in extramarital sex of any kind need to be removed from priestly ministry and office for the good of the Church.

“Corruption breeds corruption,” he said. “When you tolerate any sort of corruption, you can’t police any of it.”

While Pope Francis has insisted that penalties be proportionate to the crime of sex abuse, the St. Peter Damian Society is not alone in believing that the 11th-century prescription for sexually abusive clergy is good for the 21st century.

Isley said their objective of a global zero-tolerance policy also works within the Church’s existing structures. But key to getting to zero tolerance is mandatory dismissal from the priesthood of abusers as well as their enablers in the chancery and the episcopate who let spiritual fathers prey on their spiritual children.

Isley said the Vatican summit in February showed momentum had now shifted to the survivors and the laity and that by combining external pressure with internal allies in the Church’s leadership, the crisis could be addressed. He added that the Church will need to get rid of the pervasive notion that celibacy is a rule that can be breached without significant consequences.

Other lay Catholic organizations have also been emerging since 2018 to combat sex abuse and cover-up, as well as the financial and sexual misconduct in the Church.

The Archangel Foundation, Inc. connects survivors of sexual abuse to counseling, legal representation and the media. The Chicago-based organization helps defray the costs, particularly for survivors who fear “retribution from their dioceses, with threats against their legal statuses, livelihoods and personal safety being levied against them by high-ranking Church officials.”

Another nonprofit organization, Catholics 4 Truth and Justice, which says it has assembled a team of practicing Catholics and former federal investigators, also formed in 2018 with the intent to investigate sexual crimes and cover-up and provide the evidence to state and Church authorities, as well as any evidence of “grave moral failings” to the media.

The laity are also mobilizing at the diocesan level. One group, the Daniel Coalition, formed in 2018 to “help bear the burdens of victims and put an end to sexual abuse and misconduct by Catholic clergy in the Diocese of Lansing.” The group, which is named for the prophet Daniel coming to the defense of Susanna, a victim of attempted rape by sexually predatory religious leaders, says it represents victims, documents their stories, refers for counseling, and advocates for justice through secular and canon law.


Women’s Perspective Needed

Mary Rice Hasson, the director of the Catholic Women’s Forum, said the laity have to respond with prayer, engage the bishops, call upon the media to bring forward unresolved situations, and bring “not just professional expertise, but the experience of moms and dads” to the crisis.

“We need to bring that perspective into the conversation in a very real way,” she said.

Hasson said women bring a much needed perspective to the Church, particularly in evaluating the impact of the crisis and cover-up, but also in developing solutions. Before the February summit, the Catholic Women’s Forum provided the Vatican with testimony from more than 5,000 Catholic women on the sex-abuse crisis, as well as the recommendations of women seminary professors in how to develop reporting mechanisms for seminary abuse, address clericalist attitudes, and form men for chaste celibacy. The forum also provided the heartrending testimony of a mother and wife of a Catholic deacon about how their 16-year old son, she said, had been sexually molested by the priest of their Louisiana church in 2015.

“We wanted to show the ripple effects of abuse on a family. A victim is not a person in isolation, but the harm that is done has tremendous effects on the family and faith, as well as the community that surrounds them and, ultimately, the Church,” Hasson said.

Hasson wrote a respectful letter to Pope Francis, after he declined to answer what he knew about ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexual misconduct, signed by 45,000 other Catholic women, asking for “clear and honest answers” about who had a role in McCarrick rising to the heights of power in the Church despite their knowledge of his sexual misconduct.

“We still don’t have those answers, and those things can’t be left hanging,” she said.

“This doesn’t pertain to McCarrick alone, because it reveals what the failures have been in the hierarchy,” Hasson said. “Bishops looked away in the face of their brother bishops’ serious transgressions. … They harmed individuals, and they harmed the Church.”


Laity in Church Governance

With renewed drive by the laity to hold the Church accountable from without, there is also renewed effort to incorporate the laity into the Church’s governance to provide a real mechanism of accountability and transparency within the Church’s structure. In the U.S., swiftly following upon the Vatican summit, the Leadership Roundtable produced a 40-page position paper based on the Catholic Leadership Summit that outlines a road map to incorporating the laity into the governance of the local Church, addressing the sex-abuse crisis and the leadership failures or complicity that gave cover for abusers and their enablers.

The plan, based on the contributions of 200 Catholic leaders and experts from 43 dioceses, proposes a series of reforms that model clergy-lay collaboration and co-responsibility for the Church, develop recommendations for the U.S. bishops’ conference and local bishops as best practices, and that focus on addressing the factors that allowed clerical sexual abuse and misconduct to flourish in the Church. Among the proposals are involving the laity and clergy in the selection of bishops, bringing laity into the local Church’s governance with diocesan councils and parish councils, updating canon law to state clearly the punishments for sex abuse and cover-up, and reforming priestly formation.

Fordham religion professor C. Colt Anderson told the Register the laity historically have been instrumental in rescuing the Church from rampant immorality among the clergy, and traditionally had a role in the governance of the Church. The laity played a role in the election of their bishop, who was selected from among the clergy of the local Church, and the laity were represented in the Church’s councils until the 15th-century Council of Constance, which ended the Western Schism that returned the papacy to Rome.

Anderson said Catholics needed to have a “wide-awake understanding of the Church.” Luminaries such as St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great cited sacred Scripture to recognize that the Church will have bad leaders and that “everyone is liable to correction,” even popes at the hands of laypeople.

Anderson said the laity have two avenues to discipline the Church and remove malfeasant clergy when the Church’s authorities will not act on abuse. The laity can “pass laws that put [abusers] in jail,” he said, including the enablers. But another avenue is reforming the Church’s governance to restore the involvement of the laity.

Unlike the Church’s doctrine, Anderson explained, governance structures and canon law have adapted over the course of time, and because of this, they can change again.

He favored restructuring how diocesan funds are handled to restore lay oversight and changes to canon law that would give clear guidelines on the role of the laity in the governance structures of the Church.

The Register separately has learned that another national group is forming to develop a process for auditing dioceses and certifying compliance with best practices on dealing with corruption. The group is working on ways for the laity to donate to independent accounts until the diocese passes the audit and is certified.

Anderson said the Church’s Tradition holds the laity’s temporal goods are given to the Church in exchange for faithful service. And the laity have the right to withdraw those goods from clergy who are corrupt or provide unfaithful service to the People of God.

He said, “If the laity give it to you, the laity can take it away.”


‘Climate of Sexual Misconduct

The culture of clericalism, Hasson said, explains the cover-ups by the bishops and their chanceries, but it does not explain the phenomenon that led priests to engage in sexual abuse in the first place. The Catholic Women’s Forum director maintained the abuse of minors “cannot be cordoned off, as if it’s completely separate” from the sexual abuse of lay adults, seminarians, nuns and “the general climate of sexual misconduct.”

Hasson said the Church needs a thorough study on clerical celibacy and the conditions that need to be addressed so clerics can live out their vocations healthily and prevent harm done to their victims’ bodies and souls and to the Church at large. Hasson said it was clear that a certain number among the hierarchy seem to think that violating celibacy is not “that big a deal.”

“That suggests a failure of the clergy to think of their mission as a spiritual father,” she said, adding that clergy who are not willing to live chaste celibacy “need to leave.”

Hasson said the Vatican summit helped get more bishops on the same page, particularly in making them aware of the need to be proactive on prevention and addressing the problem and caring for abuse victims. It also expressed a needed unified resolve from the Church’s hierarchy. The U.S. bishops, having waited, as Pope Francis asked for them to await the Vatican February summit, she added, should now move “move forward deliberately and decisively” to implement needed reforms that will hold bishops accountable and eliminate the environments in the Church that give cover to abusers and their enablers.

 “Resolve needs to be carried out into action.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.