Where Is Jesus in the Midst of the Church’s Sex-Abuse Crisis?
Father Thomas Berg, author of Hurting in the Church, spoke about the challenges Catholics face amid the Church’s scandals.
WASHINGTON — Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, a former Legionary of Christ and professor of moral theology, vice rector and director of admissions at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York. He is author of Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics. He spoke recently with CNA’s Courtney Grogan about the challenges Catholics face amid the Church’s sexual abuse and misconduct scandals. The interview is below, edited for clarity and length.
With everything that has been coming out in the news recently about sexual abuse in the Church, how do you think that your book, Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics, could be helpful?
In the wake of the McCarrick scandal and ongoing revelations of priest sexual abuse, a very common reaction is one of betrayal.
That’s what I have heard a lot of from persons who have reached out to me, especially persons who for years have collaborated with bishops, worked in chanceries, worked for bishops, collaborated in apostolates, have headed up bishop’s capital campaigns, have been donors and so on. Part of the very common experience is this raw emotional wound of betrayal.
Where is Jesus in the midst of this crisis?
Jesus is the healer of wounds, and Jesus does not leave the members of his mystical body without healing when we seek it.
We are in the midst of a massive crisis, notwithstanding some resistance to that idea by some of our prelates.
And those wounds are opened up. This is where not only can Jesus bring healing, but he can also use that experience of woundedness, whether that is personally or institutionally or spiritually as the Body of Christ. He uses those wounds to bring greater good, to bring grace and healing to his Church.
Part of what I do in the book is just to reflect, often with these individuals [victims of abuse] and sometimes in their own words, on this mystery that the Jesus who comes into this experience is Jesus who appeared with his glorious wounds. The wounds were still there. The wounds are mystically important, and we can unite our wounds to Jesus and allow him to unite those in a mystical way, in a redemptive way, to his redemptive work.
So, where is Jesus in all of this? Jesus is continuing in the midst of our brokenness, in the midst of the utter moral failures of our pastors, in the midst of our own sinfulness and brokenness. The Risen Good Shepherd comes with his glorious wounds by which he intends to bring about healing in his Church and to bring about a much greater good and a much more glorious future precisely in and through the tragedies that we are experiencing.
We will also experience this in a much more glorious and beautiful day for the Church in the future, and certainly for the Church when all time has been consummated and we are all, by God’s grace, caught up in the glory of the heavenly kingdom.
You discuss in the book how uprooting a betrayal of trust can be and how we really need to be grounded in Christ’s love. What are some concrete ways that Catholics can really root themselves in Christ’s love and find that grounding in a time when they might feel destabilized in the Church?
First, very practical immediate answer: Eucharistic adoration. No doubt about it.
That was essentially my homily when we were talking two weeks ago about the McCarrick thing from the pulpit. It means, as always in crisis, we need to be earnestly and deeply seeking the Lord by frequenting Eucharistic adoration and intensifying one’s life of prayer.
In my own story, I had to go on retreat. I had to just go take some time to just be by myself to get that down to the solid foundation of “What did I stand on?” What was the foundation that everything that I believed stood on?
What one can come to in those experiences is that experience of Jesus — the experience that our risen and glorious Lord still stands present in the midst of our lives. He is there.
When we are hurting, we need to do whatever it takes: adoration, retreat, increased prayer, asceticism, solid spiritual reading — all of the things that we can avail ourselves of God’s grace to re-experience ourselves as rooted and grounded in his love.
God has a very big safety net for us, and it is that reality of being truly rooted and grounded in him and in his love that encompasses us.
It is just that when we are hurting, when we are scandalized, when we are angry, when we are experiencing all of this emotional turbulence, it is just — it takes time and prayer, and I think a lot of coming to silence and coming to quiet to get through that and to realize that Our Lord is still there. Our Lord is still holding his hands out to us. Our Lord is still there to embrace us and pick us up and guide us and help us to move forward.
What would you say to the priest who just doesn’t know how to address this from the pulpit, who is dealing with his own feelings of hurt and confusion, and maybe is on the fence about whether he should address it in a homily?
I think that the best thing that priest can do is to talk about that in his homily. It is emotionally exhausting for most of us. It is heartbreaking. When I preached a couple of weekends ago, I got emotional. I think it is very healing and good if priests allow themselves to feel and show that emotion. Feel and show how personally upsetting it is. If a priest is angry, tell your people, “Yeah, I’m angry too, and you should be angry.” It should start there.
It is absolutely essential that this is addressed. No priest should be waiting for some directive from his bishop. I would hope that across the country most priests have already addressed this from the pulpit. If not, it absolutely has to happen.
People are very angry right now, and I do not think that they are identifying that anger as a hurt. Many people are channeling their anger into what needs to change in the Church. Some channel it at specific people in the Church.
You address healthy anger in the book, and I want to hear your thoughts on it in this context. What would you say to people who are very angry?
There is certainly such a thing as just anger. I would hope that most of the anger that most committed Catholics are experiencing right now is precisely that: “just anger.” I have experienced a good deal of it in the past few weeks.
Hopefully that anger does get channeled into good, positive action steps that I think Catholics are taking. But people should also be very honest with themselves: This hurts.
I think that our brothers and sisters who are going through this right now, and they are many, need to own up to that.
That is a very healthy starting point to getting to a better place. In this context, it is an important part of rightly channeling our energies and our reactions prayerfully and in docility to the Holy Spirit. We have to allow the Holy Spirit to come fully into that experience of hurt in this ecclesial context.
The immediate victims of McCarrick, those who have suffered sexual exploitation, they are hurt in a very unique way; but in some sense, this has inflicted a hurt on all of us. And those who failed, those who enabled him, those who pulled him up the ecclesiastical ladder, if they did so with knowledge of his sexual predation, that inflicts a real emotional hurt on all of us, and we should just admit that.
Many Catholics first faced these initial feelings of betrayal, shock and bewilderment in 2002. After positive steps forward like the Dallas Charter, these Catholics found some consolation in the fact that the Church had made positive changes. Now there are layers of hurt there, particularly the hurt of thinking that things were better and then discovering that they are not.
The Church might not change in our lifetimes. Reform in the Church takes so long. The Church is very good at reforming herself, but it can take centuries sometimes. I’m worried for people who are looking for a “quick fix.”
I think that you are hitting at the heart of the problem. One thing that we are being faced with in this crisis is the reality that effective change within the Church takes a very, very long time. Even within organizations, people talk about changing the internal culture of a business — even that in itself can take a long time.
First of all, there is no reason why we cannot continue to take genuine pride in the programs that have been set in place with the sacrifice and dedication by the way of hundreds of lay Catholic men and women who have jumped into this breach and who have instituted requirements for background checks, safe-environment training, safe-environment programs, who serve the Church as sexual-abuse assistance coordinators in dioceses (these are people who deal one-on-one especially with victims of clergy sexual abuse). So we have every reason, frankly, to be confident that we are in a much better place than we were 15 years ago to protect our children. There is no reason to doubt that.
What people are still reeling from, and this has been the real revelation, is that there has been, especially within the episcopacy, an internal culture which allowed — and I am not faulting all bishops here, but McCarrick is the child of an old “boys’ school” mentality, a culture where bishops too often understood themselves as members of this kind of privileged caste who used power and authority to manipulate and, frankly, to bring about all kind of harms and hurts in people’s lives. Bishops have, sadly, often been the perpetrators of much of the hurt that has been experienced on many levels and in many forms in the Church. And that is a sickly culture, and it has to change.
The Church desperately needs a healing in its episcopacy. This is very much a crisis of the episcopacy. The current ethos is, in so many ways, failing us. It is failing the Church. What we have is, in far too many cases, a kind of managerial approach. Bishops simply seek to manage, to contain, to bureaucratize our apostolates, and that is not a culture where the Church is going to thrive.
Is that going to change anytime soon? No, but I think that we have an opportunity. This crisis is putting a spotlight on that problematic culture within the episcopate. I think that we can be hopeful for some kind of change, maybe even sea change.
There are good and holy bishops out there who are as incensed about this as you or I, or any of us, are. It is my prayer and hope that they will begin to exercise some very kind of unprecedented leadership within the body of bishops and certainly within their own dioceses.
So what do Catholics do meanwhile? Well, we are challenged to exercise the supernatural virtue of hope. We are challenged to believe that that kind of change, if it is meant to be, will take time, but we have to support every bishop who shows signs that they are getting it.
We have to support every bishop who shows signs that they understand and that they are taking unprecedented steps towards transparency, toward addressing even the faults of their own brother bishops.
We need to be supportive and helpful, and I guess that is a long way of saying that we need to hang in there and trust in the Holy Spirit. Change does take a long time in the Church. We are called to continue to exercise hope, and it is by sustaining hope and sustaining a healthy pressure on the bishops that can bring about some really positive change here, maybe faster than we think.
As outrageous as it is, I can imagine the temptation a leader might feel to keep something so scandalous secret, to think that they were protecting Catholics from scandal by a sort of false charity, if you will. How does a leader find the courage or strength to come forward with the truth after they have covered up?
In the context of the Church, bishops who get it have come to understand that the scandal has been the supposed effort to “avoid scandal.” The scandal has been covering this stuff up. The scandal has been keeping this stuff quiet.
This is what I always tell our seminarians: Transparency is your friend. Light and truth are our friends. Institutionally, I think that we are understanding that. In the context of seminary formation, I really believe earnestly that the vast majority of our men understand that.
And I think understanding that also makes it easier to come clean when there has been a failure of any sort. In a sense, it all boils down to the old adage, “Honesty is the best policy.”
Obviously, when you are talking about something as complex as sexual abuse and exploitation, that is obviously much more complex because sometimes you are dealing with victims who desire to remain anonymous.
It takes an enormous amount of courage for victims of abuse to come forward and go public. That’s been one sad part of this whole tragedy. It is so difficult. The courage there is just amazing sometimes. I think the message of what we are learning in the sexual-abuse crisis is that transparency is the only way to go.
Honestly, trying to protect the requirements of justice and people’s reputations is a difficult balance, and it definitely requires that transparency.
What do you recommend for those who are specifically dealing with disillusionment? How do Catholics keep their eyes open to the truth without totally succumbing to cynicism?
I think that the level of cynicism and disillusionment right now is off the charts.
You know people often use that image of having a bandage ripped off a wound. I don’t think that we have yet healed from — I know we haven’t healed — 2002. This isn’t having a bandage ripped off. This is having that wound ripped open and stamped on.
I’m fully expecting that the level of disillusionment and just sheer kind of numb confusion is going to be a very common experience. I think that there will be different outcomes. I hope that Catholics can believe that there is a way forward here, especially committed Catholics.
It leads you to question your faith. I have been there. I have had that experience. The more you expose yourself to this, the more faith is going to be severely challenged.
I would just hope, though, that Catholics can understand that Jesus can lead them through that fire. He can lead us through this fire and make it a purifying fire, so that we can emerge from this really sad and really critical chapter of crisis in the Church, that we can emerge from this as stronger disciples and more committed Catholic Christians.
What transformation the Holy Spirit brings about, I hope we could, no matter how hard this is, kind of look forward to that with a sense of hope and expectation and maybe even the sense that, as bad as it is, “I want to be a part of what happens now.” I want to be a part of the renewal that the Holy Spirit is going to necessarily bring about. I want to be a part of the action here. I want to be a part of what the Holy Spirit is going to do now in the Church.
I am absolutely convinced that the Holy Spirit is working in and through this crisis in a very real way. I have experienced it myself. I have seen it, and I have heard it from others.
We have to allow the Holy Spirit to bring us beyond this very profound disillusionment.