Stark revelations: For Catholics, an excruciating new test of faith

Why We Wrote This

For Catholics, the past two decades have forced the faithful to grapple with wide-spread sexual abuse among clergy. Now, as other traditions discover similar predators among their ranks, a new report still has the power to shock the nation, as well as those still seeking solace in the church.

Mark Scolforo/AP
The Most Rev. Ronald Gainer, the Roman Catholic bishop of the diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., discusses child sexual abuse by clergy during a news conference in Harrisburg, Pa. on Aug. 1.

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As a survivor of sexual abuse from a Roman Catholic priest, Jaime Romo says trauma leaves the kind of “wounds where there is no blood.” It cuts to the “foundational things of who we are.” But there are other wounds. “On top of that, to have this ethos, this layer ... where somehow, what was supposed to be sacred and safe is not? It is so profoundly damaging,” says Dr. Romo, now the president of The Child-Friendly Faith Project, a national network working to protect children from abuse. While such damage has been an issue for decades, with scores of investigative reports and even an Academy Award-winning film, a grand jury report out of Pennsylvania this week has brought to the fore an issue still fraught with the depths of human vulnerability. Other faiths, including evangelical Protestants, have seen some of their most high-profile ministers implicated in harassment and abuse. Distrust of traditional institutions has defined the current era, and one of the fastest-growing religious groups is the “Nones,” those who have abandoned religion but maintained a belief in God. Romo is now a hospice chaplain in another faith. He no longer seeks meaning in doctrine or rituals, he says. But as a seeker of a spiritual community for most of his life, he still finds hope and spiritual solace in church. 

“We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this.”

It was an extraordinary opening for a grand jury report. The investigative commission in Pennsylvania, setting aside in many ways the sober-minded law enforcement tone of “just-the-facts,” could only express its own horror and sense of urgency at the catalog of abuses they presented, and the relentless and widespread culture of casual cover-ups within one of the globe’s most powerful religions.

“We know some of you have heard some of it before,” continued the nearly 900-page report. “There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. But never on this scale. For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere.”

Indeed, it’s been a story in the public eye for nearly 20 years. Scores of investigative reports. An Academy Award-winning Best Picture. Promises of transparency. Millions of dollars paid in damages. Programs of restitution from the church hierarchy.

But the numerous stories the members of the grand jury reported on Tuesday – children raped, victims made objects of pornography passed among priests, teens impregnated and then forced to undergo abortions, and other crimes by more than 300 priests over 70 years, and more than 1,000 documented victims – has brought to the fore an issue fraught with the depths of human vulnerability.

Survivors are still struggling to find wholeness out of childhood trauma. Spiritual seekers, those who, across time and cultures, have searched for meaning and comfort through the divine, are once again seeing their faith shaken, if not shattered.

“There's an expression about trauma, that it wounds where there is no blood,” says Jaime Romo, president of The Child-Friendly Faith Project, a national network of individuals who work to protect children from abuse in religious contexts. “And I think sexual abuse has a profound, damaging impact on any individual, because it's our bodies, in places where we're losing our boundaries, we're losing our sense of trust, safety, control, all these different foundational things of who we are.”

“And then on top of that, to have this ethos, this layer that this is God somehow working,” continues Dr. Romo, who also tells his story of abuse at the hands of a well-known monsignor in Los Angeles, when he was a young teenager with a “very zealous” Roman Catholic faith. “You know, this is a person who is somehow special? Where somehow, what was supposed to be sacred and safe is not? It is so profoundly damaging.”

The Pennsylvania grand jury’s report, too, comes during a particular cultural moment in the United States. The #MeToo era has offered many examples – from Hollywood to locker rooms to board rooms – of powerful men engaging in sexual predation.

Other faiths, including Evangelical Protestants, have seen some of their most high-profile ministers implicated in harassment, abuse, and coerced sex, including with underaged teens. This also includes a number of Buddhist institutions in the US, which have had to deal with sexual abuse by teachers.

But the revelations on Tuesday were especially stark. “As a consequence of the cover up, almost every instance of abuse we found is too old to be prosecuted,” members of the Pennsylvania grand jury said.

“They protected their institution at all costs,” said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro at a news conference. “As the grand jury found, the Church showed a complete disdain for victims,” adding that the cover up “stretched in some cases all the way up to the Vatican.”

Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh denied there was a cover up at a Tuesday news conference. As of Thursday, the Vatican has declined to respond.

“These scandals are devastating to the institutions involved,” says Christopher Parr, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Webster University in St. Louis, Mo. “How can one trust anything about the faith, in the face of such betrayals? Which of course was exactly the one concern of the curators of the Church – hence their toxic commitment to secrecy and denial,” says Professor Parr.

Distrust of traditional institutions has in many ways defined the current era, and one of the fastest growing religious groups in the United States, demographers say, is the so-called “Nones,” those who have abandoned religion but maintain belief in God and their own self-defined faiths.

“It's been devastating because people are leaving the church in droves,” says C. Colt Anderson, a church historian and theologian at Fordham University in New York. “Even the people who remain, the credibility of the leadership is undermined for basically everyone.”

Citing Church reformers in the Medieval period who were trying to address similar problems of clergy sexual misconduct, Professor Anderson notes that a papal decree in the 11th century basically ended any kind of oversight role for the laity. And as the former dean of Mundelein Seminary, a Catholic institution near Chicago, he notes that during his tenure there, a similar decree from Pope Benedict took away any vote a lay person like him could have in approving a man for the priesthood.  

But now Anderson, a committed Catholic who studies past and current sexual abuse in the Church, says he feels “it's the challenge that God has put before me, to be faithful and to try to work to make the church better. But I have to say, I'm holding on by my fingernails at this point.”

For him, this means not just calling for transparency, but restoring a leadership role for the laity in the Church’s closed-off and often secretive magisterium.  

“I’m in a church, in a community, that has really awful, terrible problems,” says Anderson. “But it is still a community that does a tremendous amount of good around the world. You know Catholic Relief Services helps probably more people than any other single organization on the planet.”

“And I hate to see all of the good that is being done – and there is a lot of good that's being done – completely tarnished by the behavior of the leadership.”

For Romo, too, his own process toward healing needed to be rooted in a community, he says.

Still a faithful Catholic 20 years ago, he was among those who began to speak out after the first reports of abuse in Boston broke. He reported his abuser to the police and to his Catholic diocese. But before he could confront him, the monsignor, long retired, died.

“I was just so, kind of spiritually dead,” Romo says, describing how his own speaking out fell on mostly deaf ears. “I had never been so miserable, and I reached out so many times, in so many different ways. Part of it was through my rage, demanding that people pay attention, but part it was really just asking, would somebody please listen and talk to me and do something constructive with this?”

But he later encountered a congregational minister, he says, who changed the course of his life.

“This pastor was the first religious person ever to say to me, ‘I'm so so profoundly sorry that this happened to you. I don't know what to say, but to stand with you.’ That was a huge acknowledgement.”

And now Romo is a commissioned minister in this pastor’s more liberal tradition, the United Church of Christ, and a chaplain in a local hospice.

“My spiritual practice has to do with meditation and a lot of different integration practices, but I’m not really religious,” says Romo. “And that's kind of strange because I'm a hospice chaplain. And a lot of people here don't want to talk religion, and I can honestly say, neither do I really.”

He no longer seeks meaning in doctrine or rituals, he says. But as a seeker of a spiritual community for most of his life, he says, he still finds hope and spiritual solace in church.  

“To me, spirituality and healing are all about wholeness and integration, and that should be a significant part of a faith community,” Romo says.

But many faiths are losing their moral credibility now, he says. “The disillusionment now is because churches have not been speaking, have not been acting really to recognize, and to reconcile with this problem,” he says, “or to be in solidarity with the people who have been sexually abused in particular.”

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