Forging a New Alliance Between Victims and the Church

Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti, PhD DMin

I remember over twenty years ago going to a Chicago meeting of one of the earliest groups of child sexual abuse victims within the Catholic Church. As a Catholic priest, I was made to feel welcome among them. They were just beginning to organize and it was a helpful, hopeful, and mutually beneficial healing time together for them and for me. Since those early days, a great gulf between the institutional Church and the victims’ groups has emerged. Often, they are adversaries, if not at times, seeming to be enemies.

How did this happen? There are many factors. A certain amount of tension between the Church and her victims is unavoidable. These victims have been harmed at the hands of ministers of the Catholic Church, and they naturally would approach anyone dressed in a Roman collar with distrust and likely some fear. Their anger is very understandable.

Church leaders, on their part, have naturally tried to protect the organization that they serve, protecting it from scandal and protecting its financial resources. Church leaders naturally recoil at anger and criticism directed at them, or their beloved Church. Nevertheless, we have seen how disastrous this attempt to protect the organization has been. As Pope Francis wrote on February 2, 2015, to all episcopal conferences regarding providing a safe environment for children: “Priority must not be given to any other kind of concern, whatever its nature, such as the desire to avoid scandal, since there is absolutely no place in ministry for those who abuse minors.”

The increasing conflict between victims’ groups and the Church has exacerbated many victims’ estrangement from the Church and likely further damaged the faith of their childhood. Some victims can get stuck in their distrust and anger, with it even rising into a rage against the Church. This can create in some a kind of psychological and spiritual limbo that unwittingly continues to give power to the perpetrators, and anyone who supports their abusive behavior. Also, their families and friends, rightly supporting the victims, can themselves become distant from the Church and their faith.

This estrangement and conflict is also devastating for the Church. The Church’s first ministry, as it was for Jesus himself, is to the poor and the marginalized. Pope Francis has captivated the world by his simplicity and love for the poor and suffering. He has a particular love for children with the Papal motorcade making frequent stops as the Pope reaches out to lovingly hold and bless parents’ children. However, in the case of the victims of sexual abuse, the Church has often appeared to be unloving, uncaring, and even cruel.

The Church herself also needs to heal. The crimes of its ministers wound first the victims and their loved ones, but also wound the wider Church. The wound of child sexual abuse in the Church continues today to fester and, at times, bleeds profusely.

Rather than being adversaries on opposing sides of media stories and bargaining tables, what is needed now is a new alliance between victims and the Catholic Church. If they could work together, allies in a common cause of eradicating the evil of the child sexual abuse, I think it could be an important healing grace for victims, and certainly for the Church.

Does this sound impossible? In fact, it has already begun in modest, but important ways. Dioceses around the U.S.A. have review boards to advise the Bishops regarding the effectiveness of diocesan policies and practices on responding to and preventing the sexual abuse of minors—some of these boards have victims of abuse as members.

Another example is found in the Catholic Church of England and Wales. A Survivor Advisory Panel, which includes some victims of abuse, advises the Catholic Bishops’ National Catholic Safeguarding Commission. They ensure that the victims’ perspective on safeguarding is heard by the leadership of the Church.

The Healing Voices itself is an example of incorporating faith into the life of recovery, and collaborating its ministry with Catholic priests. And, despite its challenges, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors incorporates the assistance of victims. For example, Marie Collins, a publicly known victim of sexual abuse in the Church, although no longer an official member of the Commission, continues assisting the Commission on educating the Roman Curia, including offering her own insights directly to the leaders of the Catholic Church in the Vatican.

These are important beginnings and a sample of what is possible. But much, much more needs to be done.

I offer the following recommendations to assist in forging this new alliance:

  1. The Pontifical Commission has stressed the need for all diocesan policies on child sexual abuse to incorporate the principle:  victims first. We have already experienced the disastrous results of the Church trying to protect itself when allegations surface. The Church can only sit on the same side of the table with victims if it establishes a policy of victims first in dialogue, care, and for the commitment of time and resources.
  2. Church leaders ought to be the ones who first reach out to victims – again and again.  It is the Church’s ministers who harmed the victims, and it would be unrealistic to expect victims to cross the divide on their own initiative, although some have tried.  Rather, it should be Church leaders who first reach out to victims. They ought to expect angry and distrusting responses at the outset, but perseverance and repeated humble apologies may eventually restore enough initial trust to begin a positive dialogue.
  3. Church leaders ought to reach out to those victims’ groups who are willing to dialogue. My attending that early 1990’s meeting of a victims’ group was an important moment for me and, I hope, for the victims present. Many more such encounters between Church leaders and victims’ groups should be sought out.
  4. Finally, victims and their groups might meet and discuss their own ways of reaching out to Church leaders to forge this new alliance. Opening such a dialogue entails some personal emotional risk, but I suspect they will find that the risk is worth it.

In the end, a new alliance between the Catholic Church and victims and their groups will be a benefit both for many victims and for the Church. Initial developments, such as those mentioned, did not come without conflicts and misunderstandings. However, the healing process entails such hurtles and setbacks for both victims and the Church. Ultimately, this new alliance will provide an environment in the Church and in society that is safer for children. The Church’s gospel mandates this, and it is a goal of the victims’ groups as well. This is the common ground on which to build a strong future alliance.

BIO: Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti is a priest of the Diocese of Syracuse and a licensed psychologist.  He holds a PhD in counseling psychology from Boston College and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Catholic University of America (CUA).  He is a research associate professor at CUA and a Visiting Professor at the Gregorian University in Rome.  He is a former consultant to the USCCB Committee for the Protection of Child and Young People and assisted in developing the “Dallas Charter,” The Charter for the Protection for Children and Young People. Msgr. Rossetti is a consultant to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. He has authored many books and articles on wellness, formation, and child protection.

For the clergy abuse survivor’s introduction to this article, click here.

For the full March 2017 Special Issue of The Healing Voices Magazine in which this article appears, click here.

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