Villanova Lay Conference

Villanova University hosted “Church Today: Responding to the Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church” on March 20th, from 10am to 3pm. I had the honor of speaking.

Church Today was rescheduled due to the pandemic and relaunched as a virtual conference where lay people could explore the many dimensions of the crisis in the Church – and beyond. I appreciated how the organizers addressed the complexity of factors involved in creating, tolerating, and ending abuse. That, in my view, is a big step. Since the summer of 2018, which I heard here called the “Summer of Shame,” I’ve noticed few lay conferences covering the factors underlying abuse at any length, but instead diving right into solutions with little information.

Church Today organized speakers into seven different tracks of concurrent sessions. Tracks were: Law and Reform; Understanding Sexual Abuse; Church, Liturgy, and Universities; Catholic Social Teaching and Catholic Morality; Lay Ministry; Management and Leadership; and Future of the Church. (My keynote, “Spirit Fire Pastoral Care for Traumatized People,” closed the day’s sessions.)

Sally J. Scholz, PhD, the Chair of Villanova’s Department of Philosophy, organized the event artfully, recreating the feeling of a real conference, e.g., offering parallel zoom links so attendees were free to wander from track to track, or even midway hop from session to session (back-row surfing, as it were). It made for a casual and welcoming online experience.

Here are a few other great things about this conference.

Local Expertise

The lineup of heavy-hitting speakers drawn from Pennsylvania came as no surprise, considering the number of years the abuse scandal was being actively investigated and considering the devastating impact of revelations which have been very public and far-reaching.

Yet, the lineup was impressive to this visitor’s eye. Speakers had extensive experience with child abuse – and with child abuse advocacy and recovery. It spoke well for the dioceses of Pennsylvania. There is hope, I believe, in cultivating an informed Catholic community awareness. That takes time, and it takes smarts. And, in the post-McCarrick era, never has it been more disturbingly clear to me that it takes people willing to invest time to listen to those experienced in these matters, because awareness is not the same as informed awareness.

Broadly Ranging Expertise

The blend of professionals – educators, researchers, legal and psychological experts – with practitioners in these areas, too, along with those from restorative justice and parish life, showcased a treasury of insight and commitment among lay Catholics. A warmly collaborative spirit was seen in the numbers of ordained and religious who spoke, too.

Survivor Voice

A heartening aspect of the event, for me, was that a survivor voice was welcomed to speak. This is a pet peeve of mine. Survivors are still not given a place in the discussions or conferences. The speaker does not need to be me, but it should be one or more survivor(s).

To date, few lay gatherings, which are held in theory to address the abuse scandal, invite survivors to speak or feature what should be the star topic of basics in child protection. (I ask you: Do you want to be part of the solution to end abuse in the Church right here and now, and everywhere besides? Learn the basic signs and what to do if you suspect abuse.)

Survivor Independence

Most of all, I appreciated how the program was designed to preserve the independence of my voice and view. This may sound odd, but it is worth consideration. I think, perhaps, there remains a misunderstanding about survivors, as being victims too weakened, timid, or grieved to have a point of view.

Often Spirit Fire is invited to participate in events which we must decline. It is not because we dislike the hosts or doubt the value of the conference (above two provisos notwithstanding). We simply decline to become inadvertently absorbed into the larger policy debates that usually pop up at conferences. We don’t need to agree with the conference premise, but we do need to be presented for our independence of experience and view.

No hard feelings! It is a perfectly natural progression for some people to move from understanding a problem (such as abuse) to creating a policy solution. What is commonly overlooked is that such a progression into policy debate – or even into turning to policy for a solution – is not where everyone goes. It is not even where all survivors go. Remember: we have watched courts fail to combat child abuse successfully, and we have seen waves of policy initiatives come to nothing. We have seen Church reforms implemented while pain and distrust continue to wound the Church.

Over the years some of us have watched survivors trotted out to represent one response or cause or policy initiative, and watched survivors languish when the PR spotlights wane and the champions have moved on to something else.

Speaking for myself, I trust reforms and policy efforts, of course, to some degree. Yet, I feel quite strongly that I did not survive what I have survived to become – even inadvertently – the poster child for someone else’s conclusion that, for example, priests should be married. Yet, that is often the case. In fact, when someone discovers I am a survivor, it is a very common first-off response: Well, priests should just be married.

Spirit Fire declines to engage in debates like those for one reason: abuse harms indiscriminately. Some survivors and others wounded by abuse in the Church will fall on either side of any debate. We wish to bring a message of healing to everyone – regardless of where they stand.

Great Experience

I walk away heartened by how much attendees would have learned that day, and how much more would be learned as they had access on the campus system to see presentations they could not attend. There was a wealth of information on which to build an informed awareness.

I also appreciate how the the hosts were sensitive to a survivor speaking to such a broadly ranging and diverse group. I could not have felt more welcomed, or set up to succeed at sharing what Spirit Fire does.

Other lay conferences could learn from how this conference was handled artfully and virtually.

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