Church faces culture shifts in abuse response

By: OSV Newsweekly

The sexual abuse of minors by priests received repeated attention throughout the month of July in news stories around the world, often in ways that represented new and different twists in the painful, perennial narrative of the issue.

On July 11, the Associated Press reported that Bruce Wellems, a religious priest who had worked with socio-economically disadvantaged young men in Chicago had left the priesthood after admitting to abusing a 7-year-old boy as a teenager.

On July 18, investigators in Germany reported that more than 500 boys had been abused between 1945 and the early 1990s at the school that trains the boys’ choir of the Regensburg Cathedral. Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, older brother of Pope Benedict XVI, led the choir from 1964-94. Investigators found that 67 boys were sexually abused by nine school leaders. Msgr. Ratzinger has stated that he was unaware of the severity of the treatment of students.

On July 26, Australian Cardinal George Pell, a senior Vatican official, appeared in court in Melbourne to plead not guilty to multiple charges of historical abuse. The highest-ranking churchman ever to be charged, his next court date is in October.

On July 28, the notorious Boston ex-priest Paul Shanley was released from prison after serving a 12-year sentence for raping a boy in the 1980s.

Taken together, these stories reflect how the Church’s journey toward healing and recovery of trust has not been a straightforward one since the horrors of the crisis came to light in the United States in 2002. Each new revelation, even an historical one — whether from Europe in 2010 or a slow bleed of subsequent meltdowns at national, diocesan and institutional levels — in effect takes the whole Church “back to zero” in terms of public perception.

Shifting cultures

This impairs the Church’s ability to serve its mission, said Teresa Kettelkamp, who currently is staffing the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in Rome, a body established by Pope Francis in 2014 and led by Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, OFM Cap, of Boston.

“The clergy abuse crisis has so hurt the credibility of the Church that it has hurt its ability to be a voice for those who don’t have a voice. And that’s why it’s imperative for the Church to get her voice back,” Kettelkamp told Our Sunday Visitor.

A veteran of the Illinois State Police who served as executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Child and Youth Protection office from 2005-11, Kettelkamp is now serving two of the six working groups of the pontifical commission, which will complete its three-year mandate in September by making recommendations to the pope in areas such as healing and care, guidelines, education, formation, and canon and civil norms. Whatever decisions he makes will stand alongside his earlier moves on this issue, which include putting in place measures to remove bishops who have fallen short in their responses.

In all, the pontifical commission is working to effect a culture shift on a global scale. If that simply looks like getting every diocese on earth up to speed with the measures the U.S. bishops have been implementing since 2002 (see sidebar), Kettelkamp sees that as a critical step in countering a pervasive societal ill.

The global view

The globe-spanning challenge of implementing an effective abuse response is evident in a new program at the Gregorian University in Rome, the diploma in safeguarding minors, an effort of the university’s Center for Child Protection under the leadership of Jesuit Father Hans Zollner. Its second cohort of students, which met for five months in the first half of 2017, included Drew Dillingham, coordinator for resources and special projects in the USCCB Child and Youth Protection office.

Dillingham, 27, was the only American in a cohort dominated by people from the developing world, often sent by their bishop. “And they were charged with going back to their archdioceses, their dioceses or their religious order and training everyone,” he told OSV.

The experience taught him that the developing world has a different experience from Western countries on this issue, in part because they face problems with so many other issues relating to children.

“They have child marriage. They have human trafficking. They have child soldiers,” he said. When sexual abuse of minors by priests is raised under the banner of “child protection,” their response, Dillingham said, is, “What about all these other issues?”

Nurturing communities

It is possible for the Church to reach a cultural tipping point in terms of promoting not only safety and accountability but healing and reconciliation. Mike Hoffman, who currently attends St. Mary of the Woods Parish in Chicago, was abused by a priest friend of his parents as a teen, from 1978-81. After telling his wife and his pastor, he came forward to the Archdiocese of Chicago in 2006.

“I live in both worlds,” Hoffman told OSV of his experience as one harmed by a Church he still cherishes as an integral part of his family’s life. “I didn’t benefit from a safe environment when I was in my Catholic school growing up, but I’m very happy to say that I’m a personal witness to an ongoing culture of safe environment now.”

Hoffman, 52, participates in events for survivors of abuse, in effect working to make the Church the kind of community where survivors can experience the healing they need. He played a role in the planning and construction of a healing garden for survivors of sexual abuse sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago, dedicated in 2011, an idea that sparked the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office to construct one of their own, which was dedicated in early August.

The project reflects a 2016 statement by then-Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, who said, “it is necessary to face systematically the problem of how to respond not only to the problem in every part of the Church, but also more broadly how to help the society in which the Church lives.” In other words, the Church’s response to abuse becomes part of the mercy it carries out to the peripheries and can also raise broader societal awareness of an issue that, as Hoffman noted, nobody wants to talk about.

“I couldn’t tell my parents if something bad happened, but in our society now, we have given permission to our children to say whatever bad thing may have happened,” Hoffman said.

Breaking cultures of secrecy is one aspect necessary to a sea change on abuse responses, as Kettelkamp sees it, as well as something that dovetails with a priority of Pope Francis: dismantling clericalism in the Church. “We have this culture in which there seems to be a schism between the ‘important people,’ the clergy, and then you have the little people, the laity,” she said. “And I think Pope Francis has touched on that.” When clericalism falls away, the concern shifts from protecting the Church’s public image to protecting all people from all kinds of abuse.

“Not only for children — but I want the Church to be safe for me. I want the Church to be safe for the elderly and the vulnerable,” Kettelkamp said. “Treating people with respect, treating people with love and compassion, treating people as Jesus would want you to treat them — that’s all part of the package.”

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.


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