Good Friday, the Child Abuse Scandal, and The Long Dark Winter’s Night

In his book The Long Dark Winter’s Night: Reflections of a Priest in a Time of Pain and Privilege, Father Philip Bergquist, formerly of St. Raphael Catholic Church in Fairbanks, Alaska, uses the metaphor of living through the long Alaskan winter to describe his own struggles with the crisis gripping the Roman Catholic church over the sexual abuses committed by priests. These struggles, say Bergquist, are not merely his, but rightly belong to all the ordained, and indeed to the church as a whole:

For now it is winter, and as I have said, I fear our winter is barely half spent. It is here in the midst and depths of winter that the prophets do dwell. These prophets, like winter itself, speak with a certain crass rudeness. They speak, and at first we are intrigued, perhaps even fascinated. Their mystical presence captivates us. But when the truth of their words, like a two edged sword, begins to pierce deep into our hearts, we find them — much like a long winter — utterly too much to bear. . . .

I believe that we as church owe a deep debt of gratitude to the press and the media, strange as that might seem. For when we could not, when we would not face our inner demons, they dared to show them to us. When we lacked the integrity due our calling, they demonstrated the relentless commitment of theirs. When we lost our prophetic voice, imparted to us on the day of our baptism — called forth from us on the day of our ordination — they found theirs, all the while we fearfully clung to our silence. And while the media might not have gotten everything exactly right, they nonetheless did their level best. (We need always to remember that ours is a church not easily given to full disclosure.) When we needed to be prophets, even within the very mess we had created, we couldn’t be, we wouldn’t be. Perhaps we were like the prophet Jonah and simply chose to turn and flee from our appointed Nineveh. In the end, like Jonah, we simply couldn’t run away from ourselves. . . .

I cannot help but believe that the redemption of the Roman Catholic priesthood will be found not in our being “set apart” but in our solidarity with those who weep. [pp. 23, 25, and 31-32]

Bergquist is a storyteller, who lets go of the fear-inspired silence and unsparingly opens up himself as he ponders the abuse scandal and its impact on his ministry, his calling to the priesthood, and his very soul. He speaks of his interactions with others, giving them pseudonyms to protect their privacy even as he tells their powerful stories and their even more powerful effects on his life.

He introduces us to Sister Susanna, a friend of his whose story of abuse by a neighboring priest it took Bergquist years to accept, not because he didn’t trust her but because it shook his own understanding of priesthood to its very core. He recounts his encounter with Lazarus, a friend of Bergquist’s parishioners, who told his story of abuse at the hands of a priest to Bergquist in a coffee shop two weeks before Holy Week and then again (at Bergquist’s invitation) to the people of St. Raphael’s in the midst of the Good Friday liturgy. He tells of Simon, a parishioner whose struggle with chronic pain taught Bergquist powerful lessons about suffering. The focus, though, is on Bergquist himself, not in a self-centered “look at me!” manner, but in an effort to show us how these powerful teachers changed his life — and can potentially change our lives as well.

Bergquist is clear that he himself was never abused by a priest, nor is he an abuser. He is, however, bound tightly with both victims and perpetrators, and his agony at the pain in the church is palpable.

I would never pretend to know the depths of this pain [felt by the victims of abuse]. Yet I have listened. I have listened to them tell their stories, and having listened, found myself weeping alongside of them. When no one would come to dry their tears, or bind their wounds, or simply just to say how sorry they were, their brokenness grew into anger. Who could really blame them? Strangely, perversely perhaps, my church can and does still blame them. I offer these stories not that someone’s pain or shame be deepened or cheapened but to illustrate how this crisis of soul has come to change the heart of at least one priest — me. I plead with you to listen with me to the voices of those who cry out in the wilderness and apparent wasteland of our church. Hear their voices and share their stories. For it is only in the sharing of their stories, their agonizing heart-wrenching stories, that we priests might find purpose, meaning, and even healing in ours. [p. 35]

Alongside the stories and personal reflections, Bergquist juxtaposes Henry Nouwen’s image of the Wounded Healer and Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s understanding of the five Stages of Loss (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). The former, says Bergquist, is essential as the church in all its fullness goes through the latter.

Making our way through this long winter’s night of the sexual abuse crisis, we most urgently need the gift of hospitality. But we also need humility — not humility that is meek and mealy but humility that leads to hope. . . .

As devastating as the fall from paradise was, it does not negate the very nature of who God is and who we are . . .

A wounded, but healing, priesthood clings to a humble deity, a more human Christ. While never denying Christ’s divinity, our broken but blessed priesthood grabs hold of a Savior who is ever present in our sufferings. . . .

Mine is neither a Church Triumphant nor a Church Militant. It is just a Church Grieving. [pp. 62-63, 66]

And liturgically speaking, what better day to lift up a Church Grieving than Good Friday? As Bergquist sat across from Lazarus in the coffee shop, having heard his story of abuse, having heard of his healing with the support of counselors and the unconditional love and understanding of his wife, Bergquist realized he had been given a great gift:

While I had been pondering and praying about how best to communicate the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ to my parishioners, the paschal mystery was staring me in the face. How could I not have made the connection between Holy Week and Lazarus’ story? How can any of us not see the face of Christ crucified in Lazarus — but also resurrected in him as well? . . . And so it was that on that day as I sat across from Lazarus that I asked, knowing just what it is to ask, if he would consider sharing his story with my parish, the good people with whom I share my life. Unbelievably, he said yes.

Imagine, if you can, a victim of the priest sex abuse scandal, a survivor, standing in the midst of a stripped and empty sanctuary, save for the crucifix. Imagine a Lazarus, standing beneath the crucified Christ. . . . Good Friday is good, not because of the tragic events that transpired long ago, but because of the opportunities that arose from such tragedy. The foot of the cross is where heaven’s hope and humanity’s wounds meet. However, it was not necessarily Lazarus’ wounds that needed binding that night. It was ours. So on that long winter’s night Lazarus ever so gently, but ever so courageously, unbound the wrappings of his wounded soul in order to bind ours — to bind my soul and the souls of the good people I feel blessed to serve. . . .

Good Friday is almost always a night full of tears, and our grieving nearly drowns us. But it is important to remember that our tears of mourning will one day be transformed from grieving to grace. I really don’t think I could appreciate Good Friday, I don’t believe it will be possible to survive this scandal; I don’t believe that I could even now be a priest, had it not been for Lazarus sharing his story earlier as he stood under the cross of Jesus. [pp. 44-45, 49]

The cross is a central figure of The Long Dark Winter’s Night, just as it is central on Good Friday. But this is more than a generic “cross of Christ” for Bergquist. Again and again, he refers to the specific crucifix that hangs on the wall behind the altar of St. Raphael, shown here to the left. It is a large, life-sized crucifix, and midway through the book [p. 89, emphasis in the original], he describes some of its background and points to how it speaks to him, and through him to us.

Throughout this book I often make reference to the crucifix that hangs in our parish church, under which we have so often gathered when we hurt and are in pain. I do so because the crucifix speaks to me. When our parish commissioned a local artist to carve this image, he told me that after much research, he was dismayed to see how Jesus was usually portrayed as emaciated. But he thought of Jesus as a working man, a man of the people. Furthermore, as a working man himself, this artist deliberately chose to give Jesus working man’s hands. Looking now at those same hands, I am moved by their size and strength, their longing and their love. It is as if, had they not be permanently nailed and bolted to the cross, they might actually reach out and hold me. The work and ministry of healing needs working hands. It needs hands that are not worried about getting broken, or bloody, or bruised. For these are the hands that are truly blessed to be stained, servile, and scarred. And though our hearts should never be callous, perhaps our hands should very well be. And so we pray, “O Lord, prosper the work of our hands.” (Psalm 90:17)

As Good Friday approaches, may we all add our “Amen.”

_____

The photo of the crucifix from St. Raphael Roman Catholic Church is the copyrighted property of Focus Unbound Photography of Fairbanks, Alaska. My thanks to them for their permission to use it to accompany this post.

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9 comments

  1. I believe that we as church owe a deep debt of gratitude to the press and the media, strange as that might seem. For when we could not, when we would not face our inner demons, they dared to show them to us. When we lacked the integrity due our calling, they demonstrated the relentless commitment of theirs. When we lost our prophetic voice, imparted to us on the day of our baptism — called forth from us on the day of our ordination — they found theirs, all the while we fearfully clung to our silence.

    When our parish commissioned a local artist to carve this image, he told me that after much research, he was dismayed to see how Jesus was usually portrayed as emaciated. But he thought of Jesus as a working man, a man of the people. Furthermore, as a working man himself, this artist deliberately chose to give Jesus working man’s hands. Looking now at those same hands, I am moved by their size and strength, their longing and their love.

    When Jason Berry was writing Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church he spent some time in Cleveland. A laymen who is very familiar with things in Cleveland invited me to “a working lunch” with just Jason and himself.

    I was surprised to meet not a prophet (although Jason in regard to sexual abuse and now to money has let us know what is going on long before everyone else) but a very hard working journalist who was trying to organize the best most accurate information for largely journalistic reasons. He understood his talents, the importance of the story, and his ability to bring it all together. However my sense was that there were other stories that he would rather have been telling. There was even a certain Ignatian indifference about this story; that he was doing it because it needed to be done for the benefit of others and he had the background and talents rather than any emotional reasons of his own.

    When we look at the ongoing reform of Catholicism, it is amazing how much has been done by such a few people, and that these have generally not been bishops, priests, or laity but rather working professionals (journalists, public officials, lawyers, etc) who mainly have just been doing their jobs for the benefit of society with great integrity and professionalism.

  2. Why then have bishops, priests and mostly importantly the laity failed to come to grips with the reform of the Church?

    I cannot help but believe that the redemption of the Roman Catholic priesthood will be found not in our being “set apart” but in our solidarity with those who weep.

    The problem is clericalism, and it is not just the clericalism of the clergy but more importantly the clericalism of the people, the desire to have a pastor whom they see as a God like Father or Christ figure, whose approval they seek. That is behind the deep betrayal that victim’s experience, and the inability of bishops, priests and laity to face the truth. No one wants to abandon their illusions of the priesthood.

    The reform of the priesthood that will be necessary is far deeper than the reform of the Papacy’s worldly notions of kingship into Jesus notion of service. Ultimately the reform of the priesthood depends upon the people and our willingness to see ourselves and all who are baptized as Christ (and therefore having little need for a separate Christ, Pastor Father figure).

    When I was a child playing priest in order to be an altar boy, I decided there must be some way that I could pray in a priestly manner without being a priest. I began composing ceremonies until I discovered the Divine Office. The charism of composing a Divine Office using all the resources of the East and West has remained at center of my life, far more than the Mass, parishes, or the clergy.

    For most of my life the reasons for this charism have remained a mystery. However reading all the anguish on this blog over the last several years (first of the left about the New Missal and now of the right about how the EF and OF might suffer under the new Pope) I am increasing thinking that a lot of people need to follow the example of the early solitary monks and center their lives on the Divine Office, recover their own priesthood, and become less concerned about parishes, the Eucharist, and the clergy.

    Clericalism will not disappear from Christianity solely by reforming the clergy, e.g. married priests, women priests, or using Protestant models. Only when Christians discover their own priesthood will the roots of clericalism be cut off.

    P.S. When I read this post, I found the attempt to connect the crisis about the priesthood to the Crucifixion very repulsive. We need to think about the priesthood in terms of reformation rather than redemption. As someone trained in both psychology and sociology, I have found sociological approaches to change more useful than psychological.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #4:
      I think Bergquist would agree with your comments about clericalism. That is part of what was behind his initial unwillingness to believe his friend Sister Susanna’s account of being raped by a priest. Bergquist had so internalized the clericalistic mindset that he could not conceive of a priest being capable of such things. In Bergquist’s mind, to believe Sister Susanna was not simply accepting her account of what happened over that of the priest who she said attacked her, but it challenged what he believed about himself as a seminarian preparing to become a priest. “I wanted to believe. But no, perhaps I did not want to after all. If I believed her story, then everything I knew, or at least thought I knew, about the priesthood, about my church could be called into question.” Only years later, when he could come to a healthier vision of what priesthood means could he finally accept her story.

      As for your PS, I’m sorry that it had that effect on you. What Bergquist says, as I tried to capture in my excerpts and comments, is that in the Crucifixion, Christ takes on the worst — the absolute ugliest and most destructive worst — that sin can do, and conquers it with the love that destroys the shroud of death and wipes away every tear. As Bergquist said above, “The foot of the cross is where heaven’s hope and humanity’s wounds meet.”

      The solemn reproaches come to mind here. In the Lutheran rite (similar to but not quite identical with the Roman rite), each one begins “O my people, O my church, what more could I have done for you?” followed by a description of one after another of God’s acts on behalf of God’s people and the world. Each one ends, “But you have prepared a cross for your Savior,” noting how we have misused/rejected gift after gift and invitation after invitation. This, surely, includes this crisis.

      If the crucifixion cannot connect with and conquer this, then (to borrow from Paul) we are of all people most to be pitied.

      1. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #5:

        I read Scripture as a sociologist as well as a psychologist.

        First, when I read the crucifixion as a sociologist, I see that God’s love will inevitability run into conflict with the powers of the world (I have certainly seen that in the church, academia, and the mental health system), and therefore as Christians we must expect that conflict with all its consequences.

        Secondly, although some scripture scholars have rightly pointed out that it was Rome that was responsible for the death of Jesus, it is also true that religious leaders (e.g. the Jewish high priest and some others) as well as the Christian leadership (Judas as well as the flight of the Apostles) were also responsible for the death of Jesus.

        Of course, Christian theology has placed primary emphasis upon personal sin as the reason for the death of Jesus. I have no problem with that as long as we place personal sin in the context of the sociological reasons.

        We have to live our lives as Christians knowing we will come into conflict with many people, and we cannot simply reduce those conflicts to our personal failures; rather those conflicts may occur precisely because we try to do good, and precisely because of the inadequacies of many social institutions and their leaders.

        The Gospel tells us to expect that religious leaders will betray their callings and that we cannot put our hope in them. So besides a basic skepticism of the world, it institutions, and its leaders, as Christians we have to have a basic skepticism of the church, its institutions, and its leaders.

        Unless we have this sociological framework to empower Christians, focusing just upon our personal failures will help much evil to thrive in the world and in the church.

        The reduction of evil to an internal psychological matter has helped promote a clericalism that collaborates with the world, lacks self criticism, and exploits people’s vulnerablity.

      2. @Jack Rakosky – comment #6:
        Amen, from beginning to end.

        As an ordained religious leader, I can’t help but note (and agree) that for me, your comment about having a basic skepticism is about myself and my ordained colleagues. Thus, what you might see as “just” a focus on personal failures is for clergy a both/and — both personal and institutional.

        Bergquist doesn’t speak about the details of that Good Friday service, where Lazarus told the story of his abuse and his healing from it, while standing in the place of the preacher. According to various official documents, the preaching on Sundays and solemnities is to be reserved for the clergy. How, I wonder, would the rubrics of preaching connect with what Bergquist and Lazarus did? Was Lazarus the preacher for the service, or did Bergquist give the official sermon with Lazarus somehow woven into it? Was it a form of dialogue sermon, preached between the two of them? Would it meet with the approval of Bergquist’s bishop, or the USCCB, or the CDW, or Pope Benedict, or Pope Francis? I don’t know, and Bergquist doesn’t say because he’s not discussing rubrics and rules and those who make and enforce them. He simply described the event and its power in his community.

        Thus do the personal and institutional meet in the practice of ministry.

  3. “I cannot help but believe that the redemption of the Roman Catholic priesthood will be found not in our being “set apart” but in our solidarity with those who weep. [pp. 23, 25, and 31-32]”

    Well . . . . duh!!!

    Isn’t that what Christianity itself is about???

    I was appalled at the bishops’ (non)response to reports of abusing priests and abused children, primarily because these children were the most vulnerable members of the Body. How could they????

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