Ars Praedicandi: Preaching Abuse

We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this. We know some of you have heard some of it before. 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.

They are right. We need to hear this. And not just from the grand jury. We need to hear it from the pulpit. But it is hard to hear and hard to say. It is hard to know how to say it: how to say it in a way that will not simply crush the spirits of God’s people; how to say it in a way that will not terrify children or undermine the vast numbers of faithful priests; how to say it in a way that is honest and not complicit in the euphemistic talking-around that has aided and abetted these criminal acts.

Pretty much by sheer force of will, I went to Mass yesterday on the Solemnity of the Assumption and took only slight comfort in Mary’s song of resistance: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” Yeah? When? How long, O Lord? Then the priest, in his homily, made no mention of the Pennsylvania grand jury’s report, or the recent news reports about Ted McCarrick. During the prayer of the faithful he tried a stumbling petition for victims of abuse, but he was clearly embarrassed by the topic and had no idea what to say and I found myself momentarily feeling sorry for him. Clearly he found it difficult to find words that could both accurately describe these acts and were suitable for utterance from the sanctuary.

I myself am tempted to simply read from the grand jury’s report:

Most of the victims were boys; but there were girls too. Some were teens; many were prepubescent. Some were manipulated with alcohol or pornography. Some were made to masturbate their assailants, or were groped by them. Some were raped orally, some vaginally, some anally. But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all.

This is not a shock tactic. This is honesty. But I am also a parent, so I would never utter such a thing in an assembly with children in it. I do not want parents having to explain to their six-year-old what anal rape is. I do not want to become party to the violation of the innocence of children. At the same time, I want to speak honestly. But how?

Since my ordination in 2007, I have preached on the topic of sexual abuse and its cover up about a half dozen time. It is always hard. I am almost always unsatisfied by what I have said. But it has also almost always been greeted with a sense of grateful relief by parishioners. They are relieved to hear from the pulpit some acknowledgement of reality, and of their struggles to remain part of a Church that has mired itself in such unreality. I preached about this most recently last Sunday—not in the context of the forthcoming grand jury report, but of the scandal surrounding Ted McCarrick. You can read my efforts here. But even to my own ears my words sound somewhat hollow today. Yes, we find in the Church the Eucharist as a source of love and grace, but I certainly did not feel that at Mass yesterday. I mostly felt rage.

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12 comments

  1. Thank you – excellent. Suggest that all of us over the years have tried to address this situation and then later, reflecting on our words, etc., we feel inadequate.
    To your credit, don’t let the feelings of inadequacy or the search for the perfect stop your expressions of justice (however they may feel).
    Keep in mind – justice delayed; is justice denied.

    1. Another legalism that tends to be true: silence implies consent. It is hard to talk about but much less damaging to talk than to act like nothing happened.

  2. The PA Grand Jury report is like a punch in the gut for those of us who love the Church, founded by Jesus Christ and have built their system of beliefs through the Church and her teachings – especially those for whom this heinous sin by some is a huge stumbling block.
    But I feel especially sad for the vast majority of good, hard working and holy priests who have remained faithful (sometimes at great cost) to their vows. I keep thinking about how I would feel if many pastoral musicians were accused of these terrible deeds, and it makes me viscerally ill. Yet day after day, week after week, these faithful men move forward in the face of the “guilt by association” that many feel.
    I do not hear much preaching on this at all, but I can hardly blame the homilists as their level of discomfort must be mountainous. But I pray for them (and for us, all members of the Body of Christ) every single day! Come, Holy Spirit, and mend our wounds.

    1. Thank you, Linda, for expressing thoughts I have had over the last few days. What I am having trouble with is the “guilt by association” that I feel because I am a Catholic, a music minister who is in church doing a job I love, ministering to the wonderful people in our community, who may be feeling the same feeling of shock and awe, and maybe doubting their faith. But I tell myself there are far more of “us” then there are of “them”. What they have done is despicable and sickening, and the only thing I can do is pray for the victims, for their healing. I pray that those responsible for these horrendous actions, and those who hid them, that they receive their just punishments on earth and in the court of our Heavenly Father..

  3. Thank you for this honest piece Fritz. The Church has had a rough week (month/year/decade…). The deacon that preached at the mass I went to didn’t mention it all either, but to be fair it was a vigil on the 14th, the night before it made front page news here (in Minnesota mind you). Our pastor is fairly current though, I have a hard time thinking this will escape his homily this weekend. I think everyone, clergy included, are frustrated to have to have this discussion yet again, especially so soon after the Cdl. McCarrick story.

  4. Our curate preached last night at the solemn high Mass of the Assumption of our Lady, not only using the clerical sexual abuse scandal in Pennsylvania currently rocking your ecclesial community, but also the now over 100 drug overdoses happening on the New Haven green, just blocks from our parish and affecting, no doubt, many of the guests we serve at the lunchtime soup kitchen run out of our parish hall.. It was quite sobering and depressing but ending hopefully as he beat home (much more eloquently than I can relay) that just as God raised our Lady to the joy of heaven, we too, even in all our imperfections and with our wounds will rise the same way. Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis.

  5. We have been using the “Mass for the Forgiveness Of Sins (B)” from the current Roman Missal. This is found in “Masses for Various Occasions III.” We have been using this Mass on ferial days. It was popularly called the, “Mass for the Gift of Tears” in the 1962 Missal. I think the orations say and mean much more than all the different bishops blathering, plus this is prayer.

    It might be good to see all of the USCCB on their knees in the National Shrine during a few hours of a “Service of Repentance.” They need some old fashioned penitential prayers, nothing verbose or written to make excuses, with readings from Scripture and the Penitential Psalms. Not just optics but prayer.

    Card. DiNardo’s plan is so complicated that by the time it is implemented people will just figure it is more USCCB bureaucracy. Which it sounds like it is. Bring on an Apostolic Visitation! Some of us might think the national Church can handle it but that is not the current structure of the Church. Rome is the final authority.

    We have prayer now we need action.

  6. We are, of course, all appalled by the report from these six Pennsylvania dioceses. But there are 197 dioceses in the US alone. Where are the missing 191?

  7. Before my homilies in Minneapolis this weekend, I said this:
    “The major news programs in recent days have devoted coverage to the report of a Grand Jury in Pennsylvania that details abuse of children by priests of six Pennsylvania dioceses. I don’t think I can let that go unnoticed. If you, or someone in your family, has experienced abuse from a priest or any other responsible leader in the church, that was a serious wrong. It should never have happened. As the priest who is standing before you today, I apologize on behalf of myself, of the church, and of the individual or individuals responsible. If in any way I can help heal those wounds, I am ready to try.”
    Then, after a pause, I said what I had to say on Wisdom from the readings for the 20th Sunday.

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