Catholic Women on the Sex Abuse Crisis

Catholic Women on the Sex Abuse Crisis2018-08-28T14:13:24+01:00

Have you written to a church leader about the most recent revelations of widespread sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church? Do you want to share your letter publicly, to make clear that Catholic women are speaking out and demanding action? If you email the text of your letter to, we shall consider it for publication here providing that it conforms to acceptable standards.

An open letter to Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales

from Tina Beattie—25 August 2018

Dear Cardinal Nichols,

I have read your letter to clergy on the abuse of children in the Church, which you tweeted and asked to be widely shared among parishioners. I am sorry to see the abusive comments that your tweet has attracted, but you no doubt realize that Catholic social media can be a hostile environment which is home to some very damaged people (including some who are ordained clergy). read more

I am writing this open letter to you in your role as head of the Church in this country but also as somebody who has been a good pastor to me personally. I do not doubt that this is a painful moment of reckoning for the Church’s leaders. I also believe that your letter is written from the heart and is sincere, but words are no longer enough. Shocking stories of abuse have been emerging since the late 1980s and there are undoubtedly many more still to be revealed. It is hard to over-estimate the level of anger and the sense of betrayal among the laity, and I’m afraid letters expressing shame and regret are too little too late. We want to know what is going to be done, and the Church’s leaders have had many years in which to ask themselves that question. The truth is that our official leaders do not have the competence to tackle this challenge alone. We need qualified lay people (including women) to be entrusted with leadership roles that will enable them to bring about a fundamental transformation in Catholic structures and institutions, with full cooperation from the hierarchy, in collaboration with law enforcement agencies where necessary, and with rigorous child protection policies implemented at all levels.

Nor is it acceptable to ask us all to do penance, as Pope Francis does. These crimes are coming to light at a time when we are emerging from one of the most draconian regimes in modern church history, when all but the most compliant and obedient members of the laity have been ruthlessly silenced or ignored. Those who claim absolute power must also accept absolute responsibility, and it is not the laity who are responsible for this moral collapse. Public penance should come first from those with power. It should be a visible and exemplary sign to all the people of God that our most senior clergy accept in humility and deep regret that they have been guilty of a catastrophic betrayal of trust and failure of leadership.

I know from personal experience that the Catholic hierarchy is capable of swift and punitive action when theologians seek to engage in informed debate about church teaching around issues such as women priests, same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception. If only there had been such zealous and persistent intervention with regard to abuse and cover-ups.  I mention this here not by way of personal complaint, but because I believe that the authoritarianism of senior church leaders over the last twenty years is symptomatic of a much wider hierarchical culture of arrogance, insolence and unaccountability which continues to this day, notwithstanding Pope Francis’s sincere and determined efforts to root out clericalism. I know that there are many good bishops and I reiterate that you have been a good pastor to me personally, but the failure is systemic. Many priests are afraid to challenge this regime of bullying and intimidation, so that our clergy seem to be trapped in abusive relationships of power and domination at every level.  To say this is not to deny the integrity and humble goodness of many priests – indeed, of nearly all the priests I know – but even the best will rarely put their heads above the parapet for fear of being disciplined. It would perhaps take more courage than they are capable of to identify abusers in their midst and to stand up to the bishops who collude and cover up.

I believe that some of these problems stem from a culture of paternalism in the Church, which infantilises laity and priests alike. This ensnares us in dysfunctional and immature relationships in which “Father knows best” is the rule we are expected to live by. The abuse crisis stems in no small part from the fact that the “Fathers” of the Church have been treating abusive priests under their authority more as naughty children than as responsible adults, and that is why I am particularly concerned about one paragraph in your letter.

You say, “As a Father in this House, I bear this shame in a direct way, for it is the direct responsibility of a father to protect his household from harm, no matter how difficult and complex that might be.” That is exactly what bishops, abbots and cardinals have been doing – protecting priests from scandal and harm, and in so doing stunting their psychological development and creating a culture of immunity that has had devastating consequences for thousands of children and vulnerable adults. As the mother of four adult children, I know that we cannot and must not protect grown up children from the consequences of their actions, nor should we take responsibility for their behaviour. When they fail, they must learn from their failures and take responsibility for themselves. That’s what it means to let our children grow up as free and responsible adults. So yes, you most definitely are directly responsible if you knew and did nothing, but if priests under your authority have engaged in abusive behaviour they must be held fully accountable before the law if necessary for what they have done. 

Neither is it right to address members of the laity as  if we were children under your paternal protection. We need church leaders who respect us as adults, capable of engaging in free and open debate about contested issues, transparent and accountable in our dealings with one another, and respectful of one another as equals in the community of the baptised.

In that spirit, I invite you to establish a group led by suitably qualified lay women and men, made up of priests, bishops and laity, who meet regularly to discuss issues of urgent concern regarding some of the most neuralgic issues facing the Church that can no longer be suppressed and silenced. These include the care, education and protection of children and young people, but also the nature of priesthood and questions of gender, sexuality, marriage and family life. Members of such a group must represent the diversity of Catholics in the modern world, and they must be encouraged to speak freely, with parrhesia (to borrow Pope Francis’s expression), and with the full support of the institutional Church. The guidelines for such a dialogue group could be taken from sections 136 to 141 of Amoris Laetitia.

I am sharing this letter publicly as a small contribution towards the culture of transparency and accountability that I believe we need.

I remain your faithful friend and co-disciple in the Lord,


“Am I My Church’s Keeper? A Laywoman Ponders Her Responsibility”

CWS member Rebecca Bratten Weiss has written a reflection on Pope Francis’s call for prayer and penance for sex abuse in the Catholic Church. (Published in Patheos, 22 August, 2018)

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We, the laity, unordained women and men of the church, have been asked to pray and do penance for the grave crimes of the hierarchical leaders of this church. This request has come from various sources, most notably Pope Francis, in his letter on the scandals:

Together with those efforts, every one of the baptized should feel involved in the ecclesial and social change that we so greatly need. This change calls for a personal and communal conversion that makes us see things as the Lord does. For as Saint John Paul II liked to say: “If we have truly started out anew from the contemplation of Christ, we must learn to see him especially in the faces of those with whom he wished to be identified” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 49). To see things as the Lord does, to be where the Lord wants us to be, to experience a conversion of heart in his presence. To do so, prayer and penance will help. I invite the entire holy faithful People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting, following the Lord’s command. This can awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says “never again” to every form of abuse.

Several friends have posed the suggestion that as members of the whole church our acts of prayer and penitence might be efficacious for the whole church, according to the idea of the mystical unity of the body. This, perhaps, is what the Pope means: that together we should all work to reform the church, and part of the work of reform involves invocation of the transcendent.

There is a sense in which I am okay with this.

Donatello, Penitent Magdalene

I have felt moved, myself, in the past few days, to utter a statement of apology on behalf of the church of which I am a member, insofar as I represent the church, and have been complicit in any evil done by the church. I don’t expect that an apology from an unknown laywoman is what victims are asking for – nor that it will make much difference to them. Nonetheless, it would be wrong for me to remain silent, not only when it comes to denunciation of abuse, but also when it comes to my own membership in the organization responsible for this abuse.

And yes, I do believe that we the laity are called to reform. The idea of the Holy Spirit may be too quaint or superstitious for my secular readers to accept, yet there is a power, a force that summons us, and runs through us – a voice that says “rise up, and go forth.” The Holy Spirit, by the way, is feminine in the Aramaic language that Jesus used, and at a time when it seems the masculine is difficult to trust, it is a comfort to call upon a Comforter as “she.”

Reform is a dangerous business. I wrote in a previous post about how easy it can be for revolutionaries to begin to use people. And people are not to be used, not even for a good end. To call upon the Holy Spirit in an act of prayer is to call that we be committed to this transcendence even in our pursuit of earthly justice, that we never be so degraded as to see all earthly beings simply as tools for our use.

So I do believe that prayer can “awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity.” And I do believe that I should do penance – by saying “I am sorry” to the victims, to those who have been hurt by my church. And also, now, to say “sorry” to the LGBTQ persons who are being scapegoated for the sins of those who already marginalized them.

But at the same time, I am very uncomfortable with being asked, by a member of the clergy, to pray and do penance as a laywoman for the sins of the clergy.

Uncomfortable, and even angry. Yes, I do admire Pope Francis, and usually will be found writing in his defense, but in this case his words do not satisfy – partially because, at the moment, they are merely words, but also because insofar as he has commissioned action, it is this “prayer and penance” of the whole church. If words are to be more than mere words, there must be more actions than these; there must be radical structural reform.

Above all, though, I feel that I have spent my life as a Catholic with my hands bound, with heavy burdens placed upon me, and now when I am bent and exhausted asked to join in the rescue of those who bound my hands, and laid the burdens on me.

As a laywoman, I have no authority in the church. I can not form teaching, preach the gospel, or weigh in on issues of management and policy. Even to express an idea that is not in line with the hierarchy gets me labeled “disobedient.” The entirety of my faith life has involved this duty to obey, and yet now I see that those whom I obeyed – confessing when I was told to, even though it led to anxiety and humiliation; using NFP as directed, even though it did not do my marriage good – the ones who told me I must follow their dictates were using their own authority to break the vulnerable.

Am I my church’s keeper? I keep asking. In a way, yes. As long as I am a member of this faith community, it is my responsibility to to foster a culture of life (in the true sense, not the toxic sense of the existing pro-life movement). This means doing my best to follow Jesus’s Gospel commandments, difficult though they may be. It means a preferential option for the most vulnerable. And this means work, as well as prayer.

But in a way, no. I have been always without a voice in this church. The failings of those who have called the shots at every level may be failings I share in, in a mystical sense, or even in the sense of having not been bothered enough – of vaguely suspecting, but not letting myself be awakened.

But on a real practical level, on the level of justice, I can not be asked to atone for sins that I did not do, sins that I have even spoken out against, at times. Placing this burden on the laity, especially laywomen – without serious reparations and reform, and without giving us a space to be genuinely vocal and active in this reform – feels like an insult. It feels like abuse.

CWS member Adrienne Keller is from Virginia, USA:

I have sent the following letter to my parish priest and every member of the parish council. 

Regretfully, I have cancelled my monthly donation to the church and I am also withdrawing the support of my time and talents.

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I have spent many hours over the past week reading parts of the report of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury, reading many articles in Catholic publications (including America and NCR) and Catholic blog sites and in conversations and correspondence with other Catholics, including survivors. I have also spent many hours in prayer and contemplation of the readings for each day this week, especially the Old Testament readings from the book of Ezekiel.

In the end, my decision was in response to two questions I have repeatedly asked myself:
– What do I hear God calling me to do for the holy, universal, apostolic church?
– What advice would I give my adult children if they told me they were participating in an organization that has decades of failure in protecting children from abuse by those charged with leading the organization?

I cannot and will not hold the church less accountable than I would hold a secular institution.

The issues, the failures, the rot is systemic, not individual. Even mass resignations of bishops, as many have called for, will not accomplish the reform that is needed.

The equivalent of my monthly donation will now be directed to SNAP (Support Network for those Abused by Priests) and to Catholic Women Speak.

My mother and I will typically worship at Our Lady of Peace.

Adrienne Keller

(Our Lady of Peace is an assisted living/nursing home that my 94 year old mother is on the waiting list for. I continue to worship in a Catholic setting only to honor and support my mother.)

CWS member Sally Scuderi writes on Facebook:

At this moment in church history, I resonate with these words of Frida Berrigan, “I am not a lapsed Catholic. I am a Catholic in waiting — waiting for my church to remember the Gospels, to be a justice and peace-seeking community, to be fully inclusive of women and to be welcoming to people who are not heteronormative. Pope Francis is a step in the right direction, but there is a long way to go.”

Read about Marie Collins’ Talk at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin: “Catholic Church fear ‘domino effect’ if abuse scandal properly investigated, says survivor” (Irish Times, August 24 2018)

Pope Must Speak Out on Evil of Misogyny

CWS member and book contributor Celia Viggo Wexler has written an article on Pope Francis and the sex abuse crisis in the San Francisco Chronicle (August 24, 2018)

Catholic women are heartsick over the latest pedophilia scandal in Pennsylvania. From all parts of the globe, women of faith are disillusioned by graphic accounts of exploitation, pornography and even torture of children by priests, as church officials looked the other way. We yearn for a church that no longer will tolerate the abuse of a single child. 

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Pope Francis has denounced both the abuse and the cover-up, and called for prayer and fasting to help atone for it. But he has not yet announced specific reforms to finally prevent this crime from recurring.

Catholics want fundamental change. That will take some serious soul-searching at the Vatican. The pope has decried clericalism — the attitude that views priests as God’s 1 percenters, far removed from — and far superior to — the rest of us. Yet he has said nothing about the evil of misogyny.

But clericalism and misogyny are two sides of the same corrupt coin that has allowed pedophilia to long fester in the church. Clericalism encourages priests to see themselves as “special” agents of the divine. But their “special status” is reinforced by a misogyny that limits the priesthood to celibate men and taints the church’s views and judgments.

Church leaders place women in two categories. We are either idealized as mothers whose role is to nourish and support, without any thought to our own needs, sexual or otherwise. Or we are feared as temptresses, whose very bodies are occasions of sin to men who wish to avoid sex. Either way, we are deemed unfit for ordination.

Misogyny also skews what the church pays attention to. Consider, for example, the church’s scrutiny of American nuns. In 2012, they were chastised for their “radical feminist” ideas, and for caring more about serving the poor than fighting the bishops’ betes noires — abortion and same-sex marriage.

Misogyny even affects how the church judges our sins.

In 2010, a female religious and hospital administrator allowed doctors to terminate the pregnancy of a very ill patient to save the mother’s life. She was excommunicated, not allowed back into the church until she resigned from her post and confessed her act of compassion to a priest.

At the time she was punished, no priest predator had been excommunicated, and it rarely happens even now.

To his credit, Pope Francis has tried to refocus the church’s attention toward social justice. Nevertheless, to the extent he permits the second-class status of women in the church, he perpetuates the very culture that helps pedophilia to flourish.

An all-male celibate priesthood encourages priests to view themselves as a separate tribe, people closer to God, men to be admired. It instills a sense of entitlement, reinforced by the admiration of parishioners.

This status offers predators the perfect cover. It also made it easy for church officials to dismiss the complaints of mothers who took their concerns to their pastors, but were not given the attention they deserved. Nearly two decades ago, we learned about Catholic mothers in Boston who reported abuse, only to see the offending priests shunted off to other unsuspecting parishes.

Lacking power in the church and rebuffed by Vatican officials, women have been unable to advance the policies that would have reduced the potential for abuse.

Even worse, misogyny has promoted a “band of brothers” ethos, encouraging a culture that values institutional reputation over the protection of children.

It is good that the pope recognizes there is a problem. But until he understands that misogyny is a crucial part of this cycle of abuse, cover-up and recrimination, this nightmare will recur.

Celia Viggo Wexler is the author of “Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).  

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