Author’s note: I used to work for the Diocese of San Jose, California. Though I merely assisted the Director of the Missions Office, I was fortunate enough to be sent to attend conventions, congresses, and gatherings throughout the country (USA) and established great friendships with many lay people and clergy in the process. This was around 2000-2002. Every time I flew out my boss would always remind me to take seriously that I represent our Diocese and that I should be in my best behavior. I’d always nod.
2001 was the year the sexual abuse allegations in California and Boston burst into the media scene. I have read countless articles accusing the Catholic Church of “sweeping the abuses under the rug” and/or “paying off to silence the victims” and so on and so forth. This evil secrecy has been a favorite latch of many anti-Catholic journalists to expose the dark sides of the figurative rectory. But I have seen another angle. I am still confused but allow me to share.
What I learned as an insignificant someone from inside the velvet rope of this media battle is this: many of the victims’ families are the ones who aggressively request the Church NOT to publicize it. (That they give in to that request requires another article all together, so stay with me first.) I have personally received many phone calls from one father who had to call me every day to remind me NOT to EVER let media cover the abuse. Mine was the only phone number he got from the website, he says. He called me begging to stop the press conferences held on the abuses in a particular parish or school (said abuse happened in the late 80’s) because he was afraid his now grown-up son will have an episode, a relapse. It took the son years to get to this stable place. He didn’t want the atrocity afflicted on his son OUT on public record. He wanted his son to deal with the info ONLY when he is ready to summon the memory on his own. Not during an unguarded moment. Since therapy is thankfully involved – he only wanted the recalling of the ordeal in an environment that had an expert in the room. Memories are summoned by our minds, usually (not always) when we are ready to remember. This is stemming from the study that our minds know which memory to block off and which to surface AND when. He patiently explains to me. He went on to say that a stray article online or in the archives of a state library might surface the memory while his son was in an unprepared state of mind. He only wants healing for his child and therefore (based on his son’s situation) a ‘managed secrecy’ was what they chose to be in order. So the quest was to find the balance between this ‘managed secrecy’ while still slamming sanctions on the abuser.
This piece is in no way a defense of the abusive religious – this is merely presenting another angle of the ‘bad secrecy’ accusation. It should be taken into consideration that total disclosure to a media that ignores nuances is not always the most healing track. This throws me off track because I have always been taught to ‘speak out and say it out loud’ — but here, I learned that sometimes shutting up is also healing. I can never say this enough: SOMETIMES (just sometimes) shutting up can be healing and this goes for everyone involved. If those involved – priests, parents and media practitioners truly prioritized the victims of clergy abuse and not other agendas – they will find it in themselves to respect certain levels of confidentiality if requested by the victim. All decisions should only lead to transforming the victim into a survivor. It is not easy and I recognize that there is a price to pay for decisions especially in this case. In this light I also wish to acknowledge that I know very little of what I am talking about so I just chose to relay my conundrum.
Like most, I am of the belief that all abuses should be put to light to punish the abuser. Perpetrators of child abuse should never be let off the hook, never be excused, never be allowed to carry on with their priestly duties, and never, under any circumstance be allowed to counsel young parishioners again. I was all for shaming them for what they’ve done to helpless children and worse – under the guise of being trustworthy, kind, gentle and holy. I also didn’t want religious orders to let go of the abusive priests because if they were capable of such behavior inside the religious order, it didn’t make sense to let them out in the world free of any organizational authority above them. Then questions floated in my head. Questions like: “What is it about the institution that enables this behavior? What are the privileges and physical duties bestowed on priests that enable them to abuse?” I cannot even begin to describe how troubled I was/still am. I was a lot younger then so I couldn’t deny the emotional turmoil I had to go through just managing this information. Though not very religious, I certainly considered myself as one of this faith –and so, I was forced to re-assess my allegiance under this particularly harsh light.
To appease my mind, I gathered the audacity to make a one-on-one appointment with Bishop Patrick McGrath – even requested for his trusted assistant, Pat to leave us alone in the room so I could tell him what I learned and what I’ve heard directly about abuse by the clergy. Bishop McGrath indulged me. He listened intently, took into consideration what I told him and after a few exchanges did something I certainly did not expect. He wept.
For those who don’t know him, Bishop McGrath is a cheery guy, a rotund, rosy-cheeked Dubliner who gave off a warm vibe – I used to describe him as a very dignified Santa Claus. I sat on a chair facing him from right across his office desk watching this great man sob. He heaved and apologized and said he didn’t mean to make me uncomfortable by crying and said thank you for telling me what I knew about the issue. He promised to stay mum about my talking to him and we talked a bit more. I didn’t know exactly what I was feeling as I sat there. All I remember was that my Catholic heart which was once lined with lead was relieved of some weight. Perhaps it was the compassion and the genuine pain I saw in the Bishop. I hope he doesn’t take offense in my sharing this incident. I am immensely grateful for the learning that came with seeing his vulnerability in the face of this ugly and (unfortunately) real thing. I was optimistic that with his openness came an accompanying resolve to amend and address.
I walked out of the Bishop’s office with my questions still intact. Just like that conversation, this article bears no conclusion neither does it offer a solution. I imagine that it merely offers a resolve to exert more effort to speak frankly about the abuses. I only know what I know. Abusers should be sanctioned. Victims should be led to healing. I recognize that the Catholic Church is repulsive to many but media should respect the wishes of the abused and never deal with this issue as a mere springboard to trumpet disdain for the institution.
I know that justice and reparation will take time. Imagine, it took me eight years to gather my wits to sit and write about this encounter. Like everyone- I pray that enlightenment could come swifter.
I said this as a joke the other day but I realize that I was serious – this Holy Week – I did spend my time praying for the Catholic Church.
It will be Easter soon and Easter is a time of hope.
2 April 2010
Epilogue: Some time ago, I narrated this story to my friend, the late Fr. Joey Fermin, SJ. He kept telling me that I should write about it. I kept saying perhaps there was no need. He said – but it is your truth so you should write it. He died January 5, 2009. He never failed to call me every Easter – to tell me that it is a time of hope. Joey’s dead now so I thought that by writing this article I can re-live a Joey phone call one more time.