Over the summer, two bishops from Pennsylvania told me about an investigation unfolding in their state’s courts. The state attorney general had been conducting an investigation into sexual abuse committed by priests against minors, and the grand jury was expected to release a report sometime soon.
Photo by Matt Cashore '94
It’s going to be very ugly, the bishops told me. Really ugly.
Having lived through the 2002 sexual abuse crisis first uncovered by the Boston Globe, I did not think this case would be much different from that one. I was wrong.
As the release date of the grand jury’s report drew closer, I read a statement from another bishop in Pennsylvania who had told the people of his diocese, “Get ready. This is going to be awful.”
No amount of getting ready could have prepared anyone for what the grand jury report revealed on Tuesday, August 14. I am from Pennsylvania. I did not want to read the report. But at the same time I could not stop reading it once I started. Seeing the names of priests that had served in my home parish was painful, horrible.
Since that horrible day, I have spent hours and hours reading the Pennsylvania report and dozens of articles, commentaries, op-eds and viewpoint pieces about the abuse. Every article has a link to another article, then another. I find myself unable to stop clicking on the links.
As a priest, I am embarrassed and ashamed by what other priests have done. I am angry, outraged, infuriated at what some priests have done to children, the most vulnerable among us. On the first day of Welcome Weekend here on campus, I could not bring myself to wear my Roman collar. I was too ashamed to be seen as a priest, a vocation that I love with all my heart and soul. Over these past weeks I have returned constantly to the words of St. Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “Because I have received this ministry through the mercy of God, I will not be discouraged.” It’s not easy to not be discouraged right now.
In my clicking through the countless links responding to the crisis, I have seen many articles and video clips that feature bishops and priests talking about all that the grand jury report revealed. In them, the author or speaker expresses his outrage and voices sorrow for the victims and their families, but often, these bishops and priests move into a defensive position. The moment that happens, I stop reading or listening. This is not the time to be defensive.
I hear defensive comments like this: Yes, but almost all of the abuse detailed in the report happened 50–70 years ago.
You know what that means? That means the wounds are 50-70 years old. It is true that, since 2002, safeguards have been put into place — in dioceses, in Catholic parishes, in Catholic schools — that have cut down extensively on child sexual abuse. We are grateful for this. But the fact that abuse may be less common now does not negate the decades of pain that the victims of 50 or 70 years ago have had to live with.
Pope Francis said in his August 20 letter to the People of God, “We have realized that these wounds never disappear and that they require us forcefully to condemn these atrocities and join forces in uprooting this culture of death; these wounds never go away.” The pope has drawn criticism of his own in the past few weeks, but I agree with this message from his letter. We must admit our guilt and not be defensive.
Another defensive comment I have heard goes something like this: Well, the Catholic Church does not have a corner or a market on child sexual abuse.
This is true. The insidious crime of child abuse has unfolded in public school settings, in neighborhoods, and perpetrators have come from all professions and walks of life, the priesthood perhaps no more or less than any other. But priests have promised to give their lives to God, to the Gospel, to the People of God. While there are many other abusers, those other abusers have not promised to give their lives to God, to preach the Gospel, and to serve the faithful. This does not make priests better. Rather, it makes us more accountable. We should be shaking in our shoes because of the trust that people put in us. We must admit our guilt and our wrongdoing, not be defensive about it.
With everything inside of me, I love the Church. And I love being a priest. I will be grateful to God forever for the gift of a vocation to the priesthood — in fact, I will never be able to be grateful enough. I lament that the trust in and love for the Church that I had as a child will not be restored to the Church in my lifetime. This makes me so sad.
This is no time to play defense. Rather, it is a time for bishops and priests to confess that we have greatly sinned, in what we have done and in what we have failed to do, through our fault, through our fault, through our most grievous fault. It is time to beg God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of those who have been abused. It is time for bishops and priests to weep, to cry, and to truly accompany the abused and their families, if they will let us.
It is time for us to cry out: Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
Fr. Joe Corpora, C.S.C., is the Director of University-School Partnerships within Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education, the associate director of pastoral care for students in Campus Ministry, and a priest-in-residence in Dillon Hall. He is one of 700 priests whom Pope Francis appointed in February 2016 to serve as Missionaries of Mercy and his book of reflections on this experience, The Relentless Mercy of God, was published last spring by Corby Books.