You’re STILL not over the sex abuse scandal?

Bishop Weakland is dead.

Weakland, if you’ve allowed yourself to forget, was Archbishop of Milwaukee, and when he received reports of the sexual abuse of children in his care, he shredded them. He allowed abusive priests to continue serving, and he didn’t tell their parishioners or the police what they had done. He referred to abuse victims as “squealers.” And he embezzled nearly half a million dollars of diocesan money to hush up the 20-year-old student who accused him of sexual abuse. 

This is what’s known, in some Catholic circles, as “a complicated legacy.” 

Can I please make something clear. I wish for the dead bishop mercy. I pray that Jesus came to him and presented him with the clear chance to repent, and that the man grabbed at this lifeline with both hands. I wish for salvation for his soul and for all souls, and the Lord of mercies can work out the details of who deserves what in the afterlife. 

But Twitter is not the afterlife.  Twitter is full of the walking wounded, people who have personally been abused by priests and then further abused by the Church’s response to that abuse.

Yet on Twitter, I learned of Weakland’s death through a series of tweets that, to my horror, skipped straight over the nightmare he created with his own two hands, and dove directly into an anodyne, self-congratulatory valediction for the man, as if he’d just been any old cleric who had kept himself busy, done his best, and then toddled on to his likely reward. When Catholics responded with anger and disbelief at the omission, the general response was: Well, obviously the sex abuse scandal was terrible, but maybe try harder to be like Jesus, who forgives this stuff.

As if it were all over. As if the sex abuse scandal were in the past, and something that normal, healthy, grounded people had already long since gotten over.

And this is why it’s still not over. 

There are people who did not leave the Church when they were abused, and who did not leave the Church when their abuse was covered up. But when the cover-up began to get treated like some kind of overblown, hysterical nonsense for people who simply don’t know how to get on with their lives . . . then they knew they could not stay.

And that’s where we are now. This is where we continue to be: Mired in this all-too-familiar clericalism that tirelessly chides victims for being too sensitive, too unforgiving, too unlike Jesus. It’s still blaming victims and their advocates for the sins of priests — still, still trying to hush and rush past the mention of real, putrid, violent sin, and shield the sinner from consequences. It’s still happening, as we speak, on Twitter and in parish offices and everywhere, in real life. And this is why the scandal is still not over. 

Here’s a comparison that Weakland’s defenders will bristle at: The “yes yes, of course he was a sinner, but we must forgive” approach felt very familiar to me, and I suddenly realized what it was. It is precisely the same condescending attitude I hear from some people as they deal with COVID in August of 2022. They aren’t COVID deniers. But they’re COVID-weary, as who wouldn’t be; and so they’ve decided that not only are they done, but everyone else ought to be done, too. And so if they see someone in the supermarket or at church with a mask, they will roll their eyes and say, “You need to get over this, honey.”

But for all they know, the person in the mask may have cancer, or one lung. Or they may have long-haul COVID. They may have contracted a case that disabled them permanently, scarred them from the inside out. Maybe that’s who you’re rolling your eyes at for overreacting. 

Listen, as I write, I’m thinking to myself what a miserably dated reference COVID is. I never wanted to have to tag an essay “COVID” ever again. And that’s kind of the point. We’re all so wretchedly weary of having to consider it, pick it up one more time and take it into account, to figure out how it fits in, think about how serious a threat it is. Most of us are not living our lives in a state of panic and crisis. We have learned how to incorporate risk assessment and behavioral changes into our everyday lives, because you do have to live. True for COVID, true for the sex abuse scandal. 

But it’s a luxury to be able to feel that way. Some people’s lives have been changed forever. They are permanently disabled, scarred from the inside out, in part because so many people simply did not want to acknowledge what was happening. What are we going to do, deliberately harden our hearts because their problem is old news and now we’re bored? 

True for COVID, true for the sex abuse scandal. We may be past the first early era where it was shocking and new, but just because it’s less new now doesn’t mean it’s over; and part of the reason it’s not over is because people who should know better persist in behaving as if it is over. It’s not over. It’s old and exhausting and miserable and tiresome beyond words. But it’s not over. People are still suffering. 

I believe we’re only just starting to realize the long-term damage the infection of abuse has had on the body of Christ. What a dreadful thing to look at these walking wounded and say — whether outright, or by omission — Oh honey, aren’t you over that yet? 

We still have years and years of garment-rending ahead of us. We’re not done. Not nearly done. If you’re exhausted with other people’s suffering, you need to deal with that in private until you can get your head and heart back in a better place. This scandal is a long haul disease. We’re still not nearly done. 

Photo by form PxHere

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25 thoughts on “You’re STILL not over the sex abuse scandal?”

  1. Not trying to excuse Fr James’ Twitter gaffe… it was stupid.

    But I also have some sympathy for the “I’m over it so you should be too” camp. I’ve felt it for myself in my own recovery from an assault attempt as a child (an impulsive act from a much older teenager and I managed to put up enough of a fight to escape). Sometimes you do get stuck in a hole and you kind of need to just act like you’re over it and moving on in order to actually do it (in a CBT kind of way, not a repressive way). I do think we do have to get to that point as a community, but balanced with the needs of individuals to get to that point on their own terms.

    If your a public figure however, you need to tread more carefully. You don’t get to dictate when survivors are over it and you don’t get to dictate when the rest of us adjacent to those survivors do the same. Yes Jesus forgiving of sinners, but he was also pretty harsh on hypocrites and abusers of power. The two are not mutually exclusive.

  2. Years ago, David France, the author of Our Fathers: Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal, wrote about Archbishop Weakland, making him out to be a good man who tragically fell into a consensual relationship with an adult. The book quoted his letter to the man saying that he was ending the affair because his priesthood meant so much to him.

    I was surprised to learn that he covered up the abuse of children and furthermore, demeaned them as “squealers.”

    What an ugly story.

  3. It’s safe to despair that Catholic bishops (and high-profile priests) of this generation will ever truly give a shit about the victims of clerical rape.

    When someone can eulogize Weakland without even a pro forma statement in support of the victims of that collared bureaucrat’s cruel tenure, or imagine that his payoff to his male lover was his worst sin, said eulogizer is part and parcel of the problem.

    The ol’ “six brass handles” approach to church reform might work, but I’m not seeing the beginnings of a clue from those appointed to America after 2002. In fact, a wingman for Ted McCarrick will be receiving a red hat shortly.

    But even if it works, it will be far too slow and the casualty count will be worse.

    1. I so agree with the tenor of this comment, its deep indignation. We are talking about child rape. What more needs to be said?

  4. Noodling around on the internet and saw a writer (of some Christian background) claim that the collapse of the church in Ireland was because it lost confidence in itself!! Can you imagine??

    I don’t think anyone would argue that, whatever else causes predatory abuse, some basic level of human hubris has to be behind it and there was certainly institutional hubris that led to the decades of cover-up. Imagine believing that the hierarchical church just didn’t believe in itself enough. That seems like all it believed in.

  5. Thank you for this essay. I didn’t join the Church until after the scandal broke and before I understood exactly what it all meant (thank you, makers of Spotlight movie).
    My experience was with the Baptist church and the issue of integration. I don’t know who said that slavery was this country’s besetting sin, but they were right and the evangelical church has so much to answer for. There are so many who just don’t want to deal with the legacy of that horror.
    Again, thank you.

  6. Praying for better days for everyone and wish the church was what it should be; hope to be part of making it better.

  7. Because of the very thing this woman is writing about here, I assume the Church is one and only one of two things: dead or dying.

    1. Not yet. She’s looked like this many times before, and she’ll look like this again, but She never quite passes away.

      “At least five times…with the Arian and the Albigensian, with the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.” – Chesterton

      This is an internal cancer, but I can’t help but hope it’ll end the same way.

  8. Thank you Simcha; I am one of the few teachers in my Catholic school wearing a mask ( my wife has very poor health and is in the high risk category ) ; in February our bishop jumped hard on the ” let’s move on with our lives” cultural bandwagon in regards to Covid . I don’t understand such indifference to the weak and suffering. Thankfully I don’t need to. But I do need to know that there are some people in the Church who feel as my wife and I do, which is why I am grateful for this article. p.s. I actually came home yesterday from our teacher’s retreat, led by a priest, and shared with my wife that a “New -clericalism” has perhaps replaced the “New Evangelization”

    1. Yes, because this was about poor widdle delicate you, not people who were raped by priests when they were little kids. Poor you. Poor, poor you. The hell with victims of rape, it’s about you and your dewwycate widdle fee-fees.

      You are not a man.

      1. Simcha’s blogpost compared attitudes about the abuse scandal with pandemic attitudes. Just because this commenter addressed the pandemic part of the analogy doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about abuse victims and the coverup. And he most certainly is a man by taking precautions to protect his high-risk wife from being one of the million+ Americans who has succumbed to this virus.

  9. Well said on both counts (abuse scandal and pandemic). The pandemic is certainly not over, whether we feel over it or not. Yes, it’s much better. Hospitalizations are lower, deaths are lower, and the gap between infection rate and deaths/hospitalizations is widening. But the true test will be to see what happens this winter, when people are congregating indoors. If we can have a winter where we don’t have upwards of 2,000 people/day dying, I will breathe a sigh of relief. Until then, I don’t think it’s that big a deal to put on a mask at the grocery store.

  10. To be honest, I’m a survivor of sexual abuse in the Church and I’M tired of dealing with it. And not in a,”this is my life and I have to live with the circumstances of it every day” kind of way, (though that’s true too) but just a weariness that the same things are said over and over and over again, by both “sides”, with no real change in sight. It doesn’t help that this issue, like so many others, has become so politicized by the factions in the Church (the “left” say it’s because of celibacy and a male priesthood, the “right” says it’s all those darn gays, and everyone in the middle is just plain tired).

    I’ve wondered if there’s a new approach or new way that this stuff can be talked about. If maybe finding different ways people can take action or look at what happened might help. Doing something proactive somehow. I don’t know if it can, but it feels like something worth trying.

    Because right now, with the current “conversation”, it just feels like beating my head against a wall.

    1. Honestly, i think all the bishops who were born before the year 2002, all those entire generations, need to die off, like in the desert in Exodus. Then we need to start over. THEN we can see what’s next.

    2. I am so sorry for what you have been through. Surveys of Catholics indicate that 1/3 of the victims of clerical abuse in the Catholic church were female and it disheartens me that this abuse goes largely unreported. Thank you for coming forward to raise that issue, especially since female victims, on average, are younger than male victims.

      1. @MaryaR

        Thank you for your kind words. I’ll be honest though, I’m not sure what my age has to do with it. I had just turned 21 when what happened to me happened. I’ve known female survivors both younger and older than I. Most that I’ve met were actually older when their abuses occurred.

  11. Excellent! So many people are still suffering and we need to be compassionate and patient while they try to heal. We may not understand but we are called to be present to their pain.

  12. For a long time, Weakland was a darling of the “National Catholic Reporter”. He was their ideal “Vatican II bishop” – intelligent, thoughtful, and above all not “rigid”. When the scandal about him was revealed, the general attitude was that he was a “wounded healer” – someone who struggled with homosexuality and had a lot to teach us. All of that may be true. But it doesn’t excuse his cover up of abuse.

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