Recently I shared something with my wife that I had not focused on for several years. I shared the fact that I’m still dealing with my anger with the church. I’ve been furious with the church for a while now, in fact, the whole damn church. I’ve been especially angry with the Catholic Church, too, and here is why:
Unpacking My Anger with the Church
I have dedicated the lion’s share of my life’s work to the care, protection and well-being of young people near and far as way has opened within my professional life and within ministry as a Quaker. For nearly forty years I have sat with, listened to, sheltered, advised, hugged and held children and adults alike at their deepest moment of need. Whatever skills or gifts I had I offered freely and without hesitation because I saw with my own eyes and felt in my heart how healing came to so many by caring fully and giving of self.
Anything But God’s Work
Then came the tragic revelations, one after another, of clergymen (and I say men) sexually abusing, molesting and raping children, and the horrific scandal of the church hierarchy covering it up. And, let’s be clear here too, the Catholic Church covered it up better than most. My anger with the church made me sick. And then my anger with the church made me furious.
It made me furious because in a flash of time it turned the sacredness of ministering to others and the confidential working places between clients and counselors into a suddenly dangerous occupation. Though the religious, as they like to be called, who offended so many are themselves very small in number compared to the millions who continue the good work, they scarred many for life and injected fear, forevermore, into the workplace and ministry settings of those of us who remain, especially for adult males working within youth-serving vocations.
The Fallout Continues
In recent years while leading workshops for youth workers I tell the counselors, ministers and volunteers that we now work in a hard hat area. That it’s risky. That perception is paramount. That they, especially men, are held suspect are today held suspect more often than not and that our numbers are dwindling because so many gifted adults are too afraid to show up and work with children these days. And that is another layer of tragedy. Frankly, it has made me cry.
Nowadays, as agencies, parishes and youth programs everywhere strive for transparency and implement the razzle-dazzle of computerized background checks, fingerprinting and so forth of perspective new employees, some challenging truths remain. First, young people still need caring and appropriate adults to help them grow and prosper in every aspect of life. But just as importantly, we need skilled adults in the helping professions who are passionate about their work, who show up every day with a sense of calling and uttermost concern for that one child or teenager needing to be helped.
Frankly, as the available pool of newly minted youth workers in both ministry and social services settings seems to be shrinking, I’m noticing a disturbing new trend; new hires are arriving who have the degree and a clean background check, but a noticeable number clearly lack genuine inner passion for the work. And we know who suffers as a result.
As our society systematizes and sanitizes the path for everyone with an emerging interest in working with youth, we are also in the process, inadvertently, of cutting off many sincere adults who would share their time and talents with youngsters. Gone is the neighborhood mechanic who would guide a teenager under the hood of a car to teach them something new. Or, whatever happened to the neighborhood artist who occasionally invited kids into her or his studio to learn the techniques and experience the wonder of being an artist?
When I was a kid there was a man down the street who was a model train hobbyist. His entire cellar was a magical land of waist-high tracks, trees and tiny buildings with trains of every type running about. Every Saturday his door was open for a period of time for the neighborhood kids to tromp in, myself included, and put on an engineer’s hat and have a go at the command console of this make-believe world. Though I have long-since forgotten his name, I still remember to this day of feeling welcomed and totally comfortable, even when I took the turns too fast and the trains flew off the tracks. Tell me, where are we seeing these kinds of everyday folks today?
Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
These people have largely disappeared from view. Not because they don’t exist or no longer possess the desire to nurture and share their talents with young people, but because they worry about perceptions and the fear of being held suspect. These days, sadly, the bulk of whatever recreations and passive activities that our children participate in are within highly structured organizations and systems, etc. That’s not to take anything away from the value of what these programs offer, it’s just that they’ve become nearly the only options available in most communities, especially in the US.
Even my own work as a youth advocate over the past thirty years has been contained within a small youth and service agency within my community. And the children’s retreat program that I started and ran for twenty-six years was and continues to function within the structure of my faith tradition as a Quaker. These programs need and benefit by being contained within a larger structure. My argument here is that these structures shouldn’t be the only sanctioned and valued ways of nurturing children.
Still, as the ramifications of the clergy sexual abuse scandal made its way through the fabric of our society, from initial shock, horror and outrage, those of us continuing in the field have had to deal with and somehow push past the fear and keep on working. At times it wasn’t easy. I know too that my own ministry and professional work have been impacted, even suffered, from the after-effects of the clergy sexual abuse cases in the news and how that has all settled into the collective psyche of the public. But working and ministering in an environment of fear isn’t healthy for the caregiver or the receiver, either. Over time, and with the guidance of others, I have gotten beyond that fear even as my anger continued against the predators and the religious systems that allowed the abuse to continue for so long.
Getting Beyond Blaming
However, it’s far too easy to continue blaming the “church” in general or even the Catholic Church specifically. Continuing to do so heals no one, nor me. And over the past year or so I’ve learned something else too. A number of truly committed faith leaders spanning several denominations, whose ministry and spiritual grace I value, have (finally) accepted responsibility for past abuses committed by their own clergy people. These leaders have not only addressed the resulting firestorm of public anger that these abuses happened in the first place, but these faith leaders and clergy people also are accepting ownership of the deep-rooted systems and church traditions that, in effect, have sheltered such crimes in the first place. These leaders have not only repented publicly and repeatedly, but at the same time they are working tirelessly forging a new way forward by being transparent and by embracing new approaches that are helping to keep our children safer within their denominational structures, etc.
I also acknowledge my own work ahead in the forgiveness department. I need to find a way to do that without forgetting or minimizing in any way the damage done to so many children by those who claimed to be doing God’s work. I thought about exploring a retreat to attend for myself, perhaps at a Catholic retreat center, so that I could say right out loud how furious I have been and why, and then ask for help in letting that anger and inner fury go.
Text and images by Kevin Lee
David Briggs, writing in the Huffington Post in 2012, details in real numbers how the Catholic faith has suffered from the fallout of sexual abuse by priests. Read article here.
S.N.A.P.: Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. An activist network and source of support for people who have been abused by priests and other clergy people.