Father Thomas Berg, professor of moral theology and vice-rector of St Joseph’s Seminary in New York, has published a book very relevant to our times. Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics (Gracewing £12.99) addresses the wounds caused by abuse and the clericalism that lies behind it. If clericalism is the pursuit of priestly power over lay people, abuse, particularly sexual abuse is, the author affirms, “one of the most heinous forms” of it.
Berg’s book was written before the current scandals to beset the Church, that of same-sex abuse of seminarians and other young men by older members of the hierarchy, but after the revelations of paedophile priests unearthed by the Boston Globe in 2002. This does not alter the author’s essential thesis: whether children or young adults, people experience real and lasting wounds at the hands of clerics that will never heal unless addressed in the right way. If this sounds simplistic, the book isn’t; it is a thoughtful, Christ-centred reflection on what it is like to suffer abuse and how to find authentic healing from it.
Berg gives extra credibility to his writing by describing his own suffering at the hands of the Church. As a young man he discerned a vocation to the Legionaries of Christ and spent 23 years as a Legionary priest. Uncomfortable with the rumours that circulated about the private life of the Legionaries’ founder, Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado, he tried for a long time to accept the official Legionary response that they were the work of malicious enemies of the Order.
Finally, as the rumours were found to be true in 2009, Berg chose to be released from his vows as a religious and to join the diocesan priesthood. Utterly disillusioned and angry with the way he and many others had been manipulated, he began to fear that for 23 years he had apparently dedicated himself “to a fiction”. He describes Maciel as “a sociopathic sexual omnivore” who had scandalous relations with both men and women, addicted to drugs and whose “cult of personality” dominated the Order he had founded. Indeed, he wonders if the Order can ever truly reform itself.
With the help of good lay friends, discernment with a trusted spiritual director and much time and prayer, Berg experienced over time how “Jesus led me to discover in my wounds an oasis of grace and a call to a new mission.” He is frank about the loneliness priests endure and how heathy friendships are essential; a “Bethany” he calls it, reflecting the human solace Jesus found at the home of Martha and Mary. He wonders if he could have persevered in the priesthood without such friends.
He describes two case histories, one of a young girl who was sexually abused by her parish priest for many years and the other of a parish administrator treated harshly by her priest. Berg understands why victims of clerical abuse describe it as “soul murder”. Nonetheless, and this is the great strength of his book, he shows how there can be a way forward for victims; there must be an honest acknowledgement of what has happened to them and following this, three components to transformation: hope, acceptance, and what he calls “conditioning” i.e. God preparing one throughout one’s life for the grace-filled moment that can lead to lasting healing.
The book’s focus is not so much the requirement of justice for the perpetrators of abuse which is taken as read, but to help victims recognise their suffering can be “a pathway to union with God.” Berg reminds us that “being a Catholic is not about following rules; it’s about following Jesus. Rather than simply attacking the Church in its hierarchical, institutional dimension, including its leadership and organisation, he counsels helping to fix the problems of the institution; not to walk away but to become “a better Christian ourselves.”
I recently heard a priest describe the current state of the Church as on a par with the scandal of the Avignon papacy. Whatever the possible historical parallels, Berg reminds us that “We are the Church and together we are called upon to be instruments of the Holy Spirit to build up that Church, to embrace sinners… to contribute lovingly and faithfully to her ongoing renewal and to bring healing to her hurting members.”