Life and Soul

Healing ministry for abuse survivors is suddenly in demand


Not without a certain trepidation, I have come to speak at a clergy convention in one of the dioceses of Pennsylvania which was the subject of the Grand Jury report last summer. Hundreds of priests in the state had been abusing minors and many of the older cases were simply covered up and the perpetrators reassigned by bishops. The report coincided with the revelation that Theodore McCarrick, one of the highest ranking prelates in the US Church, was a serial abuser who was able to hide in plain sight while simultaneously presenting himself as leading the clean-up in the wake of the 2002 Boston scandals. These stories broker at the same time as a huge reorganisation in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which has seen the number of parishes reduced by almost two thirds at a stroke and many priests now given responsibility for second and third parish communities numbering thousands of parishioners. There is, as one would expect, demoralisation among clergy and laity. Pittsburgh retains strong Catholic institutions and communities, but the contraction of this large and thriving diocese is the harbinger of wider changes.

The Bishop of Pittsburgh has produced an impressive and comprehensive plan to bring healing in the aftermath of the clergy abuse crisis and its cover up. It promises greater financial transparency generally but also undertakes to declare all monies paid in compensation to clergy abuse victims, in legal fees and for the support of priests removed from ministry. It desires that everyone from the bishop downwards should henceforth be subject to third-party reporting of any concerns about suspected financial, professional or personal misconduct in any parish, school, institution or office of the diocese. It commits the bishop and the diocese to ongoing listening sessions where the laity can make their views known directly. It seeks to improve the psychosexual formation of priests and deacons.

But most importantly, the plan identifies the healing and restoration of victims as the first priority and creates a new department to provide healing to abuse survivors and their families. It is for this reason that I have been invited to address the clergy in my capacity as international pastoral director of Grief to Grace, which provides retreats for abuse victims. The report commits the diocese to establishing our ministry here within 18 months.

After labouring for more than 10 years in this field and therefore suspecting, long before it was brought to light by judicial power, the extent of the abuse and cover-ups, it is something of a pyrrhic victory for the ministry suddenly to be so much in demand. For years bishops on both sides of the Atlantic treated Grief to Grace rather as though we were fanatics indulging some kind of private hobby. In Pittsburgh diocese, at least, our work will be financially resourced, whereas in the UK we have to raise all our own funds. The Second Vatican Council tells us that the Church has a divine mandate to bind up wounds. My message to the priests here is that they can become part of the healing. For though it is true that no one obscures the presence of Christ more scandalously than an abusive priest, that is precisely because no one ministers it more surely when he has given God his will to do so.