The Effects of the Clergy Abuse Scandal on Our Adult Children

This article appeared in the June 2019 issue of the Northern Cross. It was written in response to several conversations with my own and other of our adult children. —-Mary Claire Sitek

And if, indeed, your hearts must break now, let them break
Wide Open. 

The Broken Chalice

When You’re Finally Forced to Confront How the Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal Has Affected Your Own Adult Children

In the wake of this terrible crisis presently affecting my Church, a new wound is opening up within my own family. It is forcing me to try to justify to my adult children why I remain in the Catholic Church while the sex abuse crisis looms larger now than a decade ago. I must have been oblivious to the fact they, too, were inhaling all this news and experiencing revulsion as a result in proportions I was unaware of.

As it encompasses more and more communities and countries the horror of it grows to an even greater degree than the numbers. (I realize even ONE case would be too much.)  Dealing with my own personal abhorrence, however, pales in comparison to becoming aware of  how it has affected my own (and perhaps all our) children as the news bombards us with its immensity. And the fact that the number of clergy crimes is relatively small compared to the general population’s level of abuse does nothing to alleviate the pain this crisis has inflicted upon all of us—none more so than practicing Catholics: cradle Catholics so to speak.

How do you justify to your children—to our children— your decision to remain in the church as we struggle to live with such scandal, such crime, such diabolical evil?   I was recently faced with this question and realized I have to address it, try to answer it as best I can. Let me start with the peripheral reasons why I stay, so I can end with the central one.

According to Matthew Kelly in his 2010, Rediscovering Catholicism, “There are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, 67 million in America alone…And every single day the Catholic Church feeds, houses, and clothes more people, takes care of more sick people, visits more prisoners, and educates more people than any other institution on the face of the earth…..(before the Church) no one cared for the sick: the essence of health care emerged through the Church—through religious orders….Education for the common person also emerged through the Church—more than 230 colleges and universities are in the U.S. alone.  To say nothing of the thousands of parishes that grew up around religious communities opening up Catholic elementary schools…”

I could go on, but you get my point.  Let me come back to it.

It is impossible to express my grief that every one of us experiences because of being touched by this horror, particularly victims of these crimes. If any of you are reading this, know how sorry I am for your pain. I pray your wounds heal and are heard—and in some ways you are compensated. I hope you know my sorrow for you and helplessness to alleviate your pain break my heart—Wide Open.   We can only stand with you in your suffering.  We can only give you our support as you are brave enough to come forward.

For those of us who have only known faithful and holy priests, you are the other side of the coin, with a shadow hovering over you, a suspicion you never deserved. I recall a priest telling me an encounter he experienced while at lunch with his family after his ordination.  Dressed in his clerical attire, a group of guys in the restaurant taunted him as, “one of those pedophiles:” this occurrence on the happiest day of his life.  The ache in my heart over all of this can be measured by how this affects you, and how I now realize it has affected my own (and all our adult) children.

When one of my own, (not abused) adult children confronted me with the HOW I can remain a faithful Catholic despite this I realized all along they’ve all expressed this judgement. The pain of this confrontation brings on a new stage of pain. Why DO I stay? What constitutes my love for my church, a love that seems to grow the more muddled and messy this all becomes.

I would say discovering the statistics available in Kelly’s book, cited previously, humbled me beyond anything I’ve ever seen concretely regarding our Church.  They made me realize, beyond my personal gripes over some of our behaviors in our 2000 year history, just what and who we really are. These stats truly are our behavior.  They make me proud to have been a part of this history of alleviating so much suffering in our world.

Why DO I stay?  Ultimately it all goes back to family. God made us a family, and when we least deserve to be loved, there is a mother’s heart that cradles us with comfort and forgiveness. The Church is our Mother and this is her heart— to gather us together in joy and sorrow and most especially the nourishment of Eucharist. And if you’re not someone who perceives the reality of the Real Presence of God in the Eucharist I cannot help you! But I can tell you that worse than the evil inherent in this crisis is the possibility I’d have to deal with it without the daily reception of our God.

The fact that the Church is our Mother makes the reality of this pain even greater: mothers lay down their lives for their children.  Mothers are “she-bears” if you hurt one of their own.  Mothers nurture and protect!  How could this have happened within this framework of, “Mother Church?”

If, indeed, our hearts are breaking now, let them break, wide open!

To those of you who are wandering in the darkness of this time, these thoughts may not comfort or console you or salve the wound my refusal to leave my church has become for you.  It’s difficult to apologize for doing the best I can in the circumstances in which I’ve found myself: loving my/our children, for they are all our children, and loving my church.

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