These 3 Catholic Leaders Are Refreshingly Honest About Sexual Abuse in the Church

By Sara Larson
Executive Director, Awake

On September 12, I participated in the “Harm, Healing, and Hope” conference offered online by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Minneapolis. I already knew a bit about the speakers and the refreshing survivor-centered approach being taken in that Archdiocese, so I was optimistic about the content. I am always seeking spaces where people of faith are willing to face the horrors of the past and recognize the need for ongoing transformation and healing. Sadly, these spaces seem few and far between, but streaming this conference in my Milwaukee apartment, I was truly impressed by what I heard, and I wanted to share a taste of the content with the Awake community.

The conference began with the screening of a video titled “Restorative Justice in the Catholic Church and Beyond,” which highlighted the voices of survivors, church leaders, and others discussing the deep hurt of clergy sexual abuse and the need for real change to bring about healing. This 20 minute film is a helpful introduction to the principles of restorative justice, in the context of an Archdiocese where great harm has occurred. I would recommend taking time to view this film on Youtube here.

After this film, Justice Janine Geske, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice and retired Marquette University Law School professor, offered an overview of the restorative justice approach to addressing harm. This approach asks three key questions when examining a situation: first, who was harmed?, second, what was that harm?, and third, how can we repair that harm? Looking at the issue of clergy sexual abuse through this lens creates a radical shift in perspective; this opens us up to the full reality of abuse in the Catholic Church—the many people who have been harmed, the far-reaching effects of that harm, and the deep, slow, painful process of repairing that harm. Justice Geske’s talk is available here

Father Daniel Griffith, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes and Liaison for Restorative Justice and Healing for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, followed Justice Geske with the most honest reflection I have ever heard from a priest on the twin crises of sexual abuse and leadership failures in the Catholic Church. I took notes as fast I could during his talk, but I would highly recommend watching his entire presentation here. Fr. Griffith directly addressed the systemic problems that led to both abuse and cover up, asking, “What type of culture produces this behavior?” He suggested that if our response to the abuse crisis does not transform that insular clerical culture, that culture will continue to cause harm. Griffith highlighted three key issues that need to be centered in any response to the twin crises: the accountability of bishops, the role of the laity, and care for victim-survivors. While placing his talk firmly in the context of restorative justice, Griffith also asserted that “restorative justice can provide a stepping stone, a bridge to transformative justice. Allowing people to tell their stories of harm can change hearts and…transform those social structures that are sinful and producing harm.”

The final presentation of the morning was offered by my friend Paula Kaempffer, who is the Outreach Coordinator for Restorative Justice and Abuse Prevention for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and herself a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. Kaempffer gave a powerful reflection shaped by her own experience, as well as the perspective of the many survivors she works with through online support groups. She highlighted the deep pain of survivors, many of whom say that the cover up and betrayal by church leaders has caused more suffering than the abuse itself. She spoke of the lasting harm done to victims’ relationship with God and acknowledged that many are so deeply hurt and traumatized that they cannot stay in the Catholic Church. While focusing on those who have been abused, Kaempffer also recognized that family, friends, and many Catholics in the pews have become “secondary survivors,” carrying their own deep wounds. She challenged the entire Catholic Church with these words: “Many of our hierarchy and parishioners want it to just go away, to disappear, to blow over. [They say,] ‘Why can’t they get over it?’ Well, you never get over it. You might get through it, but you never get over it. It hasn’t gone away. It’s still here. The victims are not going away. There are still more victims coming forth every day.” It was a somber message, but Kaempffer ended with words of hope, taken from Pope Francis: “God offers us love and welcomes us with tenderness. That is the basis for our hope.” Her reflection is only ten minutes long but so poignant; you can view it here

The conference ended with a brief question and answer time (including both Janine Geske and Paula Kaempffer giving shout-outs to Awake Milwaukee!), but I could have listened to any of these wise speakers for much longer. I signed off with a feeling of deep gratitude for leaders in the Catholic Church who are willing to take an honest look at the reality of sexual abuse—and a greater motivation to help Awake bring similar honesty and work for healing to our own local Church in whatever way we can.

I would like to end with these words from Father Daniel Griffith, speaking to all Catholics who care about addressing this harm and working toward healing: “Lean in. Fight for the good. Fight for greater integrity in the Church. Exercise your prophetic voice, which was given to you by Christ.”

Sara Larson is executive director of Awake Milwaukee. She studied theology at Marquette University, worked in parish ministry for eight years, and is a member of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Milwaukee.

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