Courageous Conversations: First Awake Event Addresses the Harm of “Clerical Culture” in the Church

The twin crises of sexual abuse and leadership failures in the Church are fostered by an “insular clerical culture” that needs transformation, said speaker Fr. Dan Griffith during Awake Milwaukee’s first-ever Courageous Conversations event, held virtually on Thursday, December 10. A recording of the event is available here

“If the Church doesn’t change its culture, these problems will continue to manifest themselves,” Griffith said, suggesting that future revelations will likely involve the abuse of adults or financial misconduct. “The clerical insular culture that is rife through the McCarrick Report, is so much … an underlying cause. Until that culture has been transformed, the continuing saga will continue to harm the Church,” he said. 

Griffith (pictured above) is pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis, liaison for Restorative Justice and Healing for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and faculty member at the St. Thomas University School of Law. He spoke candidly about his experiences in his archdiocese, where he was appointed as the delegate for safe environment in 2013, around the time that a whistle blower went public with documents showing the ongoing coverup of abuse in the archdiocese. The resulting firestorm was warranted “because we had not protected kids,” Griffith said. “We sought to protect the institution, we showed favor to accused clergy, and we did not handle things objectively.” 

The following year, his archbishop, John Nienstedt, was the subject of an internal investigation for sexual misconduct. During this period Griffith sent a long, detailed memo to auxiliary bishops, describing efforts to quash the investigation as “a good old-fashioned cover-up to preserve power and avoid scandal.”

In his talk, Griffith said that the culture in many archdioceses leaves decision-making to a chosen few who are focused on preserving the institution and protecting the bishop. “Power is located in just a very few hands, and that doesn’t produce good results,” he said. Since Neinstedt’s removal from office in 2015, the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis has undergone significant changes to dismantle clerical culture, Griffith added. He credits four changes for shifting the culture.      

Change 1: Placing victim-survivors in important positions. The Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis hired victim-survivor Paula Kaempffer as Outreach Coordinator for Restorative Justice and Abuse Prevention, a role that involves coordinating all efforts in the archdiocese to help abuse victim-survivors heal. Frank Meuers, Minnesota director of SNAP, also works closely with the archdiocese. “Victim-survivors have to be right at the heart of this transformation,” Griffith said. 

Change 2: Including lay people in archdiocesan leadership. Griffith believes the gifts of “competent laity” should be integrated into “every place along a diocese’s leadership.” 

Change 3: Establishing humble episcopal leadership. Griffith praised the approach of Archbishop Bernard Hebda, appointed to replace Nienstedt. “Archbishop Hebda consults broadly, and he listens to folks,” he said. “He pays attention, and he invites a number of different people to the table. He meets with victim-survivors. He has shown to be an inclusive and humble leader, and you don’t see that across the board.” 

Change 4: Using restorative practices. The archdiocese began adopting restorative justice methods to acknowledge harm and work toward healing. Before the pandemic, Griffith regularly visited parishes in the archdiocese to run healing circles where people shared their experiences in the Church. These practices “allow people to tell their story, to name the harm,” he explained. “It transforms hearts, accompanies people in their challenging circumstances, and it does lead to healing.”

Reflections on the McCarrick Report

Griffith called the Vatican’s McCarrick Report “remarkable” in its scope, but said more investigation is needed. He shared an observation by a priest friend who was an airline pilot before entering the seminary: “He said if a plane crashes, it’s investigated from every angle. [You] look at every dimension of what caused the catastrophic failure and the loss of life, and you do that because that’s what you have to do to fly planes safely.” 

“This has not happened with regard to Church culture,” Griffith said. After the McCarrick allegations came to light, bishops should have launched a robust independent investigation, looking “at every facet of church and ecclesial culture” that might contribute to continued abuses of power. “That has not been done,” he asserted. “That needs to be done.”

He stressed that Church leaders must meet regularly with victim-survivors to understand their pain, praising the Vatican for instructing bishops to meet with victim-survivors before the anti-abuse summit in Rome in February 2019. This ensured “that abuse wouldn’t be an abstraction, but something concrete,” Griffith said, adding that Pope Francis personally “came to a vastly different place” after listening to victim-survivors in Chile. Observers believe this experience led to the abuse summit and Vos Estis, the new church law designed to hold bishops accountable. 

On the day of his talk, Griffith also attended a virtual forum on the McCarrick Report held by Georgetown and Fordham universities. Panelists there mentioned that the report did not address the role of money in the McCarrick case, which is notable given that Theodore McCarrick was a prolific fundraiser. Speakers there suggested that revelations about financial misconduct are likely to emerge in the near future, Griffith said. 

He added that he is hesitant to view the McCarrick Report as a “sea change” in the life of the Church. Given that the clerical culture has not been reformed, there’s a risk that this is “going to be a one off. [When] the next bishop resigns there won’t be a mention of why they resigned,” Griffith said. 

How Can Average Catholics Chip Away at Clerical Culture?

Reform in the Church is likely to happen only at a “glacial” pace “because those who have the power hold on to it,” Griffith said. Change will likely require outside pressure by the media or civil and criminal law, he said, or by an engaged laity demanding change. 

During the question and answer session, Griffith offered three suggestions for lay Catholics interested in working to dismantle the insular clerical culture. 

  1. Get involved in your parish.  “Get to know parish leaders, such as the trustees or the parish council” and play a role in parish-level decisions, Griffith said. Share the expertise you’ve gained outside the parish.  
  1. Speak truth to power. Give your honest opinions to parish and archdiocesan leaders. “I’ve always said to people I work with, ‘I don’t want yes people,’” Griffith said. “I put strong people on our parish council because they’ll tell me what they think.” 
  1. Consider that you might contribute to clerical culture. Some lay people may “give priests too much deference,” Griffith said. Instead of deferring, Griffith recommends speaking up to offer clergy alternative views.

Griffith asserted that the McCarrick Report could not have been written five years ago. He said the report and the involvement of the laity through groups including Awake Milwaukee give him hope. He also feels strongly that “Jesus Christ is alive and well in the Church,” he said. The teachings of Jesus provide a clear path toward “greater light and integrity and justice,” Griffith said. That path involves responding to victim-survivors with compassion, following the example of the good Samaritan. The goal, Griffith said, should be to “take up authority in the Church as an act of service rather than perpetuating the institution.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

Watch for more information on Awake’s next Courageous Conversation in January 2021, coming soon.    

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