Courageous Conversation: Examining the Ripple Effects of Clergy Abuse in the Church

Last week Awake Milwaukee launched the 2021-2022 season of its Courageous Conversations series by discussing the ripple effects of the twin crises of sexual abuse and leadership failures in the Catholic Church.

During this event, Catholic moral theologian Marcus Mescher, PhD, of Xavier University in Cincinnati gave an idea-packed talk about what he sees as the “moral injury” to the Church caused by the abuse crisis. “As a moral theologian, I think too often we neglect how this affects the entire Church and not just the survivor community and their loved ones,” he explained. “I’m not trying to diminish the gravity of the impact on survivors, but I do think we fail to adequately address the toll this takes on the lay faithful as a whole.”

A recording of the event, A Body of Broken Bones: The Ripple Effects of Abuse on the Body of Christ, is available on Awake’s YouTube channel.

The author of The Ethics of Encounter: Christian Neighbor Love as a Practice of Solidarity, Mescher grew up in Milwaukee and then Mequon, where his family attended the parish now known as Lumen Christi. Mescher attended Marquette High School and Marquette University, and after graduation spent several years in parish ministry in the Milwaukee area.

“So I come as a faithful Catholic,” he explained. “I have a lot of love for the Catholic Church, and at the same time, I’m coming to see more and more the wounds that have been caused not only in the Church but by the Church.” 

Mescher is currently working on a book about the clergy abuse crisis. He intended to focus largely on the topic of restorative justice as a route to healing the Church. But “the more work that I did on restorative justice, the more I saw a need to better understand the root causes of the problem and to listen to the voices of survivors,” he explained. “We can’t … presume to know what justice entails until we center the voices of survivors and let them lead the way … toward what healing will look like, how we redress harm that’s been done, and to try to ensure that there are no more cases of abuse in the Church.”

What Is Moral Injury?

The term “moral injury” was first applied to soldiers returning from war, Mescher said. It’s the “feeling of dissonance and disorientation in soldiers who either participated in or witnessed acts that violated their moral code,” he explained.  

“It’s not a perfect term to describe the harm that’s been done” in the abuse crisis, Mescher said, but it’s useful in illustrating that these wounds go beyond trauma or sin. The “moral” part of the term is important, he explained: “This is an experience of evil that really interrupts what we previously expected of ourselves and other people.” And the fact that this is an “injury” is also significant. While injuries can be serious and life-threatening, they are not necessarily permanent. “There is a hope for healing and recovery,” Mescher explained. Still, these wounds are complicated, with some theologians and psychologists describing moral injury as leaving “souls in anguish.” 

Mescher said that as a theologian, this work causes him to wonder,  “Where is God in the Church abuse scandal and its coverup in the Catholic Church? And how can I, as a theologian, try to help people make sense of what’s happened?”

He noted that Jesus was naked on the cross. “He was stripped naked as an act of humiliation,” Mescher said, which means that Jesus experienced sexual violence. “To identify Jesus as a survivor of sexual violence reminds us that if we’re looking for where God is in this crisis, that God is with the survivors,” he said. “Jesus identifies himself with the survivors.” 

The Role of Conscience

Mescher also sees conscience as an important factor in the abuse crisis and the path to healing. Despite the conventional wisdom that conscience is a Jiminy Cricket character sitting on our shoulder, reminding us of right and wrong, it is more accurate to see conscience as “an innate capacity, activity, and life-long process of being formed by scripture, tradition, reason, and experience,” Mescher offered.

The word conscience comes from root words that mean “to know together.” “It literally means that conscience is not a private affair,” Mescher said. “We come to know what is right, true, good, and just by being in dialogue with other people.” For that reason, he added, the entire Church must work together to get a clearer sense of the truth of the abuse crisis.

“If conscience means ‘to know together,’ that means that when the Church props up secrecy, when it silences survivors, when it tries to move on as business as usual, it prevents people from the truth about what’s been happening in our faith communities,” Mescher asserted. “When we deny people the truth, we can’t help but deaden the conscience. People can’t make well-informed judgements about what is right, true, good and just. They can’t rightfully trust the Church if they don’t know all the ways that the Church has betrayed them.”

How Do We Move Toward Healing?

Mescher spoke about ways that the Church might engage in healing, and said that he hopes to consider these questions more deeply during the Part 2 of the Courageous Conversation, happening on Thursday, Sept. 16. Some might see their parish communities as “a place for not only woundedness, but also potential healing.” Existing relationships with fellow Catholics can be safe places for truth-telling, where people can share their stories and dream together. Mescher also cited a line from Pope Francis’s exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, in which he calls for a “revolution of tenderness.”  

“I think that’s really what the Church needs,” he said. “Rather than distance, rather than growing apart, rather than … ‘you stay in your lane, I’ll stay in mine,’ and ‘That’s not my problem,’ … we need that tenderness to draw closer to each other, and to figure out how we do this healing work together.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

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