Courageous Conversation: Lay Leaders Reflect on Their Role in Facing the Abuse Crisis

Last week Awake Milwaukee hosted its latest Courageous Conversation, which considered the role of lay leaders in addressing the twin crises of sexual abuse and cover-up in the Catholic Church.

Each of the four panelists described very different ways of using their gifts to work for healing in the Church. They shared valuable insights into what motivates them, what gives them hope, and how this work influences their faith. A recording of the panel discussion is available below.

The panelists included:

Catherine Pead. A lifelong Catholic and former chaplain in school settings, Pead (above, far left) co-founded Concerned Lay Catholics, a Canadian organization. One of its goals is to offer support to victim-survivors of abuse in the Church. “Part of what we’re trying to do at Concerned Lay Catholics is create space for those folks and for ordinary Catholics who really do care—and there are lots of them—to come together,” she explained.

Mike McDonnell. A victim-survivor abused by two priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia beginning when he was 11, McDonnell (above, second from left) used alcohol “as an anesthetic to numb that pain,” until he achieved sobriety at age 35. He now works as communications manager for the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests (SNAP). He said he is motivated in this work by “the fight for my eleven-year-old self,” he said. “And I think about the 25 years of life that could have been totally different had the Archdiocese of Philadelphia decided to take care of the sheep instead of the abusive shepherds.”

Sheila Howe. A spiritual director and licensed marriage and family therapist in the state of Arizona, Howe (above, second from right) has worked with survivors of sexual abuse in religious settings since the early 1990s.  When she began this work, “I was naïve, a cradle Catholic, I had no idea [that sexual abuse] was going on, and it blew me away,” she explained. “In that moment I made the decision to learn all I could about the subject.” Howe has developed training for spiritual directors that is trauma informed and trauma sensitive.  

Sara Larson. The executive director of Awake Milwaukee, Larson spent nearly a decade in parish ministry until the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report and the revelations about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in 2018. After a period of discernment, Larson (above, far right) left her job to work for healing in the Church. “I came to this work from a personal sense of anger and betrayal,” Larson explained. “Now my motivation has really shifted because I’ve been honored to spend so much time with survivors. Some of my closest friends are people who have experienced abuse in the Church. I want our Church to do better for all of them and for all the rest of us as well.”

The Role of Emotion in Working for Change

Anger has a reputation as a destructive force, but Pead of Concerned Lay Catholics (CLC) said that righteous anger has motivated her to take constructive action throughout her life, including in her CLC work. “Anger is a powerful source of information,” she said. “It leads you to figure out what needs to be mended,” and can push you to take action.

But anger alone is not enough in this work. “Once you identify what needs to be mended, at least for me, you need to let the anger go and you need to apply radical love as Jesus did,” Pead said. “The action has to be taken in love and not in anger.”

McDonnell of SNAP said that he talks to “so many survivors during the course of a week,” and often his role is to offer a place for them to express their justified anger. SNAP aims to give survivors and their families opportunities for collective action and ways “to utilize the frustration that has been built up for decades … to see that [abuse in the Church] stops.”

Howe, the spiritual director, and Larson of Awake both spoke about the emotional toll of supporting people who have been wounded in the Church. Listening compassionately to victim-survivors can sometimes lead to “vicarious trauma” for the listener, Howe explained, which “can affect one’s body, one’s mental health, one’s spiritual health.” She acknowledged that people who walk with survivors need to be deliberate about self-care to stay healthy themselves. Part of that is finding others with whom they can talk through difficult experiences and feelings.

“Really what we’re talking about is changing the culture within the Church, and that doesn’t happen quickly,” Larson said. The challenge, she added, is to “know that there aren’t going to be instant results that fix everything, and maintain hope in the midst of all of that.”

Finding Cause for Hope

McDonnell warned that abuse is still happening in Catholic settings, despite what many Catholics want to believe. He believes that the Church needs to work to remove abusive leaders and harmful structures in the Church, a painful but necessary process. “The resurrection doesn’t happen without a Good Friday,” he said.

At the same time, McDonnell spoke with hope about hearing victim-survivors speak openly about their abuse. “When survivors … share their stories for the first time, they get their power back,” he said. “It inspires others too to step forward.” He shared that he has been inspired by the courage shown by young victims in Indiana who recently came forward to report their sexual abuse by a priest. He acknowledged that he “shook like a leaf” when he came forward to report his abuse at age 35.

Larson said she finds hope in the supportive connections created between victim-survivors in the newly launched Awake Survivor Circles. “I can already see just how powerful it is for these people to come together in a safe space for honest conversation and supporting one another,” she explained.

Howe spoke hopefully about the fact that people working for healing in the Church are finding one another. She pointed to the friendship and collaboration among the evening’s event panelists—who all work in different parts of North America—as evidence of the Holy Spirit at work. Similarly, Larson saw hope in the event itself, in “bringing together people from all sorts of places and experiences into dialogue about this.” Pead of CLC said she has felt encouraged by the small group sessions her organization runs. “Working in small groups is so important because when you bring people together and you start to open those conversations up … then the Spirit starts working.” She spoke of small group conversations being an important way to rebuild trust among victim-survivors and other Catholics demoralized by the abuse crisis.

How to Get More Catholics Involved

The panelists voiced their wish that more Catholics in the pews would engage on the topic of sexual abuse and cover-up in the Church. McDonnell and Pead both mentioned the importance of offering Catholics information and education on these issues.

“Lay people are tired of not knowing what the Church is doing,” Pead said. “And that’s why Concerned Lay Catholics has created this resource, to put information, good and bad, in the hands of ordinary Catholics. That’s how you engage them, by treating them like adults in the Church, giving them information, and telling them that they have a role in co-responsibility with the clergy.”

Howe feels strongly that clergy and church leaders need to incorporate the emerging trauma science into their ministries, in part so that Catholics can feel safe discussing and confronting these difficult topics. “I would love to see the Church … become trauma informed and trauma sensitive,” she said, adding her belief that Catholics will engage on the issue when they feel safe to do so.

The Impact on Faith

The panelists spoke powerfully about how this work affects their faith lives. Larson said that it can be painful to know about the spiritual harm perpetrated by some in the Church, but this work also makes her feel closer to God. She added that she takes “solace in the fact that when you’re standing with people who have been harmed and people who have been oppressed, you’re standing with Jesus.”

Howe said she draws encouragement from the examples of Mary and the apostles, who were harmed by their faith community. “[Mary] was a mother who raised her son in the Jewish faith,” she said. “It was … faith leaders that handed him over to his death. She was betrayed by her religious leaders.” The apostles were similarly betrayed and traumatized as they hid away in the Upper Room, a place where they gathered in community and ultimately encountered Christ. Howe said she likes to imagine that they spent that time together talking and processing Jesus’s crucifixion and death. “Then the Holy Spirit showed up, and they were transformed,” she said. “Whatever happened in that Upper Room, they went on to do incredible and impossible work.”

As the event drew to a close, the lay leaders shared how they define success in this work. “For me success is everybody doing what’s been given them to do,” Pead of CLC said. “We’re all doing a piece of this.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

The Conversation Continues, Join Us!

Don’t miss Part 2 of the Courageous Conversation, 7 pm Central this Thursday, November 18.  Attendees will break into small groups to discuss the ideas shared by the lay leader panel in Part 1, and will brainstorm ways lay people can make a difference in response to this issue. To join us, please complete the registration for Part 2. See you on Thursday.

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