Courageous Conversation: Powerful Panel Explores Racism’s Role in the Abuse Crisis

Last week Awake hosted a thought-provoking Courageous Conversation about the ways racism impacts the problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

The panel discussion, “Erased from the Narrative: The Role of Racism in the Abuse Crisis,” featured Fr. Bryan Massingale, a professor of ethics at Fordham University in New York and a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee; Maka Black Elk, executive director for Truth and Healing at Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota; and Jeremy Cruz, a professor of theology and religious studies at St. John’s University in New York. The recording of the conversation is available here.

Massingale began by noting the importance of the event, given that Catholics have just started to acknowledge the sexual abuse of Black, Latino, and Native people in the Church. “[This is] one of the few venues where the spotlight has been turned on how this terrible plague of clergy sexual abuse has affected communities of color,” he said. “So thank you for this opportunity.” Massingale (above, left) is the author of Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, as well as the forthcoming “Research Report on Clergy Sexual Abuse in African-American Communities.”

The conventional wisdom is that clergy abuse victims are largely white and often male, he said. Media portrayals and news articles usually focus on white victim-survivors. Massingale and Cruz also explained that there is little existing research on the prevalence of sexual abuse of people of color by Church leaders. In his work, Massingale has found that the Catholic Church has rarely kept information on the racial and ethnic identity of abuse victims. All of this “communicates … that there’s no room for the trauma that victims of color of clergy sexual abuse have experienced,” he said.

Cruz (above, middle), who has worked as a faith-based community organizer and parish youth minister in California, described racism as not “another social issue alongside sexual abuse but rather … a systemic form of harm or violence. It’s the very landscape within which sex abuse occurs.”

Abuse in Native Communities

Maka Black Elk of the Red Cloud Indian School spoke about the Catholic Church’s history of reassigning abusive priests to remote communities such as Indian reservations, where their behavior would be “less consequential.”

He also described some of the painful history of Native American boarding schools in the United States. The federal government established these schools roughly between the 1860s and 1960s and forced Native children to attend, separating them from their families and culture. The schools were often run by Catholic religious orders, and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of students were common, he said.

“The history of Native peoples is relatively unknown in general in this country, and so it’s really important to take some time to talk about this and to make sense of the history that Native peoples have experienced,” said Black Elk (above, right), who is a descendant of boarding school survivors.

The boarding school experience has caused multi-generational trauma. “Today in Native America you can see … issues with sexual abuse in families,” he added, and “many folks can trace that back to their time in boarding school.”

He also acknowledged that many indigenous people have a complicated relationship with the Church, given that it was engaged in practices such as the eradication of family. “There is a real sense among Native Catholic communities of abandonment, of the Church not being there or not giving that same sort of zeal that they had in evangelism, not giving that to healing and to caring [about the] pain and hurt and trauma that their previous actions caused,” Black Elk said.

Barriers to Reporting

The panelists spoke passionately about the barriers that may prevent victim-survivors of color from reporting sexual abuse to civil or Church authorities. For example, Black and Latino victims who do not speak “standard” English tend to be viewed as less credible. African American victims may also be hesitant to approach police, and some Latino victims of abuse worry that reporting to authorities could lead to deportation.

Massingale added that diocesan staff members who receive abuse reports often lack the “cultural competence” to listen to and be present for victim-survivors of color. As an example, he noted that the common term used to describe people who have been abused, victim-survivor, doesn’t always resonate with African Americans. A Black man who was abused told Massingale, “I don’t feel like I’m surviving anything. I’m just coping.”

“I use the word ‘coper’ because it’s a more culturally resonant term among some Black Catholic men who’ve been victimized,” he said.

On a practical level, Massingale added, victim assistance coordinators are often unfamiliar with inner city neighborhoods. “Also, to be honest, Black people find it very hard to be vulnerable and to talk about the intimate violation of their body,” he said,  “with someone who may look like the person who did this harm to them.”

Victim-survivor-copers may also doubt that they will be believed. Massingale noted that one African American victim-survivor-coper told him, “They don’t even believe white victims. Why are they going to believe me?”

Cruz explained that many Latino parishes lack priests who are culturally competent. So if a parish does get a charismatic priest who is popular in the community, families may be hesitant to report him, even if he is abusive.

Black Elk noted that statute of limitation laws, enacted at the urging of Church leaders who want to head off financial crises, create another restrictive barrier. In his home state of South Dakota, such laws make it almost impossible for boarding school survivors to pursue financial settlements.

The Conversation Continues. Join Us!
Don’t miss Part 2 of the Courageous Conversation, 7 pm Central on Thursday, November 17.  Attendees will break into small groups to discuss the ideas shared by the panelists in Part 1. To join us, please complete the registration for Part 2 and watch the video recording before you attend. See you on Thursday!

Transforming the Church and Welcoming People of Color

The conversation turned to ways that the Catholic Church might change to better welcome survivors from Black, Latino, and Native communities. Cruz urged Catholics to “identify and challenge institutional structures that enable violence and lack of accountability,” and to look for new ways to create “egalitarian and democratic communities grounded in harm reduction, restitution, and mutual accountability.”

“If we continue to respond in the same ways, born out of despair or denial or indifference, then we’re going to deepen the crisis and the betrayal of children and ourselves,” Cruz said. “We need strategies for tearing down and building up new forms of Church life.”

Massingale stressed that legal pressure in the form of court orders is often necessary for change in the Church. “We … have to be honest and realize that every step that the Catholic Church has made in these issues has come not because the Catholic Church’s leadership has voluntarily chose to do so,” he said. “In future court settlements, we need to require that dioceses and religious orders hire culturally competent, sensitive personnel who work with communities of color. Or if they can’t hire them, they have to be able to outsource this and bring in people who are culturally competent.”

He also called for seminarians to be taught about the ways that race and ethnicity intersect with the dynamics of power and sexuality. “I think we need to say … that you cannot be ordained, and you cannot exercise ministerial leadership in the Catholic Church without having seriously engaged that as part of your preparation for ministry,” Massingale said.   

And Black Elk called for the Church to make “an intentional recommitment … to all of our communities of color to healing from trauma.”

When asked how Awake Milwaukee and other Catholic groups might better serve victim-survivor-copers of color, Cruz stressed that community members should “move your feet,” or intentionally seek out connections with those who may not show up in majority-white spaces. He and Massingale spoke about the need to create safe, separate spaces where people of color who have been abused can speak with one another, sharing their stories and processing their healing. This work probably needs to be done without white people, he said.

“We can’t tell our stories without talking about how our racial identities have affected our experience,” Massingale said. Yet many white people are uncomfortable having frank conversations about race, he added.

Cruz spoke about the importance for survivors of home-based and community-based practices “of healing and memory” like the Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead altar in his own home.

“For many, healing is not going to happen in the space of the clerically controlled diocesan parish setting,” he said. “It’s going to happen where people are able to experience agency and take control of the practices of healing and memory.”

Massingale noted that “there aren’t a whole lot of institutional collective spaces for people to engage in this kind of healing. I don’t even know what healing would look like right now,” he said. “It’s not happening on a broad enough scale with Black victims of clergy sexual abuse. It’s a sad thing to say, but that’s the truth right now.”

Final Action Steps

As usual, panelists were asked at the close of the Courageous Conversation to suggest action steps for the audience to consider.

Black Elk encouraged attendees to take time to learn about the history and current situation of Native communities in their region. For example, are there former Native boarding schools located in your area?

Cruz advised the audience to approach conversations about race with curiosity and openness. “These are hard conversations and … we need everyone in this room to continue these conversations and to be okay with stumbling, being wrong, being corrected. All of us get better at having these conversations by doing it repeatedly and having that spirit of curiosity and openness to doing it better.”

Finally, Massingale concluded by urging attendees that when they find themselves in majority white gatherings to ask, repeatedly: “Who is not present here?”  He also stressed that in order to have the courage for difficult conversations about abuse and racism, we must “stay rooted in something bigger and deeper than we are.”

“More than just saying prayers,” Massingale said,  “it means being people of prayer” and working toward a “genuine spirituality of courage, courageous hospitality, and courageous prophetic speech.”

“That’s the kind of spirituality that we need to cultivate,” he said, “if we’re really going to become a force for healing and justice in our Church and in our society.”

2 thoughts on “Courageous Conversation: Powerful Panel Explores Racism’s Role in the Abuse Crisis

  1. I struggle a LOT with the idea of a racially segregated ministerial approach to this issue.

    I did traveling youth ministry in college in Oklahoma (2011-2014) and visited several parishes that had separate ministry groups for white and Latino (I use this term instead of Latinx because Latino people in my area find that terminology offensive) parishioners. I was stunned at the level of mistrust and divisiveness I found in that diocese between whites and Latinos.

    I found that Latino teens really responded well to me relating to their culture as best as I could and seeking them out, even though I’m Caucasian. Our group solicited anonymous feedback from the teens we served, and I got mentioned positively more than once for doing that. Because of that experience, I get the distinct impression that the segregated society I was seeing was pretty directly affecting the prejudice these kids were facing — these kids had groups just for “them”, but there were definitely negative sides to those groups existing separately from those for white kids. They felt disconnected from the kids around them, something I’d never seen in my demographically heavy Latino hometown.

    I feel like purposefully dividing ourselves further will perpetuate the lack of communication and awareness of culturally unique problems that got us into this situation in the first place.

    I recognize that cultural differences are real, and this is a complicated subject. I know white women, including one in my family, who have been sexually assaulted by black men and bear an inmate dislike and deep discomfort around them as a result, so I definitely understand how the reverse can be true as well. But I’ve seen a segregated ministerial approach lead to some truly nasty things in practice, and I’m really not sure that’s the way to go.

    I’m open to being wrong on this, but I think that’s a potential pitfall that needs to be discussed.

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