5 Things Every Priest Should Know About Sexual Abuse

By Mike Larson
Awake Leadership Team

One weekend at a friend’s house, I ran into a priest friend who asked with some concern about my wife, Sara, who is the executive director of Awake Milwaukee. It quickly became apparent that he had read some of her blog posts from In Spirit and Truth, which addresses the twin crises of sexual abuse and leadership failures in the Church, and was concerned about her spiritual well-being. I believe he meant the question pastorally, but as I talked with him I began to understand that his view of the abuse crisis was narrow and defensive. I didn’t blame him—I’ve seen priests openly mocked in public and accused of being pedophiles by strangers just because they wore a Roman collar. However, in that five minutes of small talk, I wasn’t able to invite him into a deeper understanding of the issues and offer an alternative perspective. I later wished I had invited him out for a beer to discuss it in more detail and grow in mutual learning on these issues together.

While I understand the defensive response, I’ve also come to know that it can be deeply harmful, both to victim-survivors and to the credibility of the Church. “I’m not defending pedophilia, but…” is a bad way to start a conversation about the objective moral failings of church leadership and priests. “I’m sorry, this never should have happened…” is much better. Below I’ve compiled five things that I have learned since my wife and I began this journey several years ago, five things I wish every priest, seminarian, and tradition-loving Catholic like myself knew as well.

1. Victim-survivors are not enemies of the Church.

Too often, church leaders respond with an “us versus them” mentality, where the “them” includes victim-survivors who they believe are trying to “bring down” the Church. The truth is that many victim-survivors were deeply devoted Catholics, and many remain that way. It was this devotion that made them vulnerable to an abusive priest or other church leader in the first place. I’ve been surprised to learn that many abuse victims come from large, “super-Catholic” families. And victim-survivors often speak up because the priest who abused them or the bishop who enabled the abuse are still in ministry and they are motivated by a desire to save other people from their fate. They want reform far more than a financial settlement. Responding with distrust, doubt, and cold, litigation-proof language only deepens the harm they’ve experienced. What they need is compassion, concern, and an open heart—all things that you wanted to give your flock when you became their shepherd. 

2. There are survivors of sexual abuse in your congregation.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, more than 80% of women and 40% of men report experiencing some sort of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime. One in five women have experienced completed or attempted rape. So when you look out over your congregation each Sunday, your eyes likely fall on people who have experienced some form of sexual abuse. There is a deep need for healing from all forms of abuse, and you are in a position to comfort the afflicted. When you speak from the pulpit or in the confessional, do so with compassion, understanding, and respect for the fact that you are not speaking about concepts and ideas, but about people’s lived experiences, which can be painful and traumatic to recount. Focus on healing and care.

3. Abuse by someone in a faith context is particularly harmful.

It is not helpful to point out that abuse happens in many different places beyond the Church. Abuse should NEVER happen in the Catholic Church. Some of the most horrifying accounts of abuse I’ve heard involved priests who used religious imagery, language, and even sacraments to justify or perpetuate the abuse. Can you imagine what that does to a victim’s psyche, spiritual health, and relationship with God? The very source of profound healing that the Church has to offer instead becomes the source of trauma and pain. Be patient and understanding with parishioners who are triggered by certain prayers, religious language, or listening to music written by a known serial abuser. Do what you can to make the space safe for victim-survivors in your care, knowing that they may not be able to sit through a Mass or meet with you in a parish setting.

4. It’s not just the other guys.

I love incense, ancient hymns, and Latin prayers. Because of this I often find myself in the presence of younger, more traditional Catholics and priests. In this setting, I often hear that the abuse crisis was caused by liberal priests of prior generations. I also know older priests who are terrified that the conservative approach of younger generations will perpetuate the clericalism that enabled the abuse and cover-up in the first place. The problem with these biases is that they blame “the other guys” for the problem. This is a dangerous mentality that leaves one blind to the reality of abuse: that both liberal and conservative, old and young, orthodox and heterodox priests and bishops have been at fault. Have you ever heard of a priest accused of abuse and thought “I know that guy, he would never do that!” Keep in mind that somebody thinks that about every priest that has been accused. False accusations are rare, and unreported abuse is far more common. Instead of immediately absolving your brother priests of wrongdoing, encourage vigilance, mutual accountability, and victim-centered responses.

5. Any sexual contact between a priest and parishioner is abuse.

It is commonly said that children are far safer in our Church now than they were twenty years ago. I believe that this is true, thanks to safeguarding initiatives and greater awareness about abuse. However, I believe that as Catholics we have a collective blind spot when it comes to the abuse of adults in the Church. Sometimes we hear reports that a priest had an “inappropriate relationship” with a parishioner, suggesting that there was a moment of weakness in which two consenting adults made a mistake and broke their vows and intentions of chastity. But the reality is that when a priest has a sexual interaction with a Catholic adult, the power dynamic makes true, healthy consent impossible. From a young age, many Catholics are taught to respect and listen to a priest and not question his judgment or authority, which gives him tremendous power. Consent in these circumstances is a myth. Sexual contact between a priest and a parishioner is abuse, not unlike sexual contact between a therapist and their patient, which is illegal and prosecutable everywhere. Too often, abuse victims are blamed for “luring” a priest into sin. If you hear that, please denounce it immediately. Do not let yourself be coerced into thinking that a sexual interaction between a priest and parishioner is anything other than abuse.

When it comes to the history of sexual abuse and cover-up in the Catholic Church, the Church does not need to be defended. Nor should we pretend that this is an issue of the past, and everything is fine now.

At Awake, we are looking for heroic priests who are unafraid to stand up for victim-survivors. To build parishes that are safe for our most vulnerable. To be informed about the experience of those who are harmed and choose to remain in our Church. To keep this issue on the front burner at the diocesan level. To lead with a spirit of true repentance and to continue to apologize without caveat for our mistakes and failings, seventy times seven times if we have to.

If you ever want to grab a beer and discuss how we can work together to help heal our Church, let me know.

Mike Larson is a husband and father of two teenagers who enjoys games, nature, and theology. He has led or been involved in dozens of Bible studies, men’s groups, and service opportunities through the Catholic Church and enjoys sharing his love of Christ, the Eucharist, and the Blessed Mother with anyone willing to listen. 

5 thoughts on “5 Things Every Priest Should Know About Sexual Abuse

  1. Blunt, honest, and so sad that after all the investigations, news stories, diocese responses the most insightful reflections come from a lay person ….

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