Reading room > Reflection on the scandal of clergy child abuse

1 Apr 2005

Yesterday, Bishop Nicholas came to town.  He was mitered and croziered, and in full episcopal regalia.  In this Kingdom and medieval city it is the tradition that the bishop be escorted in a polished black carriage drawn by large Belgian draft horses.  Throughout the city, the old and young alike excitedly lined the streets to greet and catch a glimpse of the bishop.  The faces of the young children beamed at a wave and a smile received from the much-loved Bishop Nicholas.  Here in the Land of Flanders, Bishop Nicholas is called in the Flemish/Dutch language Sint Niklaas.  Nicholas was the bishop of the Christian Community in the Asia Minor city of Myra (now Demre, Turkey) in the fourth century AD and is remembered on December 6.  He is remembered for his gentleness, kindness and help.  Children in Belgium eagerly await the arrival of Sint Niklaas and receive gifts of chocolate and traditional speculoos cookies - all in the shape of the holy bishop.  To children everywhere, Sint Niklaas and his various other names and cultural identities represent all that is good, kind, safe, generous and beautiful in the world.

As I watched and followed the parade through the ancient cobbled streets and marvelous medieval squares of Leuven, Belgium (renown for its magnificent Catholic University of Louvain) and witnessed the joyful faces of the young children at seeing Sint Niklaas, I wondered about the current sex abuse crisis in the Church.  

For a few years now we have heard about the innumerable victims, lawsuits, betrayals, accusations of cover-ups, and the resignations of high churchmen.  We watched the Bishops' Meeting at Dallas and with heavy hearts heard victims tell their stories.  We now have The Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth; The National Review Board; and The Office of Child and Youth Protection.  I have added the new acronyms VOTF (Voice of the Faithful) and SNAP (The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) to my vocabulary and have searched their websites.  I thought about the victims who are my friends and the victims who I've referred for professional counseling.

I remembered one particular victim telling me his story.  This man sitting before me was broken and hurting.  He was a smart man and knew his core issue.  When he related that he had been in counseling for six years, I was utterly shocked.  I thought to myself: "This broken human person before me has been in counseling for six years?  What's missing?  Counseling is about a journey to peace and healing in one's life. This man is far from it. Maybe "Justice" is missing. I wonder - if he obtains the "Justice Issue", will the "Peace" come?  

As I looked at the joyful faces of the children of Belgium gazing at Sint Niklaas, I asked myself “Would any of our children today beam with joy at the sight of any bishop or priest for that matter?  Can they feel safe and protected by us?”  As a parish priest, I have had the frequent experience of being greeted by a child with "Hi God" or "Hi Jesus".  A three-year-old parishioner, Katie Montarjo has even greeted me with "Hi. Baby-Jesus!".  (When you think about it, we are each called some pretty wonderful things in life.)

I think I know where this phenomena in children comes from – young parents in Mass with the sometime, or often time, undue pressure to keep their small children behaving perfectly are in the pews whispering to their children (while pointing) "Shhhh...Look, Jesus is up there." I know that these young parents when pointing into the sanctuary in a catechetical moment with their children are really meaning the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist on the Altar, but all little children see up there is a man in some very colorful clothes.

What a wonderful gift and challenge young Katie Montarjo gives to all of us.  As a child so connected to the Life of God and the Created Universe, she recognizes not only the goodness and gentleness of Jesus called to be present in all of us but goes further in also recognizing in each of us the image of the preciousness and beauty and wonder of the Baby of Bethlehem. 

The leaders of the Church have broken the Trust of the precious children of the Church.  How does one restore Trust – so essential and important in any relationship?  The "Trust Issue" is a major dynamic for anyone who has been abused and victimized as a child.  If you cannot trust an adult family member, relative, teacher, priest, or bishop-then who can you trust?  Survivors of abuse often have challenges when entering into adult trusting relationships.

The Honorable Frank Keating, as the former chair of the United States Bishops' National Review Board, has called the sex abuse crisis "A Sad Chronicle of Mortar and Mortgages versus Fidelity and Virtue."  When I first read these words I thought: "Wow, how exactly, succinctly and powerfully he's described the Clergy Sex Abuse Crisis and the response by some Church leaders".  In our dealing with victims of clergy sexual abuse, is the protection of the assets, properties and finances of the Diocese – a Corporate Soul – driving a response, or are we concerned with bringing Peace and Justice to the Victims?  I still keep the hand-written letter with Frank Keating's finely tuned words.

Perhaps trust in our bishops and priests can be restored with less ego-concern about ways to advance up the "ecclesial corporate ladder" and more imitation of their confrere – the gentle, kind and Sainted Bishop Nicholas.  Then children may again cheer with glee thinking that the Bishop that stands before them is the kind and gentle Bishop Nicholas whom they love.

Rev. Vincent Paul Chavez

7 December, 2003

The American College of the Immaculate Conception

Naamsestraat 100

3000 Leuven. BELGIUM

Fr. Vincent Paul Chavez