National Catholic Reporter
Subscribers only section
February 11, 2005

Letters Victims not at fault

As a victim of clergy sexual abuse, I am compelled to respond to Sr. Jeannine Gramick (NCR, Jan. 14).

Sr. Jeannine stated that the effectiveness of Paul Shanley’s ministry can’t be erased by the accusations against him. The literature about the motivations and psychology of child molesters asserts that their primary motivation is to find, groom and abuse their victims. Any “good” that Shanley might have done in his ministry is overshadowed by his immoral, unethical and probably illegal actions.

Sr. Jeannine expressed skepticism about victims’ memories of abuse. In my case, a visit from the abuser -- a “friend of my family” -- compelled me to tell my husband and seek therapy at age 29. It wasn’t until the news from Boston broke in January 2002 that I approached the church. It wasn’t that I didn’t remember; I merely thought that I’d done something to cause my adult abuser, a respected man of God, to assault me, an 11-year-old girl. I felt that no one would believe me, and he told me not to tell, and I didn’t, until I was an adult. What prevented me from telling wasn’t “repressed memory” but fear and shame.

Sr. Jeannine speaks of a religious superior who responded to a victim and expressed surprise that the religious congregation was later sued, “thus diverting financial resources from the good works of the religious community” and says indignantly: “This is not the Christian notion of reconciliation.” At the time of the abuse or even at disclosure, a victim does not know how extensive the damage will be to his or her life, damage that may need treatment with therapy, medication or hospitalization; damage that could prevent a victim from having a productive life and may damage relationships and compel some victims to commit suicide. The church’s responsibility is to seek reconciliation with victims, listen to them, act with justice (and not merely charity) according to our preferential option for the poor and be open, honest and transparent. The church needs to ask, and ask and ask again, how it can be of help. Some victims have sued because they asked for bread and received a stone. I have chosen not to sue, but I can certainly understand why someone in a similar situation would.

Sr. Jeannine asks, ”When will we learn how to balance justice, accountability, rehabilitation and reconciliation?” I suggest that such a balance will occur when child-molesting priests acknowledge and are accountable for what they have done; bishops and religious superiors admit that they made mistakes in the past and deal with victims more justly in the future; and victims get all the help and support they need. She asked how we can stop the cycle of violence, a cycle that resulted in the death of John Geoghan in prison (and, she neglected to say, the dozens of deaths by suicide of victims overwhelmed by their pain). I don’t know. But I do know that blaming victims isn’t the answer.

Douglas, Alaska

The quality of mercy

I think that NCR did a great service to itself in printing “Finding empathy for Shanley” by Sr. Jeannine Gramick (NCR, Jan. 14). Her remarks were the first I’ve read that bring a deeper understanding of the abuser and a more Christian approach to understanding and charitable reconciliation. Most of the clergy who were suspended were not given sufficient information about their accusers, and the church became their judges. Sr. Jeannine speaks well when she says, “Each person is a blend of good that mirrors the divine and evil that needs redemption. When will we learn to balance justice, accountability, rehabilitation and reconciliation?”

Granting huge settlements is not the answer. We all have to realize that bad things happen. We need to correct wrongs and to question why someone after a lapse of 30 years or more all of a sudden becomes psychologically disturbed. Once they are paid a large sum, they are suddenly healed. As the psalmist says, “If you, O Lord, mark iniquity, Lord, who could stand?”

Macon, Ga.

* * *

In a confused, childlike state of trust, two or more of Shanley’s alleged victims, concerned about their orientation, sought counsel from a priest of the church. Did these young men, through that priest, encounter the loving heart of Christ or did they meet up with the predatory, seductive wiles of Satan?

For those of us who are survivors of priestly aggression, Sr. Gramick’s reminiscences and protection of Shanley are an assault to the senses. Gramick appears to be enshrining her former association and current friendship with Shanley on the throne of Christian compassion and calling the rest of us to join her there. Must we?

Christ calls us to love our enemies. Having compassion for ignorance and the venial weaknesses of humankind is relatively easy. Compassion for those whom Christ verbally confined to the depths (with a millstone around their necks, no less) is a territory left only to the few called to that ministry. If Sr. Gramick feels that call, so be it, but only after the accused has been brought to justice in a court of law, not shuttled around awaiting payoffs to victims through the mediations of the church’s lawyers.

If the church wishes to shelter these folks in places of penitential confinement after they have paid their dues to society at large, then the church must fulfill that merciful role. The victims, though, have the most compassionate calling of all: to continue telling about the atrocities they suffered in story and poetry so that future generations will be protected.

Petaluma, Calif.

* * *

The article about Paul Shanley, the pedophile priest, was most interesting. Sr. Jeannine speaks of mercy and compassion. This is all well and good, but we must be aware that what he has been charged with is multiple acts of sex perversion with children and pubescent youths. Shanley must be given a fair trial, and if found guilty, given maximum consecutive sentences.

Justice must take precedence over mercy. This is not a matter of two consenting adults having sex.

Not only should pedophiles and perverts who are in the priesthood be punished to the full extent of the law, but the bishops who concealed these crimes belong in the penitentiary also. The bishops are also guilty of giving a bad name to our church.

All of these guilty parties should be laicized and excommunicated, and at death cremated with the ashes flushed down a toilet.

El Centro, Calif.

* * *

Sr. Jeannine Gramick is a peacemaker -- one of those people Jesus said are blessed because they will be called God’s children. As a “reconciler,” as she calls herself, she often espouses unpopular positions. She calls us beyond our comfort zones.

Some years ago she told a story about a meeting with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to several thousand people gathered for a Call to Action conference in Milwaukee. She attempted to convince this crowd that he is just a human being doing his best for the church according to his lights. This was the more impressive coming from someone who had been a target of Cardinal Ratzinger’s persecution.

Her essay “Finding empathy for Shanley” is an example of her peacemaking. She asks us to see Paul Shanley as a human being, one with both good qualities and limitations. She is not saying that he is innocent, nor is she saying that those abused by Catholic priests should be ignored or uncared for.

She recalls to us what Jesus said in Matthew 25: if we visit someone in prison, we are visiting Jesus himself. Jesus made no exceptions, and neither does she.

Most of all, she is asking us to be open to the full truth of a situation and to see it from all sides. Richard Rohr has said that one of the most important sayings in the Gospel is Jesus’ exhortation to love our enemies. Only thus can we see people as they really are.

San Diego

Sheen of fear

This is a response to the “Viewpoint” about Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (NCR, Jan. 7): I was greatly influenced by Bishop Sheen. He was a star in my home when I was a child. Later after college and marriage and Vatican II and all that was happening in the world around me, I went to hear Bishop Sheen talk in Oakland, Calif. I saw, at that time, a man with feet of clay. Why was he a “star”?

The time of Bishop Sheen was a time in our country when we were being frightened by the power of Communism. And we were afraid. This fear was being pushed by our government, by some of our churches, authors, books, movies and news. Then there arose this “star” who could help us with our fear by a presence that exuded confidence in righteousness that only we possessed. Our righteous power would defeat this Godless enemy.

Today, again we are being taught to fear by all the means of that other time.

Portland, Ore.

Good writing

A couple of months ago, I took the liberty to send a letter into NCR when I was annoyed with a particular article. It was one of those letters where you would be better off sleeping on it and rewriting it in the morning. Despite the letter’s poor construction and content, Tom Roberts took the time to answer the letter very thoughtfully, in a way similar to how he writes his Editor’s Note that appears each week.

The Editor’s Note in the Jan. 7 issue, along with the short Starting Point article by Tom Jablonski in that same issue, were delightful both in their observations and construction. Though brief, each had me smiling to myself, thankful I was not the only one who wondered about some mainstream viewpoints.

The two-issue moral campaign (abortion and gays) and the practice of belief that stresses Jesus is a “ticket to the afterlife” are two themes that always left me scratching my head as to the best way to communicate my concern. The authors, through a little dark humor and everyday observation, presented contrasting viewpoints that hit the mark without hurting anyone’s sensibilities.

Thanks for expressing some obvious concerns with hope and joy in well-written and reassuring words.


Mess in Iraq

The article “Pelosi is surprising ally of GOP” (NCR, Jan. 14) is disturbing, but not all that surprising. After all, John Kerry could not bring himself to say that “if he knew then what he knows now, that the Bush administration lied to the American people about weapons of mass destruction, he would not have voted to support the Iraq war.”

Regardless of what our politicians (even Democrats) say they are for or against, they solidly support the idea that “imperial policies are justified in a post-communist world … in order to assert imperial hegemony” (See Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq by Tariq Ali, a BBC commentator who has written over a dozen books on world history and politics).

If you want to understand the Bush doctrine on foreign affairs, read the publicly available report on the Internet, “Project for a New American Century.” It’s a frightening and immoral strategy, formulated by neoconservatives, for world domination by the only remaining superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A simple reading of the history of Iraq shows that the Iraqis have had a long history of resisting colonial aggression. The insurgency in Iraq is growing by the day. It is simply a manifestation of the fact that the occupation of Iraq is detested by many of its Iraqi citizens.

Venice, Fla.

Women and AIDS

I read with great care the article by Raymond Downing on an “African perspective” on the AIDS crisis (NCR, Jan. 21).

I agree that an effective AIDS prevention policy needs to respect and draw on the culture in which it is operating. But Dr. Downing left us hanging: What would he do instead? He doesn’t want to emphasize condoms; he doesn’t want to acknowledge, in any operational way, that an important element in the spread of this terrible disease is that people are having sex in ways that their society may not approve -- that they are not using self-control. But what would he propose? Simply to wait for an outbreak of virtue?

In parts of India, thousands of women who are faithful to their marriages are infected by their husbands. Because of women’s relative lack of power in the society, they are likely to be accused of immorality if they seek to protect themselves while maintaining sexual relations with their husbands. I’m sure the same problem exists in Africa.

It is certainly appropriate for community leaders and others to urge that everyone -- men and women -- exercise self-discipline and moral firmness and to try to find ways of putting social pressure behind that appeal. But to rely on that as the only tactic is cruel. And while Dr. Downing was careful to say he did not rule out some use of condoms, the overall impact of his writing is to denigrate the method that may be the only hope of staying alive for millions of women.


The value of life

News reports on the loss of lives and property in the countries affected by the recent earthquakes, tsunamis and resulting floods are heartbreaking, and the outpouring of grief, sympathy and donations are all appropriate. As the number of confirmed deaths keeps rising and has now surpassed 150,000, I cannot help but call to mind that approximately the same number of people have been killed in Iraq since our government invaded that country. Over 1,000 American servicemen and women have lost their young lives. They are also innocent victims -- not of a “natural disaster” but of unlawful aggression by our government. I do not hear similar outpourings of grief, sympathy or offers of donations on behalf of the people of Iraq! Why are their lives determined to be of lesser value than those affected by the tsunamis?

The United States government is selectively quick to protest the use of violence in other countries like Ireland, declaring that “violence only begets violence!” But our government dangerously considers itself beyond criticism for not practicing what our elected leaders preach.

I would like to see our religious leaders courageously take the initiative in calling George Bush and our other elected officials to task for supporting the violation of the basic human rights of the Iraqi people. When we raise our voices on behalf of all our brothers and sisters under oppression, we can expect our God to truly bless not only America but every nation with true, just and lasting peace.

Waltham, Mass.

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National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005