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Broken Windows: A Response to the Sexual Abuse Scandal

A Small Lantern in a Storm

My heart has been broken.  My mother, the Church, feels as if she’s being ripped apart.  Anger, shame, confusion, disgust, sadness. It’s overwhelming.  And what makes it worse is we keep on being slammed in the face.  Over and over and over again.  I feel like I was just reeling from the last series of these scandals.  Is this really the new norm for our church? It’s so painful to consider.

This past Sunday at Mass, I was given a beautiful insight.  Not an answer to all the hurt, not by far, but something like a small lantern in a storm: a little light to guide me amid all of this darkness.  I offer it to you, sisters, hoping it might bring some courage as we work to remain a people of hope.

Catechesis of Distraction

I have a childlike wonder for beautiful churches.  Vaulted ceilings; enormous stained glass windows; painted dominions, virtues, and powers set aflight across the altar panel.  I was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, and nothing could quite initiate a craving for beauty quite like the Cathedral of St. Paul.  My husband refers to that catedral as “Catholic Disneyland,” or rather, what Disney would build if tasked with a house of God.  I’ve never found a church that satisfies my hunger like the Cathedral of St. Paul (although I’ve never travelled to Europe, so I still have much to see).

My vocation, wife to an incredible husband who named the Navy his profession, stole me away from that stunning testament to the grandeur of God.  To be honest, not all of the parishes we’ve encountered have been exemplars of beauty (and that’s putting it nicely).  I hate to “parish shop,” but with an attention span as short as mine, I prefer to find myself gazing up at the spiritual art gilding the rafters, rather than critiquing a strange design of the sanctuary space.  (As a bit of a disclaimer, this is all personal preference, and as my husband likes to remind me, it’s the Mass that’s important, not the trimmings).

In all of our moves (I’ve moved four times in a year and a half), I’ve been exposed me to a series of parishes I refer to lovingly as my “coastal churches.”  The Navy puts you right on the coast (obviously), and I have a fondness for the little churches you find right on the beach, or close to it.  They’re little havens for tourists, and nine times out of ten you’ll find a little “St. Mary Star of the Sea” (or some variation), standing sentry like a lighthouse on the water.

Toppled Steeples, Fallen Walls

You wouldn’t expect it, seeing one of these innocent and precious little churches for the first time, but I’ve found that invariably each of these parishes carries an incredible story.  Each and every coastal church that I’ve encountered carries with it a hurricane story.  Tales of flooding, toppled steeples, fallen walls.

Tales of broken windows.

I’ve seen so many historical pictures of how these churches used to look, with beautiful, bold, reverent stained glass windows.  I’ve heard stories of such windows which would gleam, covering the congregation in technicolor during the 9am mass.  Windows special ordered from Tiffany’s, whose greens were emeralds.  Can you imagine, emeralds in the stained glass?

And then it was Hugo.  Camille. Katrina. Harvey.  The waters surged. The winds blew.  Homes were abandoned. Churches were left behind in search of higher ground. And the windows shattered.

I think of our beautiful Church.  That is to say, I think of the beautiful Body of Christ.  I think of the food pantries with which I’ve served.  I think of the college ministry which changed my life and set my heart on fire for the faith.  I think of schools I’ve worked for which are striving to form children’s minds and souls. I think of a boisterous, laughing mother of seven who still found time to serve youth ministry.  I think of a little old widower who volunteered his every hour to his parish. I think of a lector who could barely walk, who struggled to the lecturn to proclaim the Word of God, who gave his every step and his voice to God.  I think of a hardworking young adult professional who gave his two hours of free time a week to train altar servers.  I think of priests and seminarians that I’ve had the blessing to call some of my dearest friends.  I think of sisters who have called me out when my head was up my…well, not where it should of been.

I think of our beautiful Body of Christ, fitted together like a magnificent stained glass window, shining it’s colored light upon the world.  And I think of the hurricanes that have come through, the scandals that have shattered it.

How to Rebuild?

Now, what’s most interesting for me about these coastal churches is how they’ve decided to rebuild after hurricanes.  I’ve seen so many example. One parish did not rebuild, and now stands in ruins. One parish we attended replaced once glorious windows with a simple, less expensive (but less beautiful) design.  One parish raised money and replaced the windows exactly as they were, with an unclear answer as to what they would do if another hurricane struck. One parish simply covered their windows with plaster, leaving an ugly off-white as the first jarring sight.

One parish, however, amazed me.  They were completely wiped out. Not just the windows, the whole church.  The built a strong frame of concrete, able to withstand the force of a hurricane.  And within this strong frame they placed beautiful, inspiring and spiritually-uplifting stained glass windows.  They designed it such that, when (not if) a hurricane came through, they could remove the windows, stowing them in safety until the hurricane had passed.  Once the storm had passed, they could return the windows to their proper place.

Our Time to Rebuild

Sisters, hurricanes in our church are, unfortunately, not an “if.”  It breaks my heart to say so. The Body of Christ both shines with the divinity of our savior, but also bleeds with the vulnerability of our human nature.  We have suffered the effects of this particular hurricane that has gone on for too long.  Every heart is broken, every window is shattered.

The destruction is all about us, and what will we do?  Will we abandon our Church, refuse to rebuild, and like the church left in ruins?  Will we build in fear, leaving us with something only half as good, like the church with the simple windows?  Will we build only what we knew before, and leave ourselves open to the same vulnerabilities, like the church that simply replaced the old windows?  Will we repair, but in doing so shut out the light, like the church whose windows are covered in plaster?

Or will we rebuild something stronger, something safer, but still beautiful?  Will we build something which responds to the reality of sin and human weakness?  And at the same time, will we build something that is still beautiful, which still proclaims the reality of the Good News to the world, and still works to serve all peoples?

I know which path I will strive towards.  I know it will require effort, vigilance, humility, and courage.  I pray to the Holy Spirit that He might guide and sanctify me in this task.  Will you join me, sister?

Shiela Uncategorized

The Scandal at Penn State and Syracuse: A Call to Action

When I heard the news about the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State, I was shocked and horrified for the victims.  I was disgusted by the actions of the alleged perpetrator and the cover up that followed.  And, I was sad for the students who were in shock and denial.  I experienced similar feelings during the early days of the sexual abuse scandal in my beloved church.  Catholics are still vilified for remaining faithful to the church and are considered complicit in the abuse by some people just for being Catholic.  Not surprisingly, that never-settled dust from the Catholic Church scandal is swirling again in the media.  Comparisons are being drawn.  People are trying desperately to understand how this could happen and how it could be covered up?  With all the mixture of emotions and controversy, it can be difficult to remember what is most important: protect children at all costs.

In the wake of this new scandal, I have created a short list of actions we can all take right now to protect all children.

1) Be Vigilant
Where are your children spending time?  We can’t wrap them in bubble wrap and follow them wherever they go all the time.  But, we can know who their friends are by name.  We can meet their friend’s parents.  We can make sure they are supervised when playing at another friend’s house.  Make sure their friends are age appropriate, too.  Sadly, many perpetrators begin offending in their teens.  When our children join an activity we can inquire about the child protective practices they have put in place.  Does the organization have a policy where no child is to be left alone with an adult?  Are the shower and bathroom facilities safe for children.  Are they able to maintain modesty and privacy?  Is the staff required to report any suspicion of abuse when they observe it within the organization?  These are all initiatives that have been put in place by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.    We must stay vigilant and make sure these practices are being put into place in our church programs.  And we must advocate that they be put in place in all community activites.

2) Teach Modesty
One of the best thing we can do as a parent is form a strong marriage so that both the mother and father are interacting daily with their children in a loving home and keeping an eye on any changes that occur.  We can set the standard for modesty in dress and behavior.  We can teach our children how to dress modestly and keep their private body parts private.  Otherwise, a young child may not know when a modesty boundary is being violated.  We must teach them to speak up and be assertive with their classmates, as well as with adults.  All kids need to learn to respect authority but they need to know that that respect must end when a boundary has been violated.  This way we can empower our children to protect themselves when we are not around.  Tell them to come to you whenever an adult, a classmate or anyone does something to attack their sense of modesty and privacy.

3) Look on the Bright Side
One good thing about this scandal is that now that it is exposed, the cycle of abuse for this perpetrator and victims is over.  If the students at Penn State can accept that their school failed them and make sure that practices are put into place to never let it happen again, then good will ultimately come out of this.  They must make sure that they don’t fall into the trap of defending the wrong people.  They must keep their focus on protecting innocent children.  Perhaps they can set a new standard for child safety and make it a model for other college programs that work with children.   Hopefully they will not fall to the pressure of some in the media who suggesting that male dominated organizations are to blame.   The idea of creating a sports program for at risk children is not what caused this abuse.  The students should not be discouraged from continuing to support programs that aim to help at risk children.

4) Leave No Stone Unturned
Most people are in denial about child predators. They are content to believe that predators come in one shape and one size only and are easily spotted by their tell tale white collar.  Rather, the most common predator is someone you know.  It could be a stepfather or a mother’s boyfriend.   Basically, anyone who has access to children is a potential predator.   But, people are more comfortable believing predators are priests.  Why?  It is likely because those who believe that never actually come in contact with one.  So, folks are lulled into a false sense of security.  Well, the Penn State scandal sort of blew that out of the water.  Sort of.  It’s an institution predominantly run by men much like the Catholic Church.    So, we do have to ask ourselves what is it about this institutional structure that allowed, if not the abuse, then the cover up to occur?  If we are to protect children, we can leave no stone unturned in this investigation.  The Catholic Church is being asked to question its policy of priestly celibacy.  Fine.  Examine it.  Are there any other demographics about candidates for the priesthood that may be problematic?  Let’s look into it.

And, now, we have Penn State and Syracuse.  Is there something in the sports arena that makes children vulnerable?  Do parents place too much trust in coaches?   Do adults have too much access to our children in sports and other activities?   Are there any practices in place to protect children in sports and other extracurricular activities?  And what about Hollywood?  Are child actors safe?  Corey Feldman, a former child actor, said that pedophilia is rampant in Hollywood.  Is this true?  Let’s look into it.  When we are talking about protecting innocent children, we need to leave no stone unturned.  So, let’s not be afraid to look into any of it.  Bottom line is we need to stop being defensive and stop worrying about offending people and just focus on protecting children and stopping abuse.

While the church remains in the shadow of scandal, knowing that the teachings of the church are always in stark contrast to the horrible crimes committed by some members and clergy is an important touchstone for me.  And, now, thanks to all the media scrutiny, the lights are on in the church, shining brightly in every corner and crevice, thank goodness. But they are still out in Hollywood, our communities, schools and many other areas where children remain vulnerable. Hopefully, the scandals at Penn State and Syracuse will shine a light on this kind of activity in sports and put an end to it. Because I guarantee you, the abuse and cover up at Penn State is not an isolated story.  It is likely happening right now as I write this and the perpetrator may be somebody we least suspect and, quite possibly, someone we most admire.