I went to Mass last weekend with some apprehension. It was the first Sunday since a grand jury issued a report revealing the heartbreaking extent of abuse committed by Catholic priests across six Pennsylvania dioceses.
I was relieved to find that the scandal dominated the Mass and grateful that the silent church of my parents’ generation was finally willing to speak up and speak out about its wounds. But as I listened during the liturgy to my faith leaders unpacking the impact of these crimes, I couldn’t help but long for two words that are all too elusive when it comes to reconciling the horrors of physical, emotional or sexual trauma: “I’m sorry.”
I know what it is to crave those words. As a child, I was molested by someone in my family who was supposed to love and protect me. Not a priest, but a brother-in-law.
I told no one for 10 years — then spent the next 20 attempting to exorcise this violation from my life. I began to tell members of my family. I fell in love and reopened the wound. I went to church on Sundays. I prayed and prayed and prayed. But I couldn’t expel the anger.
At age 36, I had finally had enough: I confronted my abuser in a way my family could no longer ignore. I told members of my church community what had happened to me. I kept praying, but now I prayed for the courage to own my story and find my voice.
Little by little, bit by bit, I began to heal. I began to let go of the anger that had consumed me for so many years. I began to forgive the family members I had blamed for not protecting or supporting me. By the grace of God, I let the little girl whose brother-in-law violated her in her childhood home die. And I let the resurrected Christ breathe new life into my own.
My healing is a resurrection story. It is a precious gift of my faith. And it was all I could think about at Mass this past Sunday, as I listened along with millions of other devastated Catholics who brought their sadness with them to the pews.
I thought about it as our pastor addressed the Pennsylvania revelations with a statement from our local bishop and a call to respond prayerfully — for the victims, for the conversion of the perpetrators, for the conversion of our church.
I thought about it as our deacon confronted the scandal during his homily, relating his journey from evangelical Christian to practicing Catholic to ordained member of the church. As a convert to the faith, he reminded us that while many denominations share the word of God, it is the Eucharist that sets Catholicism apart.
As Catholics, the Eucharist is where we encounter Christ crucified: We believe the bread, or host, becomes his body, a living reminder of the life he gave up to save our own. Sunday’s Gospel reading, John 6:51, reinforced this salvation promise, with Jesus himself inviting us to partake in his living body.
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world.”
No degree of sin, our deacon said Sunday, can corrupt the Eucharist. And as a Catholic, I wholeheartedly believe this to be true. I have seen it in my own family, where my abuse — and ultimate healing — both occurred in a family devoted to the church and its doctrine.
While we are saved through Christ alone, my walk with Him has shown me that we are also called to be Christ to others — to those who have been touched by abuse, those who are afraid to see it and those whose own internal pain pushes them to inflict it on others. And that is why I want to hear more from my church on these latest revelations than “pray for us.”
In a letter released Monday, Pope Francis condemned a series of atrocities that went ignored for far too long. “We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them,” he said, calling on the entire church — including lay members like me — to join in solidarity with the victims in “uprooting this culture of death.”
“Without the active participation of all the church’s members,” Francis wrote, “everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change.”
I couldn’t agree more. Which is why, as a daughter of this church and a survivor of sexual abuse, I implore Francis and other church leaders to go further than exhortations of prayer and reform. I ask them to apologize.
Why should a simple apology matter so much, when it can never provide sufficient redress for the crimes committed? When so many of the men who might offer it do not claim responsibility for the sins of their brothers? It is precisely because these words bring a measure of personal responsibility that they are so desperately needed.
The pope acknowledges that if one member of our church suffers, all suffer together. The same can be said for harm — when inflicted by one, it is inflicted by all. As long as church leaders continue to treat this issue as a risk to manage and not as a culture made possible by the church, trust will continue to erode.
Perhaps Christ’s legacy for us in this situation is not so much his perfection as his perfect sacrifice. As our priests show us the Eucharist each Sunday at Mass, encouraging us to find solace in Christ’s sacrificial love, I pray that they, as priests, will do the same.
I pray they will give up their defenses. I pray they will humble themselves. I pray they will say the words: “I’m sorry. What have I done? What can I do to help you now?”
Right now, that is all this child wants to hear.