BALTIMORE — For nearly two decades, to be an advocate for survivors of Catholic clergy sex abuse was often to be a lonely protester, frequently ignored or sometimes even maligned as disrespectful by some Catholics and clergy.
That has changed dramatically since June, when clergy abuse scandals surfaced again in the U.S. church. Enormous energy has been pumped into the movement, with parishes around the country holding crowded listening sessions on the topic, bishops making abuse the focus of their annual fall meeting this week and legislators finding new support for measures to expand statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse.
But the victims’ advocacy movement is also being transformed by bitter ideological divides among Catholics. That chasm was dramatically on display this week at the semi-annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore.
Monday’s two public events were dominated by the older groups — research site BishopAccountability and SNAP — whose leaders focus on oversight and justice and participate less in the controversial debates over the perceived roles of celibacy and homosexuality in the crisis. A dozen or so people attended each of those events, and around 20 came Tuesday to stand with survivors who raised signs with words including “truth” and “reform.”
A few hours later, the right-wing advocacy group and news site Church Militant hosted more than 300 protesters under a pavilion for a revival-like rally. The profile of the group, whose leaders and web site blame abuse scandals on homosexual priests and a general falling away from orthodoxy, got a boost Tuesday as James Grein, one of two people who this summer accused ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of child sexual abuse, appeared for the first time in public at the rally.
The crowd roared as Grein singled out a pope who some on the right wing see as heretical and politically too liberal.
“Jesus’ law is much higher than pontifical secrets. It’s not Francis’ church, it’s Jesus Christ’s church,” said Grein, who says McCarrick abused him for nearly two decades, starting when he was a boy. McCarrick’s suspension in June launched the current scandal in the church..
While mainstream survivors groups declined to team up with Church Militant in Baltimore, its hefty social media audience — 200,000 Facebook followers — adopted the abuse scandals as a cause this summer.
The older survivors' groups have shied away from Church Militant in part because it does not routinely cover female victims of clergy sex abuse or go after conservative bishops who have allegedly abused. These groups want to keep the focus on goals like identifying abusers and creating policies and practices that require transparency and help victims.
“I feel like they’re using victims for a political agenda and I’m concerned about that. They’re using this to kind of get to where they want to be,” SNAP’s regional director, Becky Ianni, said of Church Militant. “And I hate when someone uses victims. Victims aren’t conservative or liberal. We’re victims. And that’s what people need to focus on.”
At the same time, Church Militant represents a large new audience for some longtime advocates who want to keep attention on abuse— even as its approach presents land mines for long-established groups.
Referring to Church Militant and other far-right websites like Breitbart and LifeSite that have taken up aspects of the cause, BishopAccountability co-director Anne Barrett Doyle said, “I see they perform a service to some extent in that they expose predatory bishops and predatory priests that mainstream press aren’t yet covering. But at the same time, because they have a different goal, their goal isn’t simple justice and accountability and transparency — there is a bias.”
Asked for comment on the role of Church Militant, the bishops' conference issued a statement saying the umbrella group "supports everyone’s right to a peaceful protest.”
Until this summer, posts on the Church Militant site were primarily focused on aggressively fighting advancements toward gay equality in the church, as well as some conservative secular politics. A typical headline is: “The Depth of My Anger Over Decades of Effete Priests.”
Michael Voris, a former television reporter who founded Church Militant in 2012, said the McCarrick case shifted his group’s focus.
Voris in 2016 released a video saying that for much of his 30s, he had multiple sexual relationships with men, including those with whom he lived. He portrayed himself as a victim of the devil.
Voris said the McCarrick scandal — in which many top clergy in Rome and in the United States are alleged to have known of at least rumors that McCarrick was harassing male seminarians — merges with his followers’ belief that a cabal of gay top clergy is at the core of church division.
“Since McCarrick, there is a lot more anger from faithful Catholics who feel like they’ve been duped. They feel like they’ve been lied to by the establishment,” he told the Post.
It was hard for conservative Catholics to go after the establishment, Voris said, but “not anymore.”
There was the feeling, he said: “'Well, they’re the successors of the apostle. We have to look at things in a charitable way,'” he said. “But the fact that McCarrick was the one who ran the show, and he was covered up for — that was the last straw.”
This isn’t the first time the survivors’ movement has seen disagreement, said some long-term watchers. The key division decades ago, in the 1990s and early 2000s, they said, was more about tactics. Some groups like the Linkup, now faded, were focused on healing and care for survivors, while SNAP was more about confronting the church and publicizing crimes.
It’s also not the first time the ultraconservative wing of the church was focused on the topic of abuse. Terry McKiernan, Barrett-Doyle’s partner at BishopAccountability, said some of the most aggressive reporting on the issue in the 1980s and early 1990s was by the Wanderer, a 151-year-old Catholic newspaper whose motto is “No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true Socialist.” Some of the earliest reporting on rumors of McCarrick’s behavior with seminarians in the early 2000s appeared on conservative blogs.
McKiernan said liberals and conservatives tend to focus on abusers who fall in their opposing ideological camps but that he feels it has been — until now — harder for orthodox Catholics to display leadership on the issue.
“Conservative Catholics didn’t want any activism that seemed to be counter to the power structures of the church, which they respected and felt had doctrinal valiance,” McKiernan said. “McCarrick gave them permission to be aggressive but still be thinking with the mind of the church.”
Some survivors and leaders at events in Baltimore said they see in 2018 a far greater level of interest in the topic of abuse among the typical churchgoing Catholic.
“What I’m seeing for the first time is we have Catholics joining us in droves. I have Catholic groups saying: ‘What can we do for survivors?’ ” Ianni said. While there was huge publicity in the early 2000s around the Boston crisis, the interest seemed to come and then go, as faithful Catholics believed the leadership that the problem was all cleaned up.
Then came Chile. And Ireland. And the grand jury reports in Pennsylvania And Buffalo. And McCarrick. And more than a dozen state investigations into clergy sex abuse.
Ianni said lay Catholics may be "realizing they are the church. Maybe for the first time, they’re finding their voices.”
Shaun Dougherty, a survivor originally from Johnstown, Pa., stood Monday with a sign outside the Baltimore Marriott. He said he believes it is now more comfortable for victims and advocates who speak out, but that’s not enough.
“We see so many tragedies today — Parkland, Las Vegas,” he said, citing recent mass shootings. “And people poured into the streets and marched for reforms. In Pennsylvania, we had wall-to-wall media coverage [of the grand jury report], and we couldn’t even pack the [state] Capitol for reforms. The fact that parishioner support is not there is very hard to take.”
Dougherty said the focus on celibacy or homosexuality as the solution is a distractions to the movement. “The Roman Catholic bishops have a serious problem with child molestation, and they are conferencing here to figure out how to get away with it,” he said. “A lot of this other stuff bogs it down.”