Without Words

I forgot that my friends can see these posts. Via Facebook Messenger last night, one asked me, “So what will you write at that website about the Philadelphia grand jury report?”

I mumbled something about being swamped at work with a project, I really don’t write all that often, just haven’t read news, much less the report. Nothing to say, really. Same old, same old.

Then Thursday, in a worksession with a colleague who has become a friend, a question from left field. “Do you listen to The Daily?” It took me a second to reply. “The New York Times podcast? Sometimes.” Well, evidently Thursday’s podcast was about the grand jury report. My friend listened to it. I hadn’t.

Tonight I headed to the Y and pulled up the podcast as I drove.  I didn’t make it to the gym. I had to turn back. I came home and dove into the grand jury report. My initial thoughts:



That blank space holds all of the unprintable expletives, all of the fury, all of the sheer rage that can’t be published here due to the editorial standards of this family blog. Symbolically only – there’s not enough space on the Internet, much less the page, to hold it all.

But that space is also drenched with tears for the victims. The space shakes with this Catholic mother’s utter incomprehension at how this could happen, decades after I’ve known that it can, and it did. The space carries painfully deep empathy for the parents of the children systematically brutalized by the very men they taught their children to trust.  I’m still moved to tears when I think of the times when my child was hurting, and I knew I couldn’t do anything to stop his pain. I speak and write a lot about compassion, and my heart truly breaks for the parents. Could I find compassion for myself, though, if what I did – or what I failed to do – were to lead to my child being a victim?  Tonight I just can’t answer that question.

At this point, there simply are no words left to say. What words can begin to explain EIGHT HUNDRED AND EIGHTY SEVEN PAGES of hell. I’ve read about fifty of those pages so far. I will read the entire report. It will make me cry, it will make me sick – the first fifty pages did that already. But I’m going to read it. Every word. Every. Goddamned. Word.

That’s not an expletive, and I’m not breaking any commandments. God – the God of my understanding, the God of our tradition – that God damns the violations, the rapes, the abuse and the devastation that was wrought on children by men who purported to act in God’s name. God damns the actions – and especially the inaction – by the bishops, the Cardinals, and yes – the Curial officials and the popes who let the horrors continue. God damns the culture of secrecy and especially the deep and profound shame that led the victims to believe that their silence was somehow God’s will. “For the good of all God’s holy Church.”

All damnable. All of it.

Tonight, I’m feeling pretty convicted myself, in that old time religion way, where the Holy Spirit comes down and stares you down about your sinfulness. Yep. That’s me. I knew that some diocese back east was in the news, and saw a couple of Facebook posts from friends who happen to be priests, sharing their sorrow and their willingness to listen. (Thank you. You know who you are. I love you.) But I saw the time and hopped onto my laptop for work.

Thus it was jarring, in the middle of focused work about a Big Important Meeting™, to be asked about that podcast. Nope, I hadn’t listened, but sure. I’ll check it out, I said. So I did, until I couldn’t anymore, and then I stopped.

I found my breath.

I kept listening.

Tonight I’ll be sitting with my own inaction, my own complicity. I’ve got 887 pages of grief on my hard drive right now. I made the mistake of thinking that this really has nothing to do with me.

Because, of course it does. My friend who mentioned the podcast knows I’m Catholic. When that came up in conversation for the first time just last Thursday, he seemed incredulous. Isn’t the Church the source, over thousands of years, of so much destruction, so many horrible things? Yes, indeed. But we’re more than that, too, I claimed.

Today “more than that” takes the form of 887 pages of our own shame.

I’m not a big fan of collective guilt. If someone claiming to be an adherent of Islam blows up a car, all Muslims in the US are unjustly targeted for violence, and end up living in fear. I remember the days when giving a hug to a gay man was viewed as an act of defiance in the face of a mysterious, lethal disease. Collective guilt and shame has no place in the Catholic repertoire.

But silence in the face of injustice? That’s different. Back in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis we slapped stickers everywhere. “Silence=Death.” It’s stil true. Silence around the crimes of the clergy and the shaming of those upon whom they preyed will kill any residual trust in the Roman Catholic Church. The Church did – and does – that “silence” thing well. Damnably well. It is 2018, and this report about the crimes in Pennsylvania was just published. Silence=Death.

I’m not fighting the Church’s battles. Above my pay grade, and after all, as a woman – a queer one at that – to many, I’m just here to pay, pray, and obey.

But the Church isn’t just the institution. In one memorable homily several years ago, a beloved priest exclaimed, “Don’t let the Church get in the way of your faith!” I still hear his voice and that admonition, now more than ever.

Every time I’m in South Bend, Indiana, I take flowers to the grave of Fr. Thomas Oddo, CSC. I never had the privilege of meeting him in person, but in a class on Sexuality and Religion in college, during the years that I wouldn’t set foot near a church, I wrote a paper about a treatise on Homosexual Catholics that he and Sr. Jeannine Gramick had published in the early 1970s. Fr. Oddo wrote as an out gay priest, the National Secretary of Dignity, in fact.

To this queergrrrl who wouldn’t go near organized religion but tried to carry the lessons of compassion and justice from the Sisters of Mercy deep in every fiber of her being, the idea that a priest could be out and gay and involved with Dignity and respected and eventually even a University President – it meant the world. It was truly a light in the darkness, a signal that maybe I still had a home of some sort in this messy Church.

Hence the irony now, and even more sadness as pundits are already blaming the latest round of despicable news on the presence of gay men in the priesthood. I’ve skimmed enough of the report and know enough of the history and psychology – not to mention many gay priests – to know that this is a lie. The crimes were committed against girls as well as boys. Homosexuality is not pedophilia. Homophobia drives gay priests into the shadows, the bottle, or out of the Church altogether. Clerical culture kills. An institution that cannot accept sexuality as an integral part of being human and that cannot differentiate between integrated sexual identity and sexually inappropriate behavior can’t claim to be shocked by what happened. Nor can they claim that it won’t happen again. The priests of whatever orientation who have healthily integrated their sexuality with their identity and spirituality – they aren’t the problem. It’s the culture that insists that sexuality be repressed that leads to inappropriate behavior – or worse. The institution created this monster.

What is this thing called “Church” to me tonight if not the institution?

The Church is me. And you too, if you claim it. That’s where my conviction leads me. I will read all 887 pages of the report over the next several days, and I will read the Bible’s Book of Lamentations as well. I will pray. I will fast. I will put myself out there to say how utterly wrong this all is. Nothing less is appropriate for the children and families who were brutally betrayed by priests, bishops, the Magisterium. Casting the horror into the daylight is a first step towards healing and repentance.

But then there’s bearing witness.

I’m writing tonight with a piece of paper by my side. On that paper I’ve written fourteen names – fourteen women and men I personally know or have known who were sexually abused by Roman Catholic priests. If I know fourteen such people, I assume that the real number of people who I know who were abused must be closer to 140. The shame is that deep. Those fourteen people – many of whom I’ve lost touch with, six of whom I know to have died – words failed me. We failed them – even up to this day, if we treat this as just some other news story, and not a profound tragedy in our family.

Bearing witness.

I don’t have a piece of paper with the names of the gay priests I know. Even though I could burn it with the flame from the candle tonight just as I will the other list with the names of the victims, I keep that list in my head and in my heart. Healthy gay priests – the ones who can admit their sexual orientation – they will be scapegoated. This is not their fault.

I cannot and WILL not say that you should read the report. I’m not linking to it here, and that’s intentional. I have to assume that someone reading this may have been victimized as well, and I see no need to suggest to you that you walk back into that fire. But I’m listening. I’m so very, very sorry.

The report is readily available online. Be forewarned: it’s devastating. I imagined that it would be bad after I listened to the podcast, and well… it was so much worse. It just keeps on going.

[As I wrote this, I received a phone call from a friend who sent a note earlier this evening asking for time to chat. I have added another name to my list. Fifteen. I know, and can name, fifteen people made Imago Dei – in the image and likeness of God – who were abused by the priests they trusted, who represented God to them.  Lamentations indeed. How many more, God? How many more?]

Bearing. Witness.

There’s no real ending to this piece. In fact, as I told my friend with whom I just spoke over the phone, the very worst thing that could happen is for this to be preached about in parishes all over the US this week – and then next week, we simply move on.

The sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests, and the coverup of the crimes by the rest of the Magisterium – this is as much a part of our collective narrative as is the Creed we recite every weekend at Mass. When anyone asks, as did my friend, “Really? You’re Catholic?” – this in part of our story as well.

I don’t yet have the words for how to really respond to that question. When I received the call tonight, my first thought was only to apologize. I believe in the priesthood of all believers, conferred at baptism. I won’t take on the Church’s shame, but I will extend the compassion and love and hospitality. This is our faith, y’all.

I guess that’s all I can write. I need to go sit in silence for awhile.

But I’m listening.

Sarah Gregory, New Ways Ministry, August 20, 2018

7 replies
  1. Friends
    Friends says:

    Wow! I had to turn off my computer monitor and let it cool down before it burst into flames! The analogy which comes most closely to mind is that of Jesus Himself, driving the money changers out of the Temple with a whip of cords, declaring that they had rendered this holy place into a den of thieves. At the root of much of the trouble, IMO, is the dysfunction and distortion created by an enforced celibate priesthood, and by an all-male priesthood as a further complication. Our kindred Anglican and Episcopal denominations now freely ordain women as priests. And in my opinion, no woman priest would ever abuse a vulnerable child in this way. So the initial reparation is obvious: the Vatican needs to start ordaining women priests, and they need to do it STAT — i.e., immediately and urgently.

    • Don E Siegal
      Don E Siegal says:

      “Our kindred Anglican and Episcopal denominations now freely ordain women as priests.”

      Let us not forget to include our progressive Lutheran brothers ans sisters who are members of the World Federation of Lutherans who also freely ordain women priests, deacons, and bishops.

  2. Fr. Paul Morrissey, OSA
    Fr. Paul Morrissey, OSA says:

    Thank you, Sarah, queergirrl, for your unbelievable heartfelt and profound message. I will send it to my family and friends, and with you, pray for our church even as we rage and grieve. I believe, as you do, that the sexual abuse will not cease until the causes are addressed–and the “people in the pews” can be part of this discussion. A last thought from your reflections on Fr. Tom Oddo, whom I knew and admired too–doesn’t the Church abuse many, many more by teaching LGBT people that they are objectively disordered? Thank you so much.

  3. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    “Don’t let the Church get in the way of your faith.”
    The truth of that statement pierces my heart.

    Like a cancerous tumor in the body that attacks and kills the healthy cells so too does the horrific abuse and horrific systemic silence and intentional coverup kill the victims, their families, the healthy and authentic clergy and church workers and every Catholic throughout the world, Like chemotherapy that makes the whole body sick, this cancer has to be eliminated before the Church can be healed. Therefore, the bishops, priests, magisterium directly involved or complicit have to be defrocked and sent to prison for their crimes against humanity. A total restructuring of the institution is essential to the life of the Church. This would have to include women, sound scientific and common sense teaching on human sexuality and a long and arduous atonement for this sin against God. Until that time, we break bread and break open the Word in our homes, invite friends, family and foes to the table.

    Yesterday I went to church. I could visibly see and hear the pageantry of the Mystery. I felt the dying of Christ in me. Between me and the Mystery of Divine Love, poured out for our sins, was the image of a priest raping a two year old girl. I can no longer “go to church.” Therefore, I have to more intentionally “be church.” Thank you, Sarah, for your post. Peace be with you.

  4. Robert
    Robert says:

    I am a priest and my diocese is held hostage by a hostile gay subculture. There are “good” gays but you seem to overlook that there are “evil” gays who do not honor celibacy, God or service of God’s people. This group destroys men who get in their way. They are complicit in covering up abuse. These men have created a network that is extremely protective of abusers and they are directly tied into the financial apparatus of the Church.

    This scandal is going to open doors and give all of us a view into a world none of us fully understood before. We will see how blackmail, clericalism and favoritism has protected the guilty. We will see how men with relatively small pay checks have been able to fund a lifestyle of beach homes, travel and fancy restaurants not legitimately but by stealing from the Church.

    In all, I am urging caution in drawing conclusions before we have even begun to investigate, otherwise you are doing exactly what the abusers and enablers have already done.

    In today’s climate, we need to prepare ourselves to be completely objective. Imagine if your best friend were accused tomorrow. Imagine you had the unfortunate responsibility to report a crime that friend was accused of. We need to be honest enough and objective enough to fulfill that duty and pass the accusation to the proper authority – no ifs, no ands and no buts. If we can’t do that, we have no right to judge anyone. Does it sound easy? No. The world demands a very rigorous and objective approach to justice. We are not beholden to our friendships we are beholden to a standard that must be upheld or we will suffer ages upon ages more of a lawless hierarchy and church.

  5. Louise Fitzgerald
    Louise Fitzgerald says:

    I’m simultaneously heartbroken and outraged. The boys club has to end now. All good faithful people of God men and women need to fix this mess once and for all. Those responsible and those who covered up the horrible abuse need to be thrown out of the church defrocked and imprisoned. We must move forward as the people of God and help in restructuring the entire hierarchy of the church. I don’t recall Jesus having Bishops archbishops and Cardinals in his midst. Jesus had female Apostles but somehow they disappeared and all boiled down to Mary Magdalene the prostitute; that is just wrong. The audacity of the church to blame gay priests for this problem is insidious. Pedophilia has nothing to do with sex per ae. It has to do with power over the powerless. God made man and woman in his likeness, male and female he made them. There are heterosexuals among us and homosexuals Among Us. God does not make mistakes in his creation and to link pedophilia with gay priests is probably the biggest most shameful sin the church could possibly propose.


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