Whose do you prefer, my friend?”
--Kurt Brown, from his poem Agonistes
On June 28, 2013, I visited the offices of the Archdiocese of Boston for a scheduled meeting with Cardinal Sean O’Malley. With the help of Olan Horne, a board member of Instruments of Peace and one of five clergy abuse survivors who met privately with Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, this meeting was arranged to establish a relationship with the cardinal and introduce him to SafeNet. O’Malley’s recent appointment by Pope Francis to his inner circle of advisors earlier in the year had created a rare opportunity to open a dialogue with the Vatican.
I presented O’Malley that day with a three-point proposal that emphasized a partnership between the church and survivors with healing as the focal point. My offer was a trimmed version of a successful seven-point proposal that I and other survivors had helped draft with the bishops of the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 2012, a document they eventually adopted as official church policy.
Our meeting lasted ninety minutes and was friendly and straightforward. A thoughtful but cautious man, O’Malley listened attentively as I laid out plans to engage the church in an unprecedented approach to the clergy abuse crisis: survivors and members of the clergy sitting down together to discuss, share and implement directives that facilitated health and wholeness on both sides. The cardinal spoke of the Vatican’s concern for the emotional and spiritual well being of all survivors. I stressed how crucial it was for the church to be inclusive and to make pastoral response a top priority. Together, we kept the spotlight on recovery as a basis for common ground.
At some point near the end of our conversation the cardinal seemed surprised that I would expect him to share a proposal with the pope that was authored by someone he knew nothing about. He even joked about it. I thought it odd that a leader of the church known for building trust with survivors would suddenly make trust an issue. It took courage to move in another direction. I told him that. I also told him that everything he needed to know about me was in my proposal, and that getting it into the hands of Francis was precisely what I expected him to do.
Before I left O’Malley’s office that day he shook my hand and agreed to give the proposal careful consideration. He offered me his assurance that it would be reviewed by him and his staff, and then told me I would hear back from him, personally.
That was one year ago last month. Since then, neither the cardinal nor anyone in his office has contacted me. Despite leaving phone messages and sending letters there has been no response. Even the overnight mailing of an additional copy of the proposal (as a gentle reminder) on the eve of O’Malley’s meeting with Pope Francis this past February, produced no attempt by the cardinal to resume our conversation or pursue it further.
Some have suggested that his rebuff is a battle scar to be worn like a badge of honor. But part of the problem is the very language we use. Words that attempt to define our disputes and differences in terms of battles and wars are non-starters. All of us are victims of the notion that proclaims: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” There are reasons why some of us behave badly and act in fearful ways that cause unnecessary harm and suffering. Sometimes it’s intentional. Sometimes it's just plain ignorance. But more often than not it’s the result of a personal pain that fuels a lack of self-awareness. This is true for some survivors I've worked with. And it’s also true for some in the church.
In a way, there’s a bright side to my meeting with O'Malley (if you have a sense of irony).
In December, 2013, six months after our encounter in Boston, the cardinal reported in an announcement from the Vatican that an international commission on clergy abuse would be created. One of its purposes was to establish a deeper pastoral approach to survivors of clergy abuse. Another was to ensure that survivors would be included in the process. The concept and even some of the language used by O’Malley appeared to have been borrowed directly from both my written proposal and my conversation with him.
Don’t Call Us, We Won’t Call You
Persuading members of the clergy, particularly those in power, to respond to survivors of clergy abuse with respect and understanding has been challenging at best. But getting them to respond in a timely and sensible manner has not only been bewildering, in most cases it’s been absolutely impossible. What's even more baffling is why the church is so incapable of recognizing and accepting assistance from those it has harmed. When some church officials continue to act as if they are the solution to a problem they created, it’s hardly a breach of faith to believe that God is taking a long vacation.
This is not the first time that I or other survivors have experienced subtle forms of passive dismissive behavior by members of the church who often say one thing and then do nothing. It’s like having a game of catch with someone who says he wants to play with you, then proceeds to drop every ball you toss his way, including the ones you place in his hand.
In the real world (so-called) that most of us live in, it used to be that when you applied for a position with companies seeking to hire, or made inquiries of professionals regarding intellectual properties, or simply requested information from various sources for any number of reasons, you received the courtesy of a reply. It might be a positive or negative reply, and it might be days or weeks before you heard back, but it was reasonable to expect you’d hear from people you assumed were playing with a full deck.
Today, not receiving a response or a follow-up is standard operating procedure. Apparently, we’re all too busy to tell one another we can’t talk. And those who can talk usually text. This has become a convenient way to let a great many people off the hook in a culture where making a connection is futurespeak for disengagement.
The Catholic Church has made this strategy part of its modus operandi for centuries. Those who attempt to work with the church are fully aware of how notoriously slow things move down the long, quiet halls of religiosity (if and when they move at all). There also seems to be a mutant strain of the hundredth monkey effect at work. It’s fascinating to watch how the unresponsiveness of a small diocese in Grand Rapids, for example, is oddly similar to the unresponsiveness of a large metropolitan archdiocese in, say, Boston. And with both non-responses occurring at practically the same time.
Clergy abuse survivors are quick to learn how critical it is to maintain proper perspective and balance. When we invest our time and energy in those whom the church has hurt, as well as in those who represent the power behind the hurt, we risk putting ourselves in harm's way. Most of us willingly accept this because we know it isn't about what we say but about what we do.
I can relate to a number of good men and women in the church who choose to live the Gospel by not preaching it. We don’t always agree on methods or means but we share the same goals and understand that crisis is truly an opportunity for growth. More importantly, my friendships with various priests, brothers, nuns and bishops are only possible because everyone accepts each other’s imperfections and limitations. The real danger occurs when personal feelings and ambitions clash with moral imperatives. If you keep dropping the ball there’s a good chance you’re not using both hands.
I admit that some in the clergy, specifically those who hold positions of power, have managed to fool me over the years. A few, from the very beginning, never took me or my work seriously and only pretended to do so for the benefit of others. That’s been a hard truth for me to face. But practicing forgiveness and pursuing justice are not mutually exclusive. Compassion is a subversive act. Everyone deserves consideration, particularly those who've hurt us.
A Much Harsher Example
Doing this work, I’ve had to learn some tough lessons the hard way. I've also come to understand that there is not much you can do with those who choose to do nothing. Oddly enough, O’Malley is a Franciscan. One might expect more understanding from a follower of St. Francis, particularly now that a pope has chosen to emulate this saint in name and spirit. But the cardinal seems to have come down with a peculiar condition that lately affects Franciscans who come to power. This is especially true of the friars who now control the Franciscan Province of St. Barbara.
It wasn't always this way.
For six productive years, from 2003 to 2009, this small religious order founded by a man who lived a life of charity, successfully tackled and accomplished some gargantuan tasks. The leadership team at that time was headed by provincial Melvin Jurisich. Under the guidance of therapist Angelica Jochim, the province’s ombudsperson for their Independent Response Team (IRT) and later for their Office of Pastoral Outreach, and with the assistance of psychologist Radhule Weininger who was a member of the IRT until 2006, the Franciscans partnered with SafeNet and took progressive steps to engage friars, survivors and communities in a long process of understanding and healing.
What was even more encouraging was how the rank and file Franciscans demonstrated a willingness to dress the wounds they had caused. There were still small pockets of denial and resistance within the order, but a greater sense of gratitude prevailed with a welcome acceptance of SafeNet’s work throughout the province.
The open sores that have festered for years at Mission Santa Barbara are a different story. What happened there is a much harsher example of an unresponsive clergy than any thoughtless snub by a cardinal from Boston. Since 2009, Franciscans who know better have allowed pigheadedness and pride to bring unnecessary suffering to themselves and others. Forget about anyone playing catch at the mission. Toss a ball to those in charge there and they only dig a hole and bury it.
The word on the street now (or in the pew) is that John Hardin, the current provincial minister of the Franciscans, has come under scrutiny by his fellow friars. Some are finally beginning to question (albeit, privately) his mishandling of the Solidarity Memorial desecration at Mission Santa Barbara and his expulsion of SafeNet, not just from the grounds of the mission, but from the heart of the province itself.
The first indication that the walls have begun to crumble occurred last month when the provincial finally relieved friar Richard McManus of his duties as guardian of Mission Santa Barbara, something SafeNet had been asking him to do for more than a year. You won’t get anyone to admit that McManus’ departure was anything more than a routine reassignment. But those who closely monitor these things know better. A major shakeup is underway at Mission Santa Barbara. We can only hope that more “reassignments” are in order which will finally signal an end to the tyranny and alienation of the last six years.
But the problems of this order do not end with the departure of one troubled friar.
I have a past with John Hardin that reaches back twenty years. Because of it, I am just as responsible for the harm he has caused me. In some respects, maybe more so. At certain times over the years I suspected things were not right. I knew from experience that his words didn't always match his deeds. At one point I was even cautioned by a friar friend who described him as “strictly business.” My fault was failing to be honest with myself about what I was feeling at that time. As a result, I also failed to be honest with Hardin about why his behavior troubled me. I think I could have found a way to tell him. But I didn't. Instead, I played it safe and pretended things were not what I knew to be true.
The harm, if any, that Hardin perceives to have endured because of me has been difficult for me to determine. In 2011, he made it clear in no uncertain terms that he would no longer communicate with me. I’m sure his suffering has been real for him. And for that I am saddened. But it does little to explain his attitude toward me and my work, unless I am willing to accept that John Hardin has never really been a friend. And that, too, saddens me.
A Little History Helps
On January 15, 1994, nearly thirty years after I left St. Anthony’s Seminary in Santa Barbara, I returned to the school to address the Franciscans who had gathered next door at Mission Santa Barbara for their general chapter. I had spent the past year in deep discernment about my abuse, entering therapy for the first time and working to sort through the mess that my life had become. My recovery was taking me down a path that embraced restorative measures and I proposed sharing this with the Franciscans. I requested to speak to the friars after I met with Joseph Chinnici who was provincial minister of the order at that time.
My talk was held at the school where I had been abused in 1965, and it was delivered in the very same room that once served as my freshman study hall. This was the place where I and other boys sat at our desks every night, and where some of us waited to be summoned by our offender, Mario Cimmarrusti, to his room on the second floor.
My return and my talk were watershed moments in the clergy abuse crisis. Up until that point an abuse survivor had never before spoken to a large gathering of Catholic clergy. In my case, I was scheduled to address more than eighty friars who belonged to the religious order responsible for my sexual molestation as a child. It was unheard of at the time for any survivor to communicate with the church on such a scale, particularly on issues of healing and reconciliation. At my urging, I asked the various news agencies which were camped out in the parking lot in front of the seminary to respect my wishes and remain outside during my talk. The last thing I wanted was a media circus.
In my speech, I challenged the Franciscans to take the lead and become pro-active.
I offered specific proposals that outlined the need for cooperation, commitment and outreach that would build trust and support reconciliation. I also talked about what had happened to me when I was a student there. It was the first time I publicly spoke about my abuse. And it was the first time that most friars had heard a survivor speak. There was now a human face to a crisis that they had previously only read about in the news.
The hardest thing I faced that day were my own expectations. I suspect it was the same for the Franciscans. I don’t believe it took any more courage for me to stand in front of those friars than it did for those friars to sit and listen to me talk. There were those who had serious misgivings about my invitation to speak and dozens more who chose not to attend my talk that day. This was a sharply divided religious order.
But direct experience often has a way of trumping assumption. When I left the seminary that afternoon I felt hopeful that a meaningful dialogue had begun and that the first planks of a bridge between friars and survivors had been nailed down. My spirits were buoyed by many Franciscans who supported me, and I was assured by the provincial that my concerns would be considered, addressed and discussed at future gatherings. Moreover, I was told that the province would be in touch.
After returning home to San Francisco, two Franciscans I met after my talk at the seminary contacted me to invite me to lunch. These weren't friars who had attended the seminary as young boys like I had. Rather, they had entered the order as adults after spending some time in the secular world. During our meal together I was informed that they were interested in working with me on the proposals I outlined in my speech. I had every reason to believe them. I was a bit naïve but I wasn’t dumb. Internally, this was a politically useful move for the leadership and a definite morale booster for the friars within their own circles.
Or so I was led to believe.
After that initial lunch, no one ever followed up or made good on any of my requests. After the first couple of months I felt I was being appeased at the lowest level with the hope that I would eventually fade away. As a clergy abuse survivor I was the ultimate pariah. It didn't matter how well I was doing or where I was headed in recovery. What’s more, I was alone. There weren't
many other abuse survivors who were willing or capable of working with the Franciscans. Not because they didn’t want to. But because they couldn’t decide if they could trust them or not. The Franciscans knew this and they weren’t in any hurry to help them make up their minds. In the end, their decision not to get involved with survivors resulted in even greater distrust.
After a frustrating year in which I couldn't persuade the Franciscans to respond, it became clear they had no intention of doing anything. During all that time no one tried to build their end of the relationship. Tired and discouraged, I finally gave up trying to get the leadership to move forward and started working in earnest on my own recovery. I spent the next several years in and out of therapy exploring my relationship to forgiveness and reconciliation. I remained close to a few of my friar friends who were serving the poor in soup kitchens and on desert reservations, but I stayed far away from those who held the power.
Some Trouble Believing
It wasn't until 2003, when SafeNet was formed, that I crossed paths again with the two friars who had taken me to lunch that day in San Francisco nearly ten years earlier. Both were now definitors (leaders) serving as elected members on the governing board for the Province of St. Barbara. One of these friars was Tom West. As vicar provincial, he was now second in command behind the newly elected provincial, Melvin Jurisich. The other friar was John Hardin.
That autumn, John McCord and I, co-founders of SafeNet, were invited by Jurisich to address the definitors at Mission San Luis Rey near San Diego. Earlier that year he had pledged to join with SafeNet and work with us to promote healing. His invitation for us to speak was a way to formalize that partnership. At that meeting, Hardin didn't stay for our presentation. He suddenly excused himself by explaining he had a previous engagement. This was disconcerting for me. The meeting had been planned months in advance and was considered a crucial step in establishing relations between survivors and the clergy. Considering how I had been dismissed by Hardin in the past, it was understandable that I would have some doubt about the reason for his abrupt departure.
Fast forward to the present day and things begin to make more sense. It becomes painfully apparent that John Hardin probably didn't believe in working with clergy abuse survivors in 1994, probably did his best to avoid doing so in 2003, and since becoming provincial himself in 2009, has demonstrated an attitude toward survivors that, at best, is consistent with his behavior.
As for Tom West, I think it’s fair to say that, in a way, he seemed to practice an unwitting kind of penance those six years he served as vicar provincial. In an ironic twist of fate, he was appointed the point man in the province for clergy abuse issues, a role that required a great deal of skill, patience and humility. He fell into the position with some reluctance at first and had his share of missteps. This was unexplored territory. But West grew with the job and eventually learned to infuse his work with grace and compassion.
Some members of the clergy who grapple with power often presume to resolve issues that are beyond their comprehension. They tend to act as if answers to complex questions are like ripened fruit on low hanging branches waiting to be picked. In their way of thinking, believing you can say whatever pops into your head is the same as believing that whatever you say is interesting to others. The problem with those who think this way is that they usually believe they are always right.
It may be fine for an O’Malley or a Hardin to deem they have a pipeline to the divine, to expect others to take them at their word, and to even drop the ball now and then when it’s convenient. But at this rate, failed leaders of the church are at risk of becoming failed servants of God. Those at the top who pretend to care are tragically flawed men incapable of apologizing for errors they've made or for wrongs committed on their watch. It’s one thing to dismiss the truth because you can't accept it, and quite another to believe someone else is responsible for your mistakes.