On January 12, the 165 friars that make up the Franciscan Province of St. Barbara in California overwhelmingly elected a new provincial, David Gaa. Their choice not only signified the most hopeful sign of change in the province since the clergy abuse crisis of 1993, but it also brought an end to seven years of autocratic rule. Make no mistake: the Franciscans are poised to do a complete 180 in the ways that count most. And while the friars would never admit to it publicly, it’s clear that Gaa’s election is a compassionate but firm repudiation of former provincial John Hardin’s divisive policies. The suffering people of this province, friars and laypersons alike, could not feel more grateful if St. Francis himself had kneeled and washed their feet.
Dissatisfaction among the friars has been smoldering for quite some time. Over the past few years, private conversations have revealed a deep displeasure with some of their “misfit brothers” (as one friar put it kindly). If I sometimes challenged them to take action I was often met with silence. One can argue that a sense of helplessness kept the friars from publicly speaking out. But their oath of allegiance actually contributed to their own suffering and, more to the point, to the unnecessary suffering of others. Repressive vows of obedience shackled these men to an antiquated rule that ultimately allowed others to distort the order’s principles and to abuse their power. Does this sound familiar? We saw these same tactics employed during the worst years of the abuse crisis. As a result, the unhealthy environment that one outgoing administration created will long be remembered as one of the most regressive leaderships on record and one of the least Franciscan in spirit. The irony here would be woefully tragic if it weren’t so absurd. And perhaps it’s a bit of both.
Under the Franciscans’ own rules, John Hardin had every right to run again and be re-elected to serve an additional three years. The likelihood of that happening was remote, at best, since most minds were made up weeks before. Still, the province had a way of taking on the appearance of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, and one can only imagine the comic power struggles that were averted. As it turned out, the former provincial stood before the members of his community and asked for their forgiveness--a standard gesture of humility expressed at every provincial chapter. The friars forgave him, of course, and then promptly moved on to the serious business of rescuing their order.
But it would be a grave miscalculation to ignore the fact that the mismanagement of this once admired province was directly responsible for some of the cruelest distortions of Franciscan charity since the St. Anthony Seminary sexual abuse cases of the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties. It took decades for the Franciscans to acknowledge and apologize for those crimes. The fact that no friar offered any hint of regret for all the harm and suffering Hardin’s administration was causing came as no surprise to most of us. But it didn’t make it any less appalling. No one is denying that deficits, operating in the red, rumors of bankruptcy and discussions of consolidation with other provinces were serious concerns of the previous administration. But all those interests paled when measured against the absence of honest communication, right behavior and compassionate acts.
The sad but harsh reality is that too many Franciscans seem to subscribe to the rule of the “thin brown line,” an unspoken code that pledges absolute fidelity to all brother friars, including those who disgrace the very robes they wear--and often at the expense of doing the right thing. We witnessed such hubris firsthand during the nineties when the abuse crisis reached its zenith: friars defending other friars who were clearly in the wrong and then pointing a finger at the victims. This blind loyalty has been elevated so far above the needs of all their brothers and sisters that listening to people’s legitimate concerns and doing something about them has become a vast ministry of silence and neglect. If there is any shame attached to the last seven years, this is where you’ll find it.
David Gaa’s election carries the enormous weight of hopeful expectations from both his own community of brothers and the greater community that he and his fellow friars are pledged to serve. It will be no easy task to transform the order—and yes, transform is precisely what the Franciscans need to do. It will require courage to acknowledge, accept and heal the wounds inflicted by certain friars who must be held accountable for their actions. And it will require the resolve to remove certain friars from ministries and positions of power for the benefit of all. Reconciliation is always possible. But independent facilitations must be carefully initiated in parishes like Mission Santa Barbara and SS Simon and Jude in Huntington Beach in order to ensure that all injured parties can finally speak freely without being bullied into submission for fear of being shunned or losing their jobs.
To this effect, I again declare a willingness to listen to any friar willing to listen to me. As long as SafeNet is capable of doing this work it will continue to reach out to the Franciscans. To do otherwise makes no sense at all. In addition, I’m proposing that a comprehensive and permanent Franciscan policy on pastoral outreach, with a clear focus on the healing process, be created for clergy abuse survivors, families, parishes, communities and the friars themselves. Based on existing wellness models, such a program would promote the health and well being of everyone. Most importantly, it would help to ensure that no future provincial or guardian can undo the good that binds the province to those it has pledged to support.
But for any of this to become a reality, survivors must be included in the creation and implementation of this new policy. We must be called upon to assist the Franciscans in ways that keep all parties on the right path to healing and recovery. If the province hopes to regain trust and transform itself from an institution to an inspiration, survivors must become part of the dialogue.
Most of us are mindful that the abuse of children by friars is not rearing its ugly head in this province as it did in years past. And there are none more thankful for this than both the men and women who were harmed as children, and the friars who were not responsible for causing that harm. But the crisis is hardly over as some friars have tried to make us believe. Their cynical lie has been told so many times that many Franciscans today remain unaware of the existence of their own office of pastoral outreach which was created more than ten years ago to assist victims of abuse. If it were not for Praesidium, the agency that credentials religious orders on this matter, it’s hardly a stretch to believe there would be no survivor outreach at all. The truth is that the clergy abuse crisis within the Catholic church has never gone away. Its cold presence is still felt just beneath the surface. We need only to turn our attention to South America, Africa, Asia and the Philippines to realize how much more of the iceberg is being revealed each year.
I have every reason to believe that David Gaa is more than capable of bringing this troubling reign of error to an end. There is no guarantee that he will be the listener his province deserves, but I'm encouraged by his election and believe that justice without mercy has no place at the table. I'm hopeful that he and I can meet and restore communication between SafeNet and the order that inspired its creation thirteen years ago. Accomplishing this will require patience, understanding and trust. And forgiveness, too, if chosen willingly. It cannot be preached or imposed. It cannot be a hammer used to pound our feelings into compliance. Forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive no matter what the clergy abuse deniers argue. Both can be used together to heal without causing more harm and suffering to either side. The Franciscans know this. They were once our champions. And they have a chance to be our champions again.