Escape Routes: A Reflection on the Church Sex Abuse Crisis

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by Kim Long

Sometimes I run. It’s true. Sometimes I run from God.

In 2002 when the Boston clergy scandal erupted I had a vague notion of what was going on. Several priests, whom I knew personally, were uncertain of going out in public in their collars, fearful of being grouped with the abusers. It was during this time period that I found myself waiting with an altar server after a holy day Mass. Everyone had gone and we waited together until his brother picked him up. A simple thing.

The next day my pastor and I spoke about the boy waiting alone . He told me he was afraid to offer the boy a ride home with the sexual abuse crisis going on in the Church. I offered prayers for the victims of what seemed a faraway crisis.

When the Pennsylvania abuse scandal broke several months ago, I paid close attention. My previous ignorance seemed to ignite a hunger in me to know the truth, even if it turned out to be painful – and it did.
A coworker, knowing my love of movies, recommended a film called Spotlight. When she told me it was about the 2002 clergy abuse crisis, I knew I had to see it. One of my sons walked in about the time the movie began. Afterward, as the credits rolled, I asked him if this movie shook his faith in the Church. He said, “Mom I grew up knowing about this and nothing can take away the Eucharist, especially the way you explain it.”

Sworn testimony, a condemning document from a nuncio, two heartfelt and very different homilies from two different priests, and one newscaster after another, brought this topic home in a way no movie, even an award winning movie, ever could. The sadness, the brokenness was part of me now.

Following the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, I was in a diocesan meeting where the subject was discussed at great length. One of the results of that meeting was the decision to hold a prayer vigil for reparation and healing. I knew I needed to go to the service, but there was a deep resistance within me – a bit of a hard wiring issue really – that when I have no choice, I tend to resist. Knowing I should go lessened my desire to attend. This character flaw and I are well acquainted.

The prayer vigil fell on a Friday night, the same night as a local festival. My big plan was to pray, drive to the festival, have a meat pie and hear a favorite band from my high school days sing their one great hit, and then I would drive home and hit the hay.

Sometimes I run. It’s true. Sometimes I run from God.

Entering the church I made my way into a back pew, chosen for its closeness to the exit. Kneeling, the pressure of my weight on the padded kneeler reminding me of the pain we were all facing, I prayed hard and felt an internal shift. A feeling of belonging seemed to surge within me.

Through scripture, song, litanies and moments of private prayer, I began to connect. All week I had felt at loose ends, not quite grounded in my faith, feeling the winds of change swirl and tug angrily at me. In previous weeks I assured so many people that all was not lost, and that night I was there with other members of the faithful, feeling our way in the dark.

It occurred to me that I found myself knee deep in covenant: an agreement I had made with God at my emergence from the waters of baptism. For even at the tender age of seven years, I knew I would never be alone again. Yet that feeling, one I had banked on all my life, was so far away from me, more intangible than I ever dreamed possible. Covenant had worked for me as I trusted in God’s presence, seeing it everywhere: in nature, people, the Cathedral building itself, the faces of my children. And at that moment it was revealed differently, not just serving to shore me up, but to also encourage my fidelity which had begun to look for an escape route weeks ago. I was filled with hope, faith and yes, love.

Just this past February, anonymity was stripped away as the names of the guilty were revealed. I was in shock as a former pastor from “back home” was listed among the names. I thought I would feel angry, disgusted, but instead I am just very very sad: sad for the victims, for the perpetrators, for God and for the Church.

In John Shea’s piece, “A Down and Out Disciple Meets His Match,” Jesus shows up just as a man is thinking of “divorcing him quietly.” Jesus reminds him, as Shea’s story has reminded me over the past 31 years, that “there will be no walking out of the covenant.”

The disciple in Shea’s story remained, and like that disciple I am going nowhere. At the end of the day, covenant is my foundation.

Sometimes I run. It’s true. Sometimes I run toward God.

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