Gumbleton's Disclosure Underscores Differences between Survivors, Bishops

By Greg Bullough
National Catholic Reporter [United States]
January 27, 2006

I'm a fan of Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton. There isn't much on which we disagree. His curriculum vitae reads like an encyclopedia of social justice.

When he broke with his brother bishops and supported the right of a clergy abuse survivor to a day in civil court, I joined fellow survivors' advocates in saying "Hooray!"

When he disclosed that as a teenage seminary student, a priest had sexually abused him (NCR, Jan. 20), I admired his courage.

I nonetheless find aspects of his revelation disquieting.

It pains me to criticize how an abuse survivor handles his experience. Then again, this particular abuse survivor has been a priest for 50 years and a bishop for 38. He was at Dallas in 2002. In that light, it is my hope that both Bishop Gumbleton and my fellow advocates and survivors will indulge me. I acknowledge that young Tommy Gumbleton, and His Excellency Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary of Detroit, are the same person but for time. The choices made by the public figure call for comment.

The bishop declined to name the deceased criminal.

I have heard all the arguments for not naming deceased abusers. The dead can neither defend their good names nor can they continue to abuse. Those with more positive memories of them may find their faith tested.

But one argument for disclosure trumps all others. Most abusers are serial abusers. Indeed Bishop Gumbleton himself acknowledged there was another victim. Many abuse victims have never had their experiences validated. Others have believed for decades that they were the only one or that it was their fault. Some fellow survivors probably experienced more grievous harm or less transitory abuse.

Those people deserve the help that Bishop Gumbleton can give them. In holding both the office and the truth, he is particularly empowered.

I truly appreciate his disclosure at this time. But still it troubles me that as a priest for about 40 years and a bishop for about 25 years during the abuser's lifetime, he may have kept to himself the certainty that a fellow priest was a sexual predator.

As a survivor, Bishop Gumbleton's primary responsibility was to himself. As a priest and bishop with such certain knowledge, what was his duty? What of the children and young adults with whom the abuser had contact in the decades following the bishop's personal experience?

It is clear from Bishop Gumbleton's statement that he has forgiven the abuser. I propose that there is an ethical distinction between the personal Christian duty to forgive and a priest's pastoral duty to protect children and to help victims heal. It is in the absence of malice that the motivation for action is pure and ultimately just.

Has Bishop Gumbleton chosen the interests of an abusive priest over that priest's victims? Has he chosen absence of scandal over objective truth?

In that respect, does he have more in common with U.S. Catholic bishops than he does with the survivor community?

His statement minimizes the negative impact the abuse has had on him. Minimization fosters the pernicious argument that abuse survivors can or should just "get over it" and "move on." But it has been 60 years, and it is still affecting Bishop Gumbleton.

My intention is neither to punish nor to browbeat. Rather it is to point out how even a bishop in the forefront of advocacy for social justice and who is himself a survivor of clergy abuse can be at odds with what survivors and advocates believe should have been done and should be done. It underscores that there remains a tremendous chasm between abuse survivors and bishops.

I hope Bishop Gumbleton will name the criminal who abused him, acknowledge the harm done by years of nondisclosure, and more fully disclose the lifelong impact of being betrayed by a mentor. Above all, I hope that his disclosure will initiate a vigorous but finally collegial dialogue between abuse survivors and the Catholic bishops and clergy at large.

Greg Bullough has been an advocate for the rights and concerns of clergy abuse survivors since 2000.


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