An Open Letter to Franciscan: Say You’re Sorry

By Emily C. A. Snyder
Pop Feminist, Patheos (blog)
September 15, 2018

Elizabeth Vermilyea, PhD is a nationally recognized Traumatic Stress Specialist.  As an alumna of Franciscan University of Steubenville (FUS), and in light of the continuing and unfolding fall out from the Catholic priest scandals including universities knowingly harboring priest abusers, she offers her words of counsel in the following open letter.

The following was originally addressed to FUS, regarding their acknowledgement of allowing Fr. Samuel Tiesi, TOR, to continue to work and be housed on campus, despite knowing about credible allegations of his sexual misconduct towards young college women.  Allegations which FUS President, Father Sean O. Sheridan, TOR, addressed in an alumni email sent on Sept. 10, 2018.  It should be noted that in answer to their own failings, FUS has made a gesture towards instituting better Title IX safety measures.  Whether these measures are sufficient, remains to be seen.

Below, Dr. Vermilyea offers her advice about how universities and institutions can better handle these cases, with an eye to walking with victims through their trauma, rather than subjecting them to further silencing and misinformation. Please read.


I want to be clear about how the University is coming across with the very recent (and all too late) Title IX review and the even more recent disclosures about Sam Teisi. Sam was a known offender from as far back as the 80s. He was Michael Scanlan’s best friend, lionized on the campus, feted and adored, and Scanlan knew he was an offender, knew he was assaulting women. He did what the church has always done, He moved him.

I hope you do this differently. I hope you offer all records up. I doubt that you will.

I was an RA at Franciscan, I studied psychology, I became a trauma specialist.

While an RA I saw more than my fair share of students struggling with histories of childhood sexual abuse, often within their proper Catholic families. I saw the school treat them with a strange combination of fondness and pity and encourage people to pray over victims, and then when victims became upset with laying on of hands or with memories of abuse, the school said, cast out the demons. These were women in pain, surrounded by women indoctrinated to pray everything away. Many of these vulnerable people came to Franciscan precisely because they thought it would be safe. Some found an even worse situation, a priest taking an interest, making them feel special, then making them feel horrible.

If you are going to teach us all, in theology class, about what the persona Christi means, you’d better be sure that the priests know the burden they bear, and that there will always be vulnerability and a power differential in any relationship they have with the laity, religious orders, and seminarians. They are always responsible for the boundaries. They are never permitted to indulge their desires at the expense of those in their pastoral care…which is…everyone.

After graduating I took a job working with sexual abuse survivors and saw the compounded impact of that abuse when survivors were not listened to, believed, or protected. I revisited those moments at school when vulnerable women were first embraced, then people tried to rescue them, and then they were finally discarded when the job became too onerous, because you can’t rescue someone from trauma, you can only walk with them through their healing, and it gets ugly, that healing process. It’s not at all like we were taught in Theology of Healing. Prayer does not heal all wounds, and as a teaching, it’s decidedly insidious when applied to idealistic young minds and hearts who are being set upon by a predator.

I know the goal in these situations is to “get out in front of it.”

It’s too late for that. I think the best you can hope for is to open wide the doors of information, humble yourselves, and whatever you do, don’t get defensive, don’t circle the wagons, don’t make excuses, and don’t hide from the ugly parts.

I’ve been in this field a long time and worked with clergy abuse survivors. I know what they long for. Give it to them. Say it was your responsibility, and you failed. Say you are sorry. Say you will do better. Ask their help in how to do better. Prostrate yourselves before those whom you have abandoned in the name of reputation, pride, and fame. And do it soon.

Elizabeth G. Vermilyea, PhD
Class of 1991



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