UK abuse survivors campaign seeks culture change in the Church

Crux [Denver CO]

April 8, 2024

By Chris Altieri

St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Wheeling, West Virginia was the scene on Sunday of an event to show support for survivors of sexual abuse in the Church and advocate for meaningful change, not only in ecclesiastical structures and governance practices, but in ecclesiastical culture generally.

Some 120 people came to see the “Walk in my shoes” installation designed and executed by LOUDfence, a survivor advocacy organization founded by Catholic laywoman Antonia Sobocki in 2020 in the UK, which has garnered the support of many UK bishops and has now come stateside. Survivors were among the participants, including several from beyond the confines of West Virginia.

The “Walk in my shoes” installation in Wheeling on Sunday was the first LOUDfence event in the United States, and featured exhibits dramatizing the trauma, the plight, and most of all the presence of survivors in the Church.

“The response was really intense,” Sobocki told Crux on Sunday afternoon.

Pairs of shoes representing victims of abuse feature prominently in the installation. They represent victims from all around the world who have contacted LOUDfence. They are not only victims who suffered abuse when they were minors, but also adult victims from every state of life in the Church: laity, clerics, religious men and women.

“One in three girls and one in six boys will become victims of abuse before they are eighteen,” reads the sign accompanying the childrens’ portion of the exhibit – not necessarily victims of abuse at the hands of clerics. “This cathedral must be a safe space for all of them,” the sign says.

Sobocki, who is a survivor of abuse she suffered in her own family, is keenly aware of the power of the Church to help victims heal, and therefore of the grave duty to become everywhere a haven.

“The LOUDfence begins the conversation,” Sobocki told Crux in a conversation ahead of the exhibit, adding that she is working with Deacon Peter Collins of Northampton diocese in the UK for the development of a chaplaincy specially trained in the care of abuse victims. “It’s one of the biggest things affecting society, and we’ve got to be able to do that,” Sobocki said.

“LOUDfence must be non-adversarial,” the organization’s charter states, “collaborative and co-produced in a spirit of honesty, openness and a desire for true repentance, genuine change and if possible, healing and reconciliation.”

Commitment to constructive work, however, is not something Sobocki sees as incompatible with powerful witness and frank talk.

“A lot of the laity, when you speak to them, they say: ‘You’re told to turn up, shut up, and pay up’,” Sobocki said.

“You don’t have any agency,” in that view of things, Sobocki said. “You don’t get to make decisions, you don’t get to change anything. You can complain about it a little, if you want, but it’s really not going to do you very much.”

Sobocki told Crux LOUDfence takes a different view.

“What the LOUDfence has said is: Actually, yes, you do. You have agency. These bishops are not gods. They speak for God, but they’re not God, and they should listen to you – and when enough of you start saying the same thing, it works.”

“I honestly think that the only reason we have all the safeguarding protocols that we have now is not because suddenly a load of these men who spent years covering this up grew a conscience,” Sobocki told Crux, “but because they knew the people at the bottom were not going to wear it anymore.”

Two parts of LOUDfence’s “Walk in my shoes” installation at St. Joseph’s in Wheeling were dedicated to victims frequently ignored even at the highest levels of Church government.

One of the exhibits was dedicated to adult lay persons, their shoes arrayed around the border of the cathedral’s baptismal font.

“Abuse can happen wherever there are two people and a power differential,” the sign accompanying the adult victims’ exhibit. “Adults can and do suffer abuse too. Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility,” the sign says.

Another exhibit was dedicated to women religious, with special mention of the victims of Fr. Marko Rupnik, the disgraced ex-Jesuit celebrity artist who is still a priest in good standing even though he is credibly accused of sexually abusing dozens of victims, most of them women religious, and of using his “creative process” as part of his abusive modus operandi.

Rupnik’s murals and other art installations can be found in shrines and chapels all around the world – even in the Apostolic Palace – and they are still going up. The Vatican continues to use Rupnik studio images on its website. Rupnik even designed the Year of Mercy logo that still can be found on commemorative stoles.

Six pairs of women’s sensible shoes stand for all women religious who have suffered, and especially for Rupnik’s victims. “These shoes are a tribute to the sisters who have bravely come forward to report the abuse they suffered at the hands of Fr. Marko Rupnik,” the sign accompanying the exhibit reads. “These sisters are a cherished part of the Church,” it says. “If one part of the Body of Christ is harmed,” the sign continues, “we are all harmed.”

LOUDfence’s “Walk in my shoes” installation also included an exhibit dedicated to priests and seminarians who have themselves been victims of abuse.

“Sometimes the survivor isn’t the lay person in front of you, it’s the priest stood next to you,” reads the explanatory sign accompanying the part of the exhibit dedicated to priests and seminarians. “See the person before you see the collar and the title,” the sign says.

That is something of which Catholics in Wheeling-Charleston are all too aware, as the diocese – a jurisdiction encompassing virtually all of West Virginia – continues to struggle with the legacy of Bishop Michael Bransfield, whose thirteen years of depraved misrule has left deep wounds.

Bransfield resigned in September of 2018 – a week shy of his 75th birthday, when he would have been required to submit his letter of resignation anyway – to face a Church inquiry for sexual misconduct and financial impropriety. On the day Pope Francis accepted Bransfield’s resignation, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore was tapped to conduct the investigation.

In June of 2019, Lori released a report detailing sexual misconduct with adults – priests and seminarians he subjected to unwanted advances – and financial malfeasance including the use of diocesan funds to make personal gifts to other senior churchmen. Later that year, Pope Francis imposed sanctions on Bransfield including permanent exile from diocese he once led and significant financial restitution.

Healing, however, takes time and requires real change. Wheeling-Charleston diocesan spokesman Tim Bishop told Crux the current bishop, Mark Brennan, is working to bring it.

“He feels one way we can better our efforts is in the outreach to those victims of abuse,” Bishop said, “to accompany them on their path toward healing.”

“He believes prayer is a vital tool in this effort as well as our coming together to support victims through initiatives such as LOUDfence,” Bishop said. “The [LOUDfence] initiative is good not just for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, but for the whole Church,” said Bishop. “We are honored,” he also said, “to be the first diocese in the US to conduct a LOUDFence project.”

Brennan has also undertaken reform efforts to better the diocese’s governance.

Under Brennan’s direction, “[T]he Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston has strengthened background checks to include fingerprinting of all staff and volunteers in our Catholic Schools, as well as all priests, staff, and volunteers in our parishes,” Bishop said. “Seminarians are also required,” he said, to submit to the same checks and measures.

Wheeling-Charleston “has also increased on-site safe environment audits to be held on a yearly basis,” Bishop said, adding that the diocese has committed to financial transparency, specifically to “publishing the complete financial audit for the diocese—including footnotes and statements of financial position—each year,” which appear in the Wheeling-Charleston diocesan newspaper and are available on the diocesan website.

From the whole Church, Sobocki wants more.

“What I would like to see,” she said, “is a culture in the Church – that bishops knew [was there] – a new, assertive, compassionate, open-eyed laity, that would be so aghast at the idea of any priest or religious – or anyone actually, even a lay person – in a position of authority, who had been credibly accused, like Rupnik, of abuse – that they simply not dare put them into ministry.”

“Success,” said Sobocki, “is a default response of always protecting the vulnerable and the innocent.” That will take a long time. “I suspect my kids and grandkids to be doing this work,” Sobocki said, “it took time to break the Church and it is going to take time to fix it, but we’ve got to begin the repair job somehow, right?”