What Lay Catholics Are Doing in the Face of the Sex Abuse Scandal
By Mary Rezac
September 1, 2018
- When sex abuse scandals first rocked the Catholic Church in the United States in 2002, Miriel Thomas Reneau was young, and felt “truly shocked to realize that men of God could inflict such terrible wounds on victims with impunity.”
This summer, as accusations of abuse against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick surfaced, a grand jury report from Pennsylvania detailed decades of clerical abuse, and the Pope has been accused of allegedly covering up abuse, Reneau, as well as many other lay Catholics, wanted to do to something.
“I wanted to express my solidarity with the victim-survivors of these abuses and do everything within my power to urge the leaders of the Church to act as courageous fathers in enacting meaningful and visible reform,” she told CNA.
That’s why Reneau, along with a friend who wished to remain anonymous, started The Siena Project, which encourages laity to write letters to their bishops “to enact meaningful reforms in light of recent revelations of grievous abuses in the Catholic Church.”
On its website, the Siena Project includes printable letter templates that can be sent to the apostolic nuncio to the United States, to Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and a template letter that can be sent to one’s local ordinary.
Reneau told CNA that she had already written letters to her bishop and to Cardinal DiNardo when she felt inspired to build a website that would help other Catholics do the same.
Using St. Catherine of Siena as the namesake for the project was a no-brainer for Reneau, who has a strong devotion to the Dominican tertiary, even naming a daughter after her. Furthermore, St. Catherine met and corresponded with Gregory XI so persistently that she eventually convinced him to move back to Rome after 67 years of papal exile in France.
Her example “shows us that courageous and persistent correspondence with Church leaders can be a channel of renewal during times of crisis in the Church,” Reneau said.
The project also lists in their mission statement six points which they affirm, including that clergy publicly admit the sins of the Church, that they submit to outside investigations, that seminaries and places of formation be reformed, and that the Church works to extend statute of limitations laws so as to give victims more time to find justice in court. Those who affirm the mission statement in whole are encouraged to sign it.
However, “we care much less about acquiring signatures than we do about encouraging people to write to their bishops in their own voices and from their own convictions,” Reneau said.
“I didn't really know what to expect when I launched the website, and the response has reassured me on the most important point: I am not alone in perceiving a need for profound and visible reforms within the Church that I love so much.”
A similar letter-writing initiative was organized by a group of Catholic women, who signed an open letter to Pope Francis demanding answers to the questions and accusations raised in a letter by former U.S. nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.
As of Friday afternoon, the letter had more than 20,000 signatures.
Kendra Tierney is another lay Catholic who felt called to do something as the news of scandals in the Church kept coming this summer.
A mom who blogs at Catholic All Year, Tierney said the response to the scandals was something that frequently came up in a Facebook group of female Catholic bloggers to which she belongs.
Together with Bonnie Engstrom, who blogs at A Knotted Life, Tierney launched a social campaign encouraging prayer and fasting, which is how #SackClothandAshes began.
The women designed shareable graphics which describe the mission of the campaign, explain the purpose of prayer and fasting, and provide prayers of reparation. The campaign is set to last 40 days - it began Aug. 22, the feast of the Queenship of Mary, and will last through the month of September.
“We are Catholic, faithful to the Magisterium and disgusted by the abuse and cover-ups that have plagued the Roman Catholic Church. We are heartsick over the 1,000+ victims of abuse in the state of Pennsylvania and all the other boys and girls, men and women who have been sexually abused by priests and further victimized by the bishops who covered up these crimes,” one graphic for the #SackClothandAshes campaign states.
Tierney said she didn’t expect as big a response to the campaign as it has received.
“The response has been really heartwarming, because it felt like here was something real and concrete and based in Catholic doctrine and tradition that we could do,” she said.
Fasting in particular is a practice that has “sort of fallen by the wayside in Catholicism recently,” Tierney said, “yet this is a tool that makes us better and makes our Church better.”
Tierney said one of the most encouraging responses to the campaign she has received is from a woman who was sexually abused by a priest as a child. While the abuse happened many years ago, and the woman has since married and left the Church, she told Tierney that “it was the first time that she felt like the Catholic Church was supporting her and all that she had gone through.”
“There’s so many intentions for this (campaign), but that has to be one of the main ones, is showing the people who have survived this kind of abuse that we are aware of them and that we want to do what we can to support them,” Tierney said.
She noted that September is an especially appropriate time for a campaign that calls for fasting and reparation, as it contains the feasts of Our Lady of Sorrows and the Exaltation of the Cross, as well as the autumn ember days – the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the third Sunday in September, which were, historically, days of fast and abstinence.
The sacrifices and prayers are “a daily reminder that I haven’t given up on this, I haven’t forgotten about it, it’s...40 days that I keep it in the forefront of my mind,” she added.
Author Leah Libresco is also inviting laity to use the Sept. 14 feast of Our Lady of Sorrows as an opportunity to call their bishops about their concerns.
In her Facebook event, Libresco said she will be asking her bishop “what (he) knew about McCarrick, what he did, and what he plans to do now. I'll also ask for him to work for the release of documents that would confirm or refute Archbishop Vigano's testimony.”
She encourages attendees of the event to use the letter templates from The Siena Project as a guide for what to say on the call, and also to pray the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary or the Chaplet of Seven Sorrows for the bishops and their staff ahead of time.
“Let them know when you call that you're praying for them!” she noted.
Kevin Heider is a Catholic singer-songwriter who has responded to the scandal through song.
“The Body” is the result of thoughts that Heider started having as news of sexual accusations against McCarrick came out this summer, as well the thoughts he had surrounding his wife’s pregnancy and the birth of his son.
“As we snuggled and stared and held our son close for two days in the hospital, our minds were split between the joy of this new life and the shame and sorrow wrought by recent revelations of the extent of the suffering our church has brought to so many of the men, women, and children she was supposed to shelter — not abandon,” Heider wrote in a reflection which he shared on his Facebook page.
Heider told CNA that he had been reflecting on the Church.
His song opens with a meditation on the ugliness of sin among the members of the body of Christ, the Church.
As member of the body of Christ “we have to embrace the pain caused by our members and bear it and deal with the weight of it all,” he told CNA.
Music helps Heider process, and he said he hopes his song could help others who are struggling with the scandal in the Church to do the same. He said he hoped it might have a unifying effect, and could help his listeners move from anger to sadness.
“When people allow themselves to just be sad, they're truly united in that sadness. There's a beauty in that, I think, in the simple acknowledgment that we're in this together.”
In his Facebook reflection, he closed with an apology to anyone who has been hurt by members of the Church.
“To every beautiful body one of her members has ever perversely desecrated: I do not have the words to tell you how sorry I am.”
Chris Stefanick, a Catholic speaker and evangelist with Real Life Catholic, told CNA that the pain of the abuse crisis “hits very close to home,” as he has had family members endure the devastation of abuse, with effects that can last for decades.
“So any form of institutionalized cover ups infuriates me on a very personal level. I know I'm not alone in that. I think that watching this kicks up a lot of personal pain for a lot of people...even if it wasn't a member of the clergy who abused them,” he said.
He encouraged Catholics to do four things in the face of the abuse crisis: demand transparency, pray, hope, and remain faithful.
“Don’t ever let anyone inside or outside the Church tell you not to talk. Solid accusations must be dealt with until they're resolved. Be an annoying voice if you need to be,” he said on the need for transparency.
At the same time, Catholics should not let the crisis “rob you of your focus on Jesus.”
“I’ll never let Judas drive me away from Christ,” he said.
“In every crisis in the Church God sends saints as the solution. This is a time of profound crisis. God is calling us to be saints. To rebuild his Church.”