Coping with the clergy abuse crisis in the church: Don’t run, rebuild
By Eileen Benthal
September 16, 2018
I remember sitting outside the church, in the middle of the discarded tree. The cold wind blew around me and the swirling snow formed interesting patterns in the air. But I was warm as the tree branches enveloped me.
I was attending a youth retreat and the retreat director gave us some time for individual reflection and journaling. The Christmas tree, cleared of all remnants of paper decorations and lights, was tossed off to the side of the parish hall on the border of the woods surrounding the church property. It was the perfect place to sit and reflect on that Saturday morning in the middle of January.
When I was a teenager, I made a deeper and more personal commitment to Christ and to my Catholic faith. I was a cradle Catholic, brought to church to be baptized by my faith-filled parents whose individual lives and marriage was founded on principles they had learned growing up in the Catholic church.
My Catholic faith influenced every area of my life and I loved the rich traditions, symbols and the practice of my faith. Even as a young child, I knew the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist at my First Holy Communion. I felt the gentle care of Jesus’ mother Mary and of God the Father as I recited the Hail Mary and Our Father with the careful precision of a young girl growing in faith. Even as I dabbled in the indiscretions of the teenage years, it was a personal faith in Christ which always brought me home.
But that retreat was a turning point for me — all because God spoke to my heart as I sat in the middle of a dying tree. As I sat in the tree, the snow swirling around me, God expanded my heart to think beyond the growth of my own faith and challenged me to care for this church I called home. I heard the Lord speak to me clearly, “Go and rebuild my church.” I knew just enough about the conversion of Saint Francis to know that God wasn’t talking about cleaning up the parking lot or painting the parish hall.
I knew this call to rebuild the church was bigger than my teenage my mind could imagine at that moment and that the Lord was asking for my personal assent. I responded “YES,” bursting with the enthusiasm of a teenager on the brink of young adulthood. I was ready to take on the world and thankful for this inspiration to rebuild the church, too.
Little did I know at that time, my life’s work, my marriage and family would largely be shaped by that “YES” I had exclaimed from the center of the dead tree.
More than 30 years later, this image is more poignant than before. God spoke to my young heart as I sought refuge from the cold in a dead evergreen losing all its needles. Still, I found support in its boughs, as I wrote down a vision for my life which would shape my future. Much like the tree, the church was suffering from abuses of within and without, some of whose stories would take decades to be told.
I pursued a bachelor’s degree in English and theology at the College of Steubenville, now Franciscan University, which is internationally known for its vibrant, faith-filled expression of authentic Catholic faith. It was there that I grew deeply in love with the Lord and fully embraced my Catholic faith. I learned the discipline of daily prayer, studying the scriptures and the traditions of my Catholic faith. My faith grew with both my heart and my head as I studied the history and teachings of the Catholic church while practicing my faith every day. It was an exciting time of my life.
When I met my husband, he shared a similar testimony of a renewal of his faith and even sensed a calling from God to rebuild the church. Individually, we professed that call as lay Franciscans through formation we received on campus. We dated and married on campus in the Christ the King Chapel, professing our vows before the San Damiano cross, a replica of the cross from where St. Francis heard his call from God as he said, “Go, rebuild my church.”
We were ready to rebuild the church together as a married couple and pursued careers in full-time ministry within the Catholic church. My husband got a job working for the Diocese of Rockville Centre upon graduation; we married and moved to Long Island and began our new life, living at a retreat house where I also worked.
Consistent with our personal and marital commitment to living out our faith as Catholics, we gave birth to four children in the first 10 years of marriage. It was a busy life and ministry. Early on, we had decided that our children came before the ministry and I would be involved to the extent that the kids could be with us and a part of the ministry in the Catholic faith.
Twenty-two years of full-time ministry and raising a young family was a great blessing, but not without challenges. For the majority of those years, my husband’s job was as a director of a large diocesan office. But because my husband coordinated events for groups of people as small as 100 to as large as 8,000, including one at Nassau Coliseum, I had concerns for the safety of our young children in these large groups.
I always talked to my kids about strangers and the possibility of abuse. The Berenstain Bears book — “Learn About Strangers” — was a frequent read at our house. But I didn’t stop at strangers, knowing that sexual abuse of children happens most often from relationships known to the family prior to the abuse.
It made for some awkward conversations about boundaries and trusting others, not because of their position in the church or in families, but because their behaviors proved them to be worthy of our trust. And I never taught my kids to trust the priests carte blanche, because I didn’t trust some of them myself.
As a single young woman, I was sexually harassed by a priest in the confessional and propositioned with explicit and inappropriate language by another in a social situation when I was by myself with the priest.
I have met many wonderful priests in college and throughout our time of ministry in the church. And I work with and am friends with wonderful priests today. But I also met priests who were self-centered and egotistical, traits which did not elicit my trust as role models of faith for my children.
Priests were not held in a higher position in our lives than others, even though we respected their vocations. Sometimes I wonder if I raised my kids to be too suspicious of people in authority in the church. But when the earlier allegations came out 10 years ago, I was grateful for having protected my kids. We knew some of the priests who were later defrocked because of credible evidence against them. Some of them I had a gut feeling about and others were a surprise. None of them were alone with my children.
But the sexual abuse of a minor that hit hardest at our home was not from priests, but from a lay minister in our parish, who was also a husband and father of young children. My husband was the parish administrator at that time. He was instrumental in getting the police involved quickly to save an 11-year-old from a predator, despite the advice of diocesan lawyers to proceed slowly. The predator went to jail because parents trusted their intuition, and my husband and the priest reported the incidences to the police.
I am sickened as I read about the grand jury the reports of abuse and especially the involvement of the bishops and cardinals. Even Pope Francis’ judgment is being questioned by Catholics around the world. I signed a petition with over 40,000 Catholic women calling on the pope to address these issues.
And I agree with the pope’s recommendation to the offenders to live a life of prayer and penance. I believe that goes for priests, bishops and cardinals alike — and that their lives are best lived out in jail.
This all brings up the personal pain of my own experiences and from being involved in ministry in the Catholic church for over 30 years. It’s disappointing. It’s criminal and it’s disgusting.
However, the horrendous actions of these priests and bishops, do not represent the majority of the many priests I have met throughout my life. Most of them are loving shepherds who desire to follow the Good Shepherd to lead the flock home.
My personal response to the sexual harassment I experienced was to avoid opportunities that could lead to abuse with an even greater diligence — especially when it came to my kids.
I continue this approach with my daughter to this day. People who are developmentally disabled are at a higher risk for abuse anywhere. We make sure she is always accompanied by someone we trust because they have been proven worthy of our trust.
As for how this affects my personal commitment to the Catholic faith — I will remain a Catholic until the day the Lord takes me home. I am a Catholic Christian — it’s who I am and will always be.
I am never turning back — not because I was born and raised a Catholic Christian but because the Catholic church is where I have found the deepest and most authentic expression of my personal faith. My roots run as deep as the Catholic church — back to the New Testament and the plan of Jesus.
I’m not leaving. Not only am I staying, but I am running deeper into the heart of the church because it is here that I have found the heart of Christ.
To many people, and even to many Catholics, the Catholic church is comprised of rote prayers, rules, regulations and rituals which may or may not have an effect on one’s daily life. But as one goes deeper into these practices, one discovers the immense richness and depth in the heart of the church, which is the heart of Christ himself.
Meditation and mindfulness have been a part of the practice of Catholicism for thousands of years. But like a buried treasure, few Catholics delve deep enough to discover the richness that lies beneath.
I read and reflect on the scriptures every day by following the planned selections from the Old Testament, Psalms and the New Testament which are proclaimed from Catholic altars across the world every day at mass. The liturgical seasons of the Catholic church follow the natural ebb and flow of life with times of lamentation and grief followed by times of great rejoicing.
In the chaos of life, I find solace in the practice of morning and evening prayer — the Liturgy of the Hours — which recites the Psalms and readings to begin and end the day. Hitting the pillow with night prayer and quiet reflections brings me a peaceful end to crazy days.
Catholics believe that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist, not just as a symbol, but as the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. Contemplating the presence of God is as easy as sitting in the pew of any Catholic church in the world.
The prayers of the Hail Mary are taken right from Scripture from Luke Chapter 2. In every decade, or 10 Hail Marys, we reflect on a mystery of God in the life of Jesus and the church. The ending of the prayer asks for Mary’s intercession. I often pray the rosary on the go — while I’m exercising or driving as a way to lift my mind to contemplation and intercession for our needs, even in a busy day. It helps to decrease the anxieties of my life. Who but the mother of Jesus could better talk to God about my needs?
Some wonder, after my personal and professional struggles and the evidence of abuse which runs rampant in the clergy, even affecting the highest levels of the hierarchy, why would I remain a Catholic.
The answer: because it’s in my blood. It’s not just the blood of my parents and my grandparents who traveled by boat from Ireland with their rosaries in their pockets and their family bibles in their bags. This blood runs deeper than my family’s heritage.
In Christ’s blood, I was redeemed and his blood flowed from the cross into my heart as I sat in the boughs of a dead pine tree and heard the call to “rebuild my church.” This call means more to me now than it did 40 years ago.
Once again I hear the voice of Jesus as he asks me the question he once asked his disciples — “Will you also leave?”
And I respond as Peter did — not in defense of the priests and the bishops and not even for the pope — but for Christ at the heart of his church.
“Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of eternal life. I have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69)