A Pediatrician's Lament: My 30-year Journey with Clergy Sexual Abuse
By Sister Nuala Kenny
February 26, 2020
'I pray for this effort to finally address coherently the theologies necessary to reform the cultural and systemic factors operative in the clergy abuse crisis'As a pediatrician, I know the devastating harms of the physical and sexual abuse of children and youth by family members and trusted others in society.I have held the shaking and bleeding body of a raped 12-year-old boy and tried to comfort a seven-year-old girl terrified of being touched after assault.As a religious sister, I have wept often in 30 years of work on sexual abuse by clergy.My stomach has churned in disgust at the abuse of power and trust within the Church and at the magnitude of the harm, first and foremost to victims and survivors, but also to their families and the entire Body of Christ.As a physician, trained to respond rapidly to pain and risk of harm, the delay in leadership response at every level has baffled and angered me. I know the temptation to just walk away. But healing is needed urgently.The public revelations of the longstanding issue of clergy sexual abuse of minors occurred almost simultaneously in Louisiana (United States) and Newfoundland (Canada).Treating victims, supporting survivors and preventing abuseMy personal journey began in 1989 as a member of the "landmark" Archdiocesan Commission of Inquiry on Clergy Sexual Abuse in St. John's, Newfoundland.Archbishop Alphonsus Penney established the commission after devastating abuse at the Irish Christian Brothers' Mount Cashel orphanage and subsequent incarceration of two priests and criminal charges against a large number of clergy for abuse of minors.The archbishop asked help in understanding the factors underlying the crisis. The commission undertook a scholarly review of the emerging literature on the issue. We made a critical decision to visit the parishes affected by the abuse and listen to their pain.I can still feel the rage, grief, and even loss of faith of the victims, their families and communities. This brought me new insights into the profound spiritual harms when the perpetrator is a "man of God."My original focus was the treatment of victims, the support of survivors and prevention of further abuse. These are still critical issues.Need to identify direct and indirect factors leading to abuseHowever, from research and experience, the commission concluded that "a combination of factors coincided to allow the abuse to occur.""Some were direct, such as the regressed sexuality of the offenders, their access to children, and the powerful status accorded to priests within the patriarchal Church community," the commission said."Others were indirect and worked in less obvious ways, some to protect the offenders and inhibit public acknowledgement of the offences," it added.We also identified specific issues in urgent need of further study including "power, education, sexuality, support of priests, management, and avoidance of scandal."I then participated as a member of the 1990-1992 Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) ad hoc Committee on Child Sexual Abuse, which produced "From Pain to Hope." It too emphasized the importance of "structural causes within the Church" but there was no formal follow-up.In 1992, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved their guidelines, "The Five Principles," setting what would become their consistent focus on policies, protocols and forensic audits.The beginnings of the global abuse crisis in the ChurchI assumed that Church leadership would attend to these Canadian insights and pursue these underlying issues. So I returned to pediatrics. But my assumption was very wrong.Over the next 20 years, the crisis grew globally, but I paid little attention… until the nightly news in October 2009 reported that then-Bishop Raymond Lahey of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, had been arrested for the importation of child pornography.I had a flashback to Newfoundland where he had been a priest during our 1988-1990 commission. I realized that I had not been faithful to the trust victims and survivors placed in me to work for healing and prevention.So, in 2012, I wrote, Healing the Church: Diagnosing and Treating the Clergy Sex Abuse Crisis(Novalis). I explored the history of the crisis for specific signs and symptoms of underlying pathology. And I identified clearly the dangers of misdiagnosis.I have been encouraged by Pope Francis' identification of the "temptations of the Church" and "diseases of leadership" as recognition of systemic and cultural issues.I was an advisor to the authors of the CCCB's 2018 document, "Sexual Abuse: A Call to the Catholic Faithful in Canada for Healing, Reconciliation and Transformation," and I'm proud that it acknowledges we must change certain institutional practices in our response to abuse."Within the Church, the goal of prevention is first and foremost a call to conversion. Firstly, this entails identifying longstanding institutional practices linked to sexual abuse; and secondly, it involves transforming those practices, ensuring that they are more closely aligned with the gospel and the Church's mission," the document states.And, yet, the pain still goes on.Personal and ecclesial pathology that must be addressedIn my 2019 book, Still Unhealed: Treating the Pathology in the Clergy Abuse Crisis, I identify specific systemic and cultural issues related to personal and ecclesial pathology that require conversion to the mission, words and witness of Jesus and organizational transformation.They include the following:- Abuse of power, authority and status in the Church, which has harmed the most vulnerable.- Silence, secrecy, denial, and cover-up to protect image and institution and avoid scandal understood as loss of reputation.- Moral theology that was sin-centered, act-oriented and rule-focused; not relational.- Sexual theology and anthropology in need of renewal.- Bureaucratic responses of canons, policies and protocols to theological and spiritual issues.- Failure to address the underlying systemic, cultural beliefs and practices of the Church.- Polarizing divisions regarding the nature of the underlying pathology.I have been invited to participate in a multi-year project organized by the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University. It is entitled, "Doing Theology in the Face of Sexual Abuse" and begins next month.I pray for this effort to finally address coherently the theologies necessary to reform the cultural and systemic factors operative in the clergy abuse crisis. Even if it is successful, there is still the challenge of healing the rifts between hierarchy and theologians."How long, O Lord?" (Psalm 13)Nuala Kenny is a Sister of Charity in Halifax, Nova Scotia and a pediatrician. An officer of the Order of Canada since 1999, she has published several books, including Healing the Church (Novalis, 2012) and Rediscovering the Art of Dying(2017). She is co-author of The Unhealed Wound: Treating the Pathology in the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis (Twenty-Third Publications, 2019).