We Must Rise above Our ‘catholic Bubble’

By James Borkowski
The B.C. Catholic
March 26, 2020

I have always loved being Catholic.

I was raised in a very Catholic home. Our family frequented the sacraments, prayed the Rosary daily, and promoted the faith in many ways.

As a seemingly natural consequence, I was taught to revere priests and assume they could do no wrong.

In Grade 6, I asked my teacher, “Can a priest sin?”

I don’t remember her being surprised. She thoughtfully stated that, “priests sin less than us but they can still sin.”

And so, my Catholic bubble was established.

James Borkowski says working with abuse survivor Bernadette Howell “has changed my life by teaching me how to understand and care for two groups of people – victims/survivors, and priests. (B.C. Catholic files)

That bubble might still be in place if it wasn’t for Bernadette, a victim of clergy abuse I met several years ago. Although she was abused in the UK and Ireland, she has become a leading advocate for victims/survivors in Vancouver. We have had many meetings and conversations. Not all have been pleasant.

I spent the first three years of our relationship often saying the wrong words or doing unintentionally hurtful things. Thankfully, Bernadette appreciates honesty and the willingness to take risks while trying to do the right thing and we have found a productive tension around this issue. Now, I consider her an ally and a friend. We disagree often but she has changed my life by teaching me how to understand and care for two groups of people – victims/survivors, and priests.

Caring for victims/survivors

Most of us in the Church lack the vocabulary and tools to truly understand the devastation of clergy abuse. The very men chosen and ordained to represent Jesus instead carried out the most horrific crimes one could imagine.

Often, the abuse came with threats of death and eternal damnation. Some of these threats were directed at children. One victim I met was warned, “If you tell anyone, worse will happen to your baby sister.”

As a result of my Catholic bubble, I had allowed certain narratives to creep into my consciousness. It was only a few bad men; the numbers are blown out of proportion; the media are using this issue to try to destroy the Church.

While there is some truth to these statements, there is little to no grace that can come from them.

Archbishop J. Michael Miller has been bold in his desire to see the issue of clergy sexual abuse become more fully addressed by the Church. He has not only met with many victims/survivors, in 2019 he invited Bernadette and 12 others to form a File Review Committee to look at the history of clergy abuse in Vancouver.

Before they met as a committee and even before I met Bernadette, I asked myself, “How many abusers were there in our archdiocese?”

From deep in my Catholic bubble, I hesitantly supposed, “around five.”

I was very wrong. There were more than 35 known abusers.

In November 2019, the Archdiocese of Vancouver released a report outlining the committee’s findings along with 31 recommendations. The report included the publication of information regarding nine named priests involved in cases of abuse.

The report and the process were not perfect. Some people were upset that the Church named priests and highlighted the issue in such a public way. Others, including some victims/survivors, felt strongly that the Church must go further in naming more priests and providing more support.

Most of us agree we still have a long way to go to heal from this shame-filled chapter in the Church. We can’t let it happen again.

My colleague Marisa Ruggier-Andrews and I have had the honour of meeting with victims/survivors who came forward as a result of the November report. We have both been deeply moved by their courage and strength. Many of them have struggled in their relationships and careers, with substance abuse and other often lifelong challenges. We have witnessed healing and the beginning of new paths towards justice. Victim/survivors deserve our support and outreach.

The value of treating priests as equals

The second group of people Bernadette taught me to care for was priests themselves. She convinced me that my revering them was part of the problem. She taught me that only by treating priests as equals and humans could we expect them to feel truly welcomed and accountable within the communities they serve.

Priests have weaknesses, like the rest of us. But many priests also have the additional challenges of isolation, lack of community, and too few good friends. For many, their vocation is a struggle. On the positive side, many of our priests are receiving better human formation and are less subject to the clericalism that contributed to a sense of “us and them” between clergy and laity. We are blessed in Vancouver to have many healthy and happy priests.

Both Scripture and canon law confirm that the laity are equal to ministerial priests in dignity and worth. While Bernadette and I disagree on how Church governing structures might improve, we have come to agree that each Christian stepping up into their priestly calling is critical. To be Christ-like requires listening as Christ did. He was ever present to the people he ministered to, especially those most marginalized.

Free from my Catholic bubble, I’m seeing more clearly that God is calling each of us to find new ways to risk the 99 sheep in the flock – to go and be with the one.

My friend Bernadette has taught me that.








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