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Looking for Francis in the Franciscans

Clergy Sexual Abuse and the Healing Process


I recently met with a group of former schoolmates — all survivors of clergy abuse — who attended St. Anthony’s Seminary in Santa Barbara in the ‘60s and ‘70s. This is where the crisis first exploded onto the national stage in 1992. At this gathering several issues were discussed regarding the Franciscans, the religious order of men who were our teachers. What puzzled, angered, and disappointed many was the shortage of moral courage witnessed over the years among the friars in general and, in particular, with the Franciscans at Mission Santa Barbara. Promises of cooperation were broken, allowing grief to fester like an unattended wound. Suffering in the community continues to this day, but the pastoral care that once defined Franciscan charity does not. This is what mystifies most survivors and former students of St. Anthony’s Seminary.

Paul Fericano

The Franciscans took a leap forward in 1993. Urged by the laity after allegations at St. Anthony’s came to light the year before, they created the church’s first Independent Response Team (IRT) to deal openly with clergy sexual abuse. At the time, these charges represented the largest case of reported institutional abuse in the country — 39 students molested by 12 friars over a span of 25 years. The friars took responsibility, and the IRT became a model for other religious orders enmeshed in similar cases.

In 2006 the Franciscans got it right again. They crafted the Office of Pastoral Outreach (OPO). This was a new model built on the ashes of the IRT to help survivors continue to receive counseling. Its success is due to the efforts of one woman — a lay psychotherapist and Buddhist practitioner who is the program’s outreach coordinator and sole survivor advocate. The OPO represents both a measure of independence and a sense of safety for survivors. Unfortunately, that’s where much of the Franciscan outreach ends.

A “circle the wagons” mentality — which landed the Franciscans in trouble in 1993 — has returned. The refusal by friars in charge at Mission Santa Barbara to participate in the healing process is at the heart of it. For more than six years, there has been no attempt or inclination, as a group or as individuals, to reach out to survivors, their families, and the greater community. Some have even thwarted such efforts. Two friars, newly assigned in 2012 to the Parish of St. Barbara are trying to accomplish some things privately. One believes he’s been called to Santa Barbra to help people heal. This is a hopeful sign.

But in order to understand the enormity of this task and the depth of pain and suffering that exists in our community, one has to acknowledge the culture of denial that permeates Mission Santa Barbara, particularly among its leaders. A false poverty of spirit keeps this problem chained in the dark and sabotages any efforts by those who try to shine a light on it.

In 2003, when I cofounded SafeNet to focus on healing and reconciliation, dozens of friars came forward to ask what they could do to be part of the solution. The provincial at that time recognized the importance of this partnership and spoke of SafeNet as “the students returning as teachers.” We came together to work it out. And we did. We established trust and came to understand that if the healing process was to have any meaning in people’s lives it needed to be supported and sustained with words and deeds by the Franciscans.

Sadly, this partnership lasted only as long as it took to elect a new provincial with a new agenda in 2009 — and one with close ties to the leadership at Mission Santa Barbara. Since then, I’ve witnessed the quick retreat by friars from any discussion of clergy sexual abuse, the irrational dismantling of sound policies, and outright deception. As in 1993, survivors, like lepers, began to feel marginalized and shunned by those who claimed to follow a beggar who embraced real lepers. Some friars, mired in delusional thinking, even began to herald the end of the clergy-abuse crisis.

One survivor I know believes it’s easier to find a politician in a motel room doing something he shouldn’t than it is to find a Franciscan in a homeless shelter doing something he should. It’s a cynical view born from years of pain, but it speaks a simpler truth. When I was a student at St. Anthony’s, my instructors reflected more honestly the teachings of that half-crazy vagabond from Assisi. I was encouraged to believe in a person’s humanity and a god’s divine grace. These men appeared unafraid to live those beliefs. Many promoted social justice, civil rights, and economic democracy; they stood with women, immigrants, and the poor, all before it was fashionable. Today, it’s difficult to admit and painful to accept that some modern-day Franciscans have very little in common with the teachings of St. Francis.

A Room with a Pew” reflects the experiences, observations, and opinions of a survivor of clergy abuse who attended St. Anthony’s Seminary in the 1960s. Author Paul Fericano helped cofound SafeNet in 2003 and returned to Santa Barbara that year to assist the community in recovery. As a poet, writer, and activist engaged in the healing process, the author often challenges survivors (and others) to look for humor in the shadows.

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