In 1965 when I was 14 I was sexually abused at St. Anthony’s, a Catholic minor seminary in Santa Barbara operated by the Franciscan religious order. My offender (who died on November 23 at the age of 83) was the school’s prefect of discipline. It’s since been estimated that during his six years of tenure he may have molested more than 250 boys. In 2003, after years of therapy, I chose to forgive him. It was a conscious and willing choice, and a significant change in my way of thinking. I did this without expecting, demanding, or receiving any apology. Even though the evidence against him was overwhelming, he never admitted any crime and insisted he’d done nothing wrong. But I did not allow his denials to prevent me from doing what is necessary to heal.
Deniers of clergy abuse are not limited to those who perpetrated the abuse. They are everywhere. The Franciscan friars currently in charge at Old Mission Santa Barbara (not to be confused with the Parish of St. Barbara) are some of those who still believe they are the victims of this crisis and that survivors are to blame. It’s a deep, dark hole that they’ve dug into the mythology of their lives. Their behavior and actions over the last six years have served to rewound survivors and poison the community. For this reason, I have publicly called for the removal of these friars from any positions of power. I’ve undertaken this without malice, but rather with compassion for those who have been hurt and for those who have done the hurting.
We all dig our holes, some deeper than others. The holes in my life have led me to some encouraging encounters with the church, particularly through my work with SafeNet, a survivor nonprofit I cofounded in 2003 that focuses on the healing process. Though I’m no longer Catholic and have no desire to return to Catholicism, I’ve found good reasons to explore these issues with bishops and cardinals who’ve shown an eagerness to explore them with me. These perceptible shifts in the church indicate a willingness by some to tackle complex questions of peace, reconciliation, and restorative justice.
Radical transformation of church orthodoxy isn’t going to happen until a new Vatican authority, with the people in front of it, is called upon to drive the church into the 21st century. The early church dug its own holes to separate followers from their true nature, to insulate its leaders, and to hide from the rest of the world. Today, those holes have grown to become enormous pits that tend to swallow up most of its own good intentions.
One issue that often comes up with most clergy abuse survivors I speak with is the notion that the church believes it can still provide religious direction for those of us who’ve “lost” our faith. What most members of the clergy miss entirely is the spiritual nourishment our faith hungers for and not the institutional power of religion that attempts to control it. Survivors of clergy sexual abuse may be wounded, but we’re not stupid or crazy. Survivors I know and work with have no bone to pick with God. It’s with the men who used God as both a threat and a reward, and who now use their church or religious order as a license to practice fearfulness disguised as a virtue.
Those who have been fortunate to mine the riches of personal growth with the deep, emotional work that’s required often arrive at the same conclusion: “living the Gospel” is when your faith, not your religion, informs your life. Spiritual sustenance is what you give yourself each morning when you open your eyes, grateful for the new day.
When I was a kid attending Catholic school, I remember being taught that the church was like an elegant banquet, a grand feast that the faithful could partake of — but only if they were found worthy in the eyes of God. While most were asked to sit at the table, few were permitted to partake in the meal, and even fewer were allowed to prepare it. As I got older I discovered that God had nothing to do with passing out the invitations. Orthodoxy was like some great, steaming pot of doctrinal soup that required stirring but was in need of more cooks, not fewer. As a former seminarian, it’s been clear to me for years that anyone can do a priest’s job if there exists a genuine desire and willingness to serve others. A wise priest once told me that he could have just as easily been called to be a garbage collector and would have treated that job with just as much reverence.
The changes I’ve experienced lately, finding common ground with the church, have all focused on the essential issue of healing and all it represents. Some bishops are quietly and bravely starting to use “right practice” to inform “right belief.” This process is part of a different kind of orthopraxy, in the modern sense, that speaks directly to those who ask for help from those who seek the same in return. In June, I met with Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston to discuss ways in which the church can partner with survivors and create new healing policies that benefit all sides. SafeNet presented the Cardinal with a proposal that suggested doing just that. The idea was to convince him, the Pope’s “go-to” man in the English-speaking world on matters of clergy abuse, to help the Pope realize that the time is now to ask survivors for assistance — a process that needs the will of both parties in order to succeed. Some parishes and entire dioceses are beginning to understand this. Certain priests and laypersons have also begun to act with moral courage on this issue, not just because their God requires it, but because their humanity insists upon it. That’s a hopeful shift.
It’s not easy to think rationally and act compassionately when we’re deep in a hole. Pain owns us until the suffering is no longer bearable. It’s only when we accept where we are that we begin to learn how we got here and why. That’s the moment when faith meets the grace and complexity of healing. Recognizing the hole our pain creates isn’t so much about how to step out of it, but how to fill it in while we stand in the middle of it.
A Room with a Pew is a monthly column that intends to reflect the experiences, observations, and opinions of a survivor of clergy abuse who attended St. Anthony’s Seminary in the ’60s. 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, Fericano often challenges survivors (and others) to look for humor in the shadows.