“Up until now there has been so much focus on the judicial parts of [clergy abuse], but the pastoral response of the church is very, very important. And the Holy Father is concerned about that.” —Cardinal Sean O’Malley. OFM Cap., Archbishop of Boston, December 5, 2013

The words “pastoral response” conjure up an almost idyllic sense of spiritual nurturing by those in the church who seek to make good. But the term has become a confusing buzz phrase in the lexicon of church jargon. When applied to survivors of clergy sexual abuse, “pastoral response” often represents a formless, catch-all ministry aimed at assisting those whom the clergy has harmed but with no clear idea on how to do it effectively. I don’t doubt the good intentions behind such labors. In fact, this kind of outreach by the church is absolutely essential to the healing process. What I do question is the resolve and commitment of these efforts when there’s scarcely any consistency in how the work is conducted and how survivors are being served. The roots of pastoral response should stem from a passion for ministry like no other vocation the church has experienced. But how can the clergy answer this call and what does pastoral response look like?

Paul Fericano

This calling to assist survivors is not a very comfortable place for the clergy to be in. It puts survivors in an awkward position as well. A great deal of misunderstanding is fueled by fear on both sides. We read a lot in the media about survivors who claim they want nothing to do with the church. That’s understandable. But it’s hardly the whole story. The vast majority of survivors I know and work with don’t want the church to forget them. Many, from those who choose to say nothing to those who never stop talking, want the church to accept responsibility and behave in ways that indicate Jesus isn’t just some guy who hangs out on a cross. Survivors expect church leaders to practice compassion not preach it. They believe the church should never stop reaching out to survivors even when it appears they don’t want them to. That’s the tricky part. It’s where the push of pastoral response meets the pull of survivor needs.

Now You See Us, Now You Don’t

One survivor I know said he wished the church would be more “caring enough to care.” When I asked him to elaborate, he explained that honest words need to be backed by pure acts of service. He has a point. I’ve experienced firsthand the painful disintegration of this “caring” attitude in things as basic as the absence of a simple notice in a Sunday church bulletin. (More on that later.) What sometimes disturbs me and other survivors is the weird feeling of being like rabbits in a magician’s act. I’m sure there are those who would like to see us all disappear quietly. But there’s a growing suspicion that the church is waving the wand. That age-old maxim “out of sight, out of mind” has never held more sway than it has with survivors of clergy abuse. I’m not suggesting it’s intentional. I don’t pretend to know what goes on in the mind of a cleric who believes he’s living the gospel and then thoughtlessly re-wounds people. But let’s be clear: The miserable years of shaming and blaming survivors are terrible enough. Disregarding them and ignoring the problem are just as bad if not worse. It’s a complete denial of every survivor the church has ever harmed. And make no mistake: a single, misguided pastor of one small church can do just as much damage as an entire college of cardinals. The beliefs of the shepherd inspire the beliefs of his flock. Is it any wonder why so many Catholics are confused and divided on this issue? Those who choose to remain kneeling in the pews deserve better than this.

Church concern for survivors takes a huge leap into the Twilight Zone when it comes to the litigation process. This is the screwy default method by which survivors purportedly receive justice, the church absolves itself from further responsibility, and the attorneys, god bless them, take their cut; but it’s the Frankenstein of pastoral response, the monster face of re-victimization. It’s a perfect escape hatch for everyone but the survivors and their families. One thing I’ve learned in the last 20 years is that huge legal payouts to survivors have done little to ease their pain and suffering.

In a number of cases, money has completely aggravated the problem. Not every case, and not everyone, but more than a few who received large settlements pissed the money away in a matter of months. Some ended up in worse shape than before they became reluctant millionaires. And it’s not about not taking personal responsibility. It doesn’t happen because you’ve suddenly found closure. Just the opposite.

Men and women, some who have struggled nearly all their lives to deal with the most basic of life skills, are suddenly expected to manage enormous wealth that would make even a CPA’s head swim. Those of us who survive violence live with trauma the rest of our lives. Coping is a constant teaching companion.

A true pastoral response by the church demands that it be faithful to its own teachings. The often bitter, spiteful process of litigation cancels out that opportunity. It has little to do with the principles of restorative justice which, by the way, practically every survivor craves. Instead, this destructive course of action usually leaves survivors feeling physically spent and spiritually empty. The current system succeeds in making it nearly impossible for survivors to salvage even a shard of trust with the church. And it prevents the church from initiating a true pastoral response without sounding like a rerun of Perry Mason.

Yes, protecting children is vital. Yes, bishops must be held accountable. And yes, there needs to be greater transparency. But here’s the rub: quite a few men and women who were abused by the church still want some connection to the very institution they often feel contempt for. What’s going on there? If a survivor left the church, does it mean there’s a chance he or she might rejoin the ranks? It might. But it’s a much safer bet to assume a survivor isn’t going to ask a priest to join his bowling league. For the longest time, and when it counted the most, the church didn’t care what happened to survivors. Reconnection is about wanting the church to care about survivors now. Healing for themselves and their families is infinitely more important than any bucket of cash they may have been forced to extract from the church in order to get its attention and be listened to. This is why the whole question of the church’s role in responding pastorally to survivors needs to be reframed, from “what can we do to help?” to “what can we do together?”

Moving the Ball Down the Field

It’s difficult to work together when you don’t play on the same team. A message from the owners in the papal skybox can be a real game-changer one way or the other.

But let’s face it: the Vatican’s dismal record on survivor issues over the years has hardly been worthy of a Super Bowl appearance. After enduring the silent papacy of John Paul II, who virtually ignored clergy abuse problems and huddled with his advisors to create new ones, and the bewildering reign of Benedict XVI, who, after meeting with and apologizing to survivors, managed to fumble the ball and disappear from the stadium, it’s understandable that survivors are a little suspicious of the new guy who adopted the name of a saintly beggar who, by today’s standards, would be certifiably insane and ineligible to compete on anyone’s team.

Personally, I believe Pope Francis has the potential to shake things up. Whether or not his words and deeds translate into a more meaningful pastoral response remains to be seen. But on this issue alone he has started to reshape the debate on the importance of responding pastorally to clergy abuse survivors. He’s emphasized the greater need for clerics to support the entire healing process, and he’s criticized those in the church who shirk their responsibility to care for those they’ve hurt. In December he ordered the creation of a new commission in the church’s central bureaucracy that will focus on the pastoral aspect of the abuse crisis. This doesn’t sound like more of the same self-serving pronouncements we’ve come to expect from church officials, regardless of how many press releases the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) issues to the contrary. In less than a year, Pope Francis has indicated both a willingness to expose the morass of a dark sin and a desire to lead the charge out of the muck.

I’m not alone among survivors who feel a different game plan is in order. The clock needs to be reset for both sides. If SNAP, for example, wants to remain a serious part of the equation (whatever that might be), it needs to seriously consider its relationship with survivors who don’t necessarily agree with or support its methods. Anyone unwilling to change will eventually become irrelevant. Many survivors have taken great pains to move through dangerous terrain and arrive at a safer place where they no longer buy into the cynicism that supposedly defines them in much of the media. Most survivors I know are older and wiser and not afraid to admit they’re still filled with hope. They believe the core principles of healing, above all else, are the key to finding peace within themselves and with the church. This doesn’t mean the process excludes seeking justice. It never did. It simply means there are other ways to achieve the same goals. The church must commit to partnering with survivors and creating a different kind of pastoral care; one that both offers help and seeks it. Reclaiming our mutual past (and our pain) is the responsibility of both sides to try and be on the same side.

From the Breach to the Promise

One of the fundamental problems that separates church and survivors is the perception in both camps that honesty is something the other guy doesn’t have. It’s easy to demonize those we can’t stand. Including ourselves. Survivors are not saints. We don’t always know whose face is looking back at us from behind that Jekyll and Hyde mirror. When we convince ourselves that the church is evil, we risk wandering down yet another dark road that our offender paved for us long ago. None of us want to go there again. Denying the sacred elements that are essential to healing dishonors our yearning for a connection to our spiritual traditions. For the church, when attempting to demonstrate meaningful pastoral care for survivors, “sincerity” and “genuine” are not usually the first words that come to mind. Nor are they the second, third, or even 20th. It’s not just the Jurassic Park-like megalopolis that is the Catholic Church. It’s also about those specific members of the clergy who verify, time and again, their own ineffectiveness and ineptitude. Any priest or religious today who proclaims, either in private or from the pulpit, the end of the clergy abuse crisis, is contributing to the suffering of others.

And you don’t have to open your mouth to do that, either.

One example of this: The most basic pastoral response of any parish is the publication of a brief notice in its Sunday bulletin every week listing information for survivors who need help. This simple form of outreach serves two purposes: 1) it sends a powerful message to all survivors that the church has not forgotten them; and 2) it helps the congregation understand their own parish’s commitment to the healing process. When this happens everyone benefits. At the Old Mission parish in Santa Barbara–ground zero for the Franciscans and the clergy abuse scandal that rocked the community in 1993 — this crucial form of pastoral response has been inexplicably neglected despite the best efforts of its outreach coordinator.

Since 2008, when the Franciscans’ own Office of Pastoral Outreach for Survivors of Clergy Abuse (OPO)* made its first attempt to get the friars to publish a weekly announcement promoting the OPO’s services, notices have appeared in just 18 Sunday bulletins out of a total of 312 (based on 52 bulletins per year). This amounts to less than 6 percent in six years–or three bulletins a year. It gets worse. Of the 18 parishes served by the Franciscans in a province that stretches from Spokane to Phoenix, 15 don’t provide any information at all in their bulletins regarding assistance for clergy abuse survivors. Only one (Ascension Parish in Portland) has printed a weekly notice continuously (for both the OPO and SafeNet) since 2007. (During this period, and as a result of this one parish’s pastoral response, SafeNet has received nearly two dozen inquiries from survivors and family members living in the Pacific Northwest.)

The dreary state of affairs that exists today at Mission Santa Barbara is directly linked to a handful of friars in charge, including the former pastor of the parish who was completely clueless during most of his tenure. These are the followers of St. Francis of Assisi who have pretended that clergy sexual abuse is someone else’s nightmare, not theirs. In addition to doing nothing to help, they’ve used their positions to discourage outreach. Perhaps worst of all, they’ve acted as though they’re the ones who were wronged. But I want to be clear: they are the exception and not the rule. Many of the Franciscans who once managed and cared for Mission Santa Barbara over the years were honest and decent men, unafraid of challenges. They weren’t perfect by any means, but any one of them could sit and break bread with you and make you feel welcome. I personally knew a number of these friars and held them in the highest regard. I still do. That world no longer exists today in Santa Barbara. In its place is an atmosphere of suspicion and small-mindedness.

To fully grasp the failure of pastoral response and the tragedy that is Mission Santa Barbara, it’s helpful to understand what this place means to so many who once believed they were called to serve. For former students of St. Anthony’s Seminary (located next door), the Old Mission represents a rich history and a deep association with the Franciscan tradition. It was home to those who would go on to further their studies and be ordained priests in the Order of Friars Minor (OFM). And it would eventually become an oasis for any former student seeking reconnection with the friars and their past. The Mission’s current leaders (and I use that word lightly) have changed all that.

Sadly, these friars are a trio of men who have no conception of how poorly regarded they are by so many. They live self-absorbed lives that make honest communication impossible. But they are only partly at fault for transforming one of the most beautiful environments in the Province of St. Barbara into one of its most toxic for survivors. Full responsibility rests with the current provincial of the Franciscan order and an ever-failing leadership. Regime change cannot occur soon enough.

The good news is that some Catholic dioceses are beginning to work with survivors to create a new paradigm. It’s an unlikely alliance of bishops and survivors sitting around a table talking to one another without clubs, knives, or lawyers. The Archdiocese of San Francisco is a good example of this. With the help of survivors it has begun to fulfill the promise of true pastoral response by a large, metropolitan eparchy. After two years of working side by side, bishops and survivors of the archdiocese crafted comprehensive and ground-breaking polices that the archdiocese adopted in 2012. It covers every survivor in three counties of the San Francisco Bay Area and contains an unprecedented wellness program that pays for a wide variety of medical and therapeutic modalities, not just psychotherapy. In addition, it has taken steps to create a restorative mediation program, a public database of diocesan offenders, and placed a survivor on its independent review board. Other dioceses are now looking at the San Francisco model as a way to find common ground with survivors in their own communities and duplicate and tailor what has worked in San Francisco.

What does pastoral response look like? There’s probably no perfect approach, considering the sensitive nature of peace work, but the church can certainly strive to come close. If allowed to take hold, the roots of pastoral response might resemble those of the redwood tree which is able to grow to tremendous heights despite its thin roots. It accomplishes this by growing close together with other redwood trees and intermingling its root systems for the benefit of all. The foundation for a full and sustainable church policy that supports and connects with survivors needs to have a clear and binding directive and should avoid the danger of arbitrary norms. “Caring enough to care” must be a daily prayer, a spiritual practice that produces simple but elegant acts of sacrifice and empathy. Everything else that flows from its source is gratitude.

* If you believe you were a victim of clergy abuse by a member of the Franciscan religious order of the Province of St. Barbara while attending St. Anthony’s Seminary in Santa Barbara, or at any other Franciscan seminary, parish or facility, or if you are a family member of a survivor, a former schoolmate, a parishioner, or anyone else who may have been impacted by the abuse, please contact the Office of Pastoral Outreach for Survivors of Clergy Abuse (OPO) by calling: (800) 770-8013. Angelica Jochim, MFT, pastoral outreach coordinator, is available for assistance and support. All communications are private and confidential and your identity will not be revealed to the Franciscans. For more information visit the website at pastoraloutreach.org.

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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