Greg Erlandson

For those who say the church doesn’t get it, or the Vatican doesn’t get it, I offer up Msgr. John Kennedy. Msgr. Kennedy has perhaps the most unenviable job in the church today. He is head of the Vatican office that investigates allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

“I can honestly tell you that when reading cases involving sexual abuse by clerics, you never get used to it, and you can feel your heart and soul hurting,” he said recently. “There are times when I am poring over cases that I want to get up and scream, that I want to pack up my things and leave the office and not come back.”

Msgr. Kennedy made this remarkable admission in a speech to a room full of Catholic communicators and journalists during the 2019 Catholic Media Conference. His speech lasted more than an hour, during which you could have heard the proverbial pin drop. At its end, he received a standing ovation.


The ovation was not for his rhetorical skills, but for his honesty. He spoke frankly about the excruciating purgatory of his work.

“One of the worst things is seeing photographs and exchanges of chats or messages that are often presented in the acts of the case,” he said. “In all honesty, this work has changed me and all who work with me. It has taken away another part of my innocence and has overshadowed me with sadness.”

Yet if he is overwhelmed by the constant arrival of files from around the world filled with allegations of clergy who have violated their vows and traumatized the most innocent, he does not forget that it is the victims of abuse who deserve our compassion.

While he carries the accounts of these crimes in his head, “this is nothing compared to those who have borne this for years in silence. What of the father, mother or siblings of the child who have to look at that child and live through this? What can they say? Everything has been taken from them.”

Compounding the horror is when the victim is not believed. “Can you imagine what it might be like not to be believed by church authorities?” he asked.

Msgr. Kennedy said that the office he heads, the discipline section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is now the largest department in the congregation for the first time since its founding in 1542. Seventeen employees are dealing with a tidal wave of complaints, and he compared his work to that of an emergency room doctor dealing with victim after victim after victim. “The church’s heart has been broken in this crisis,” he said.


Msgr. Kennedy’s speech is a reminder that those who have been hurt by the grotesque infidelity of clergy and bishops are not just the victims and their families, though they are the most grievously wronged. Nor just the innocent priests and bishops who have been betrayed by their brothers.

But also all those who are the face of the church in parishes and chanceries, on diocesan newspapers and in schools. Some of those people have endured both 2002 and 2018 and dozens of scandals in between, and like Msgr. Kennedy, they feel the anger and the depression.

Msgr. Kennedy ended his talk on a note of hope, that all the media attention given to the scandal will lead to positive reform. “Perhaps a smaller but a more fearless and authentic church,” he said. A church “that is being pruned, purified, prepared for a new season.”

Please God that it be so.


Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at