WASHINGTON (CNS) — The final panel at a Jan. 20 webinar on clergy sex abuse brought together noted women leaders in the Catholic Church to share their perspectives on what might have been different in the church’s response to the abuse crisis if women had “been given a seat at the table earlier in this process.”
The webinar, “Listening to the Voices of Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse,” brought together investigators of past abuse, relatives of victims and those who counsel survivors. It was sponsored in part by Georgetown University.
The last panel “Lifting Up Female Voices in the Church” included the perspective of Paulina Guzik, a journalist for Polish public broadcaster TVP. She has been in the United States doing research for a book on the abuse crisis.
“The journalist is always a bit more pessimistic,” she said. “When we smell roses, we look for the coffin.”
In Poland, Guzik added, “I listened to survivors that were not heard for 20 years, and because they were not heard for 20 years, another woman, a nun, was abused. The people who didn’t listen to them take responsibility for a broken life. … It’s important to hear the voices from women because there are so many voices that have not been heard yet.”
Paula Kaempffer, a survivor of clergy sex abuse who now counsels other survivors in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis after 40 years in adult education in the archdiocese, said that beyond the sexual abuse, “there is emotional and verbal abuse from the higher-ups.”
Nor are men the sole abusers in the church, Kaempffer said during the webinar.
When she was in therapy in a group of 12, three of them had been abused by sisters, “often as part of ‘formation’ and ‘training.’ It was appalling to me; many of my sisters were (women) religious at one time, Kaempffer said. “There’s more embarrassment and shame that a woman did this. For some reason, it’s easier if it was a man that did it, if it was a priest that did it. It’s easier for some victims.”
She added, “The two victims I’m dealing with now, they’re dealing with their religious orders, and they’re finding the same cover-up. The same cover-up.”
Abuse can happen right under one’s nose. Take the case of “my grandmother, who helped build the church where we worshipped,” said Jennifer S. Wortham, a research associate for the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science.
“She was at the table in so many ways in the church, she was on so many committees and choirs,” Wortham added. “But still there was abuse. My brothers were abused.”
One brother was arrested on drug charges at age 20. “It was his second time. He was suicidal. His brother finally disclosed” the abuse to the parish, which sent priests to the family home, Wortham recalled. “They wore priest clothes. They took all of our information. Then they went to visit my brother in jail and said if you carry this forward, we’ll sue you for blackmail.”
Catholic commentator and podcaster Gloria Purvis followed up with a tale of how abuse can be worsened by racial inequity.
“There were poor Black men who were victims of clergy sex abuse in Mississippi. Even the way they were approached by the men in religious communities — they knew they were poor. They gave them an extremely lowball offer,” Purvis said, plus a paper to sign “that they never speak about their abuse.”
One of the men, Purvis recounted, told the priest: “I don’t think this $15,000 is going to be enough.”
“The priest who was representing his community says, ‘Then you’re going to have to get the lawyers involved.'” The prospect of finding and paying for a capable attorney and dragging out the situation entered quickly into the men’s calculations, she added, and they signed.
“My brothers got $4,000 for counseling and their lives are completely destroyed,” said Wortham, who wrote a 2019 memoir on clergy sex abuse, “A Letter to the Pope: The Keeper of the Nest.” She now serves on the survivor advisory panel for the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, headed by U.S. Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston.
Meanwhile, “the laypeople have a responsibility” as well, said Wortham, who shared a story about being driven to a cathedral for Mass and the woman driving told her: “Well, you know my church, we don’t want our money going to victims, so we have a special envelope that we have. It goes only to our church and it doesn’t go to the diocese. It’s a little green envelope and all our money goes there.”
“I was never a mother,” Wortham said. “I can only know how difficult it must be with my mother, who had to deal with the abuse of her sons. I’m not going to give up until the church transforms how it deals with this issue. We can make change happen, I’m convinced of it.”
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