Respect, Honor, Believe: Abuse and Assault in the Church

I’ve been involved in liturgical music since junior high, when my 7th grade teacher invited me to join the parish “folk group.” I also played flute with my parents, who were song leaders, and with the parish choir on holidays.

That involvement deepened as I studied music in college and grad school, and of course, now I write and publish music for the Church.

So this past spring’s news about David Haas was particularly horrifying to me. I had idolized David for years and I knew (know?) him, though not as well as some in my community of liturgical composers.

We spent time this fall coming together for webinars, trying to form our understanding and see how we, as composers for the Church, can make a difference.

The presentation that stayed with me most was given by Dr. Hilary Scarsella, who works with Into Account and the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. She talked about approaching discussions of abuse with an attitude of “survivor-centered response.” Too often, the response to allegations of assault, harassment and abuse is to alienate the accuser and make her experience secondary to preserving the man’s reputation.

For instance:

  • What if she’s making it up? Innocent until proven guilty!
  • How dare we ruin this man’s life?
  • What about forgiveness? Second chances? We’re Christians!
  • Lots of guys through history have done bad things, and we still listen to their music. Why can’t we separate the man from his music?

All of these arguments, highlighted in the presentation, are reactions I’ve heard within my own communities. In fact, let’s be honest. They’re all things I thought or expressed myself in earlier accusations of abuse and assault that didn’t hit quite so close to home.

When you recognize yourself in something you now recognize as morally problematic, it also makes you recognize your responsibility to speak up.

The thing is, what do all those arguments tell survivors of abuse? When we say, “What if it isn’t true?” we call them liars. And THAT is how we’ve managed to have generations of dysfunction around this subject. Why would women come forward if they know they’re only going to be shamed, disbelieved, and silenced?

And then, if they’ve remained silent for years *because* they know they’ll be shamed, disbelieved, and silenced, but then they finally decide to do so because, say, someone is about to be put into a position of great influence? Well, then they’re shamed, disbelieved, and silenced *again*, because if they really had this experience, why didn’t they come forward years ago?

Women always bear the burden. The culture and the system are rigged in favor of the abusers.

But as for truth versus lies: in the case of David Haas, more than forty women have come forward at this point. To cling to the “what if it’s not true?” argument is to defy our God-given reason.

All of the argument listed above tell the victims, “My comfort is more important than your trauma.” Because that, after all, is why we don’t want to confront the hard questions. If we have to give up singing David Haas’ music, it will be uncomfortable. We’ll be sad.

But if we DO keep singing them, what does that do to the victims? It means their own churches and liturgies are minefields of trauma, week in, week out. The community that should support them, the liturgy that should help heal and sustain them, is instead re-traumatizing them. EVERY. WEEK.

Is our comfort really more important than that?

As for forgiveness–sure, forgiveness is critical to Christian living. But what does that mean? Does that mean the perpetrator gets a pass and the victims–once again–have to bear the burden? There’s no way that’s what God means by “forgiveness.” It’s got to be our understanding of forgiveness that has to grow. Maybe it’s time we do the hard work of figuring THAT out.

Finally: yes, there is a loss of a beloved repertoire. But who’s to blame for that? Not the victims. We need to put the responsibility where it belongs–on the perpetrator–and stop asking the victims to bear it instead.

These are the questions Dr. Scarsella posed (and which now are filtered through my own experiences). I share them now because there’s no doubt in my mind that some of those who read this are wrestling with some of the same questions and the same resistance.

It’s really hard to overcome a lifetime of cultural conditioning, but we as a Church have lost so much moral credibility since the sex abuse scandal came to light. The Haas situation is yet another black eye in the same area. We, as Church, have GOT to learn to confront these hard, uncomfortable issues so that we can fix them. First, because victims of abuse are God’s beloved, and they deserve to be treated as such. And second, because our dysfunction is getting in the way of our credibility to spread the Gospel.

Wedge Issues, Tone Policing, and the Christian call

Photo by Pixabay on

There’s a lot on my mind these days that speaks to how we live the faith in the real world—a world that, at the moment, is defined by crises and division. More now than ever. I didn’t think that was possible.

It seems there is no safe subject; even small talk leads to conflict. This morning on a bike ride, I encountered my kids’ former bus driver, and stopped to chat (from across the street). I asked about coming back in the fall. The answer was a hard pushback on the forthcoming citywide masking requirement—a requirement that makes a lot of sense given that during the first wave, we had practically zero cases, and now we are averaging 30+ per day. “I’m VERY strongly anti-mask,” she said. ”I think it’s a personal choice.”

How does one respond to such vehemence? I know what I WANT to say. I WANT to say that as Christians, our world view is supposed to reflect a Gospel that tells us self-emptying, treating the other’s needs as equal to our own, is the way of discipleship. A Gospel that we believe tell us life is precious, and the right to life far outweighs personal “choice.”

I WANT to say, “Can’t you see that you’re setting aside your prolife convictions? That you’re using the exact same language used by the pro-choice movement for decades?”

But how do you communicate any of that without sounding holier-than-thou, preachy, and generally self-righteous?

It didn’t matter, because all I got out was, “Oh, I’m not.” Then she was pouring out her grievances, and thirty seconds in, I thought, I’m supposed to be home in 40 minutes. I just need to politely say “good luck” and move on.

So I did.

I spent the rest of my ride pondering this exchange and others. So many things have become wedge political issues that have no business being so. A pandemic should NOT be a political wedge issue. Racial justice should NOT be a political issue. Supporting women who have experienced harassment, abuse, or assault should NOT be a political issue. These are things people of faith should be unified on. Certainly the Catholic Church, flawed as it has been in practice, has spoken clearly on them all. How on earth has politics become more important in forming our world view than our faith?

But I realize that a lot of the refusal to budge on these issues is a reaction to scrupulousness–a scrupulousness that leads to making assumptions about people. From there, it’s a short skip to judgment.

There’s a lot of judgment on social media these days.

*I’m* judging a lot. Most of the time I don’t post my judgy thoughts, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.

I think those of us who believe we have a societal responsibility to public health, who care passionately about racial justice and victims’ rights–those of us who care about these issues are so angry, we don’t always recognize that our words and our tone can do more harm than good. That sometimes, in our passion for justice, we cross the boundaries of Christian charity.

I know, that sounds like “tone policing.” I get it. But tone DOES matter, because when we make assumptions about what people are or aren’t doing; when we pass judgment; when we belittle and dismiss and make sweeping generalizations about everyone who (fill-in-the-blank)—

When we do these things, we make everything worse. We aren’t bringing people to a greater understanding of the truth. In fact, all we’re accomplishing is hardening people in their perception of persecution. They become less open to hearing, less open to examining the conflict between their worldly perspective and the Gospel.

Below (in the comments, on Facebook), I am sharing an op-ed that really hit me hard. I don’t often share (or read, for that matter) from the New York Times, because to so many people, it epitomizes the “liberal media.” But I think people across political spectrums will be surprised by what this man has to say.

Admitting systemic failure

This doesn’t require much commentary from me–we see it in action right now in the world. The Church has little moral authority in the world, and one of the big reasons (though not the only one) is the sex abuse scandal. We tend to be kind of a passive laity–and I’m pointing fingers at no one, because I feel as powerless and baffled on how to fix things as anyone else–counting on the vertical structure of the Church to fix the problem, while we go on with business as usual. Clearly, it doesn’t work. There *has* been harm inflicted on the spread of the Gospel, and that blame lies with the Church leadership for continuing to bungle and protect itself–but also on us, the laity, for clinging to the way things have always been done, and not stepping up to be more active in our faith and our Church, when clearly the way things have always been done is no longer sufficient for the times and issues we face.

I don’t know what the solution is. But there has rarely been an excerpt that has seemed so clearly written for this moment in time, even though it was written fifty years ago.

A Word of Hope for the Church, in a time of division

Photo by Engin Akyurt on

Bad news is everywhere these days, and often it seems like the Church is characterized by division rather than the unity implied by our name.

We bicker over whether the Eucharist is medicine for the flawed or a reward given to those who deserve it.

We bicker over kneeling versus standing.

We bicker over whether it’s better to receive on the tongue or in the hand.

When the Pope challenges us to see the world’s issues as interconnected and inseparable, quoting the last several popes, certain extreme factions within the Church (who have a secular political agenda) launch a campaign against him that has caused confusion among many faithful people who are just trying to follow Jesus in their daily lives. (You should read that article, by the way. All of it.)

And of course, there’s the ongoing stain of the sex abuse scandal.

Given all this, it was pretty demoralizing when that Pew research survey came out a few months ago. The one suggesting that Catholics don’t even really understand the one thing that, above all others, defines us: the Eucharist.

Photo by Iarlaith McNamara on

Today I want to offer two points as words of hope. First, this article. Words matter, and the way the Pew questions were written, many of us would hesitate, caught between our faith and the way certain words are used in the modern secular world. I mentioned this at choir practice shortly after the survey came out, when people were expressing their dismay about the survey, and a recent convert, who had to navigate those waters on the way into the Church, nodded vigorously in agreement. The authors of this analysis suggest a more hopeful picture, and their argument resonates with me.

Which brings me to the second point: part of the reason for that resonance is an experience I had when I was working as a full-time liturgy director. I was jaded even then about the view and understanding of the Eucharist among the average Catholic Mass-goer. Convinced that most people really didn’t “get” it.

Then one day, when we had a no-show, I substituted as an extraordinary Eucharistic minister.

It was an amazing experience. One after another, people raised their eyes and their hands. The looks on their faces remain with me to this day: raw, naked, vulnerable, longing, hopeful, reverent, transfigured. Those people knew they were receiving Jesus. Knew it at a visceral level that tells a truth far deeper than any survey can illuminate. By the end of Communion, I was nearly in tears.

So when the division in the Church seem ready to rip us apart at the seams—when despair tries to get a hold on my heart—I choose to hope. To believe that what I was taught as a child remains true now: the Spirit is in control, that we are led at this point in time by the person the Spirit knows we need, and that nothing can destroy the Church. Not even us.

It’s Hard To Be A Catholic

It’s hard to be Catholic these days.

Faithful Catholics have no home in public discourse, because we’re presented with false absolutes: rhetoric that demonizes or “other”-izes half of God’s children, or a world view that leaves no room for a person who doesn’t support abortion. Too many of us act as if one or the other of those is an acceptable choice. It isn’t. Not for a follower of Jesus Christ.

And of course, there’s the sex abuse scandal. The Church has taken a beating from the secular world on that–with good reason. Yet even now, we as laity aren’t really dealing with it. To do so would force us to grapple with a really hard truth: that the Catholic Church’s strength–the apostolic structure that shields it from being swayed by the vagaries of public opinion–is also, in this case, its weakness.

Because, let’s face it: we are a passive laity. We’ve been trained that way: “The Church is not a democracy.” Well, of course not, but when did that come to mean the laity are supposed to lie down and abdicate our baptismal calling as priest, prophet, and king? Too many of us see ourselves as lesser vassals of the hierarchy. Somewhere in our Catholic psyche is a deeply-ingrained belief that it’s neither our right nor our responsibility to speak to them on matters of Church governance. And that, among other things, is how we got the abuse crisis.

So what’s the way forward? If we try to claim any authority, we’re in danger of being called “dissenters.” Nobody wants to get slapped with that label, so we cede the field of spiritual battle. We settle for bickering over sexual orientation, guns, immigration, and organ vs. guitar.

I sound jaded, don’t I? This is not at all the tone I intended for Intentional Catholic. I love my Church. But I’m feeling worn down lately. The institutional Church is in defense mode, terrified of doing the wrong thing—so terrified, it’s failing, at least on a large scale, to call out abuses of power and violations of justice and God-given human dignity, lest we lose any more people who might be offended by having their consciences stung.

Well, that fear is justified, too. Surely your parishes look like mine. Fifteen years ago, our biggest Mass had people standing around the back every Sunday. Now, the only time pew space is at a premium is Christmas and Easter.

But for every person who’s thrown up his hands and left the Church in disgust, there’s another clinging by his fingernails at the edge, tottering. Desperate for grounding, strengthening, spiritual fortification. And every time some zealous Catholic (ordained or lay) launches into legalistic hair-splitting–which of course they never recognize as hair-splitting–the fine thread tethering that wavering soul to the Church trembles. Stretches. Weakens.

We’ve got to make room for people’s questions, for their doubts. We’ve got to accept that we have to have open conversations that are going to be unpleasant. Faith grows when it is stretched, which always means stress and discomfort. But God is big enough to handle it, and–even now–so is the Church.

We have to let people be broken and imperfect. We have to accept the messiness of having a Church full of broken, imperfect people. We have to recognize that unity does not mean uniformity, and if we ignore the issues that are rocking people’s faith, if we talk obliquely about them while getting into knock-down, drag-out fights over liturgy, we’re in great danger of losing all those who are clinging desperately to their faith by a thread. Who see us bickering over minutiae while they’re crying out for survival.

This is spiritual warfare if I’ve ever seen it. And we’ve got to stop giving the Devil ammunition.

What Do We Do About The Sex Abuse Crisis?

Of everything we heard yesterday at Mass on Palm Sunday, these are the words that leaped out at me. If Jesus’ life and message were so threatening when he was living and breathing and working wonders (“when the wood is green”) that they could hand him over to one of the most brutal forms of execution ever known, then what we’re experiencing today, “when it is dry,” shouldn’t be a surprise.

We’ve been talking about a Church in crisis for so long, I think we’ve tuned it out. And it’s not just a crisis within the Church; it’s a crisis that consumes the entire world. The stark division between U.S. political parties is mirrored within the Church, with people on both sides picking and choosing what issues matter and which ones to pretend are irrelevant–as if doing so is not, inherently, an offense against God Who makes no such distinctions. The one thing we all agree on is the horror of the abuse crisis, but we’re so busy pointing fingers at scapegoats (Vatican II! Homosexuals! Clericalism!) that we substitute outrage for action.

I’m not browbeating anyone here, because I’m as guilty as anyone else. I think most of us feel helpless, and enraged by our helplessness. Composer and recording artist Sarah Hart posted this video a few days ago, and all I could think was, “But what do I do?

When we look back at Church history, we hear about the antipopes and Catherine of Siena scolding the Pope to get back to Rome where he belonged. We hear about the Reformation. But not until the last few months have I begun to consider what it must have been like to live through those earlier existential crisis moments within the Church.

We’re living one now. And it’s awful. The strength of our Church–its apostolic hierarchy, which protects us from the human fickleness–is working against us, because the system is stacked against the lay people. What power do we have? How can we actually impact anything?

Catholics are not accustomed to speaking out to our leadership. To saying, “This is wrong. This is not the Gospel.” We were taught that they knew the Gospel and could be trusted to lead us in it. All we had to do was keep our mouths shut and do as we’re told.

But you know what? That facile approach to faith is a cop-out, because we, too, are called by our baptism to be “priest, prophet, and king.” We can’t just show up on Sundays and trust that it’ll all work out. We have to stand up and speak. And not just about the travesty of the abuse scandal, either.

But saying that terrifies me, because I was taught to respect the call of the priesthood. Which I do. I have known a number of good, holy men over the years whose commitment and realism have helped me grow in my faith. Since day one, I have been praying for God to call one of my children.

But respect does not mean blind, unquestioning obedience. Look where that got us! We, the laity, enabled the crisis by putting priests on a pedestal, acting as if their vocation is better and holier and more important than ours. By separating them, isolating them, and viewing ourselves as second class citizens in our own Church.

I don’t know what the solution is. All I know is we can’t  just keep going to our prolife meetings and choir practices and pretending like the problems will go away if we just ignore them. We need to recognize that some within the Church are using this as an excuse to further their own pet agendas (high church and scapegoating of gays, to name a couple).

This is not okay. We need to stand up and do something.

But what?