Toward the fire

In 2002, during the months in which the The Boston Globe released the findings of its investigation into wrong doing on behalf of the Catholic clergy in the Diocese of Boston, I was a high school junior preparing for confirmation. The investigation exposed a widespread pattern of sexual abuse from several Catholic priests, five of them ultimately convicted of criminal charges and another — covered up on behalf of church leaders who knew about or at least suspected the abuse and hid it — for allowing it to continue. The initial investigation garnered national and international attention, and ultimately led to additional investigations in several other dioceses and in other countries like Canada and Ireland.

I remember being heartbroken for the victims and, as someone preparing to be fully initiated into the church, personally humiliated. Many of my classmates, especially those who had been Catholic and who had chosen to leave, sneered at me and asked how I could choose to be part of an institution that supported rapists. I remember sobbing in adoration for the victims, both because of their unfathomable pain and because I felt powerless to help them, powerless to do anything but be a punching bag for the community I loved due to the crimes of men I hated.

My classmates demanded to know how I could continue to support the institution and I realized that to me, the church was not an institution. It was a family. A family I loved. And my family was in trouble. The family homestead was on fire. It turns out that some of my fathers were deadbeat dads … to put it mildly. They weren’t really my fathers at all … they just dressed like they were. They pretended to care for us kids, but instead they violated my brothers and sisters and then set the house on fire. It was burning down around me.

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Image courtesy Pixabay

I remember leaving adoration one night at 2 a.m., standing in front of my parish building with all of this on my mind thinking, “The church is on fire. The only response is to run.” But the question was: which way? “Do I run from the flames, or do I run toward them?”

In the time since that night I have become a youth minister, partly because I have seen how deadly serious, how incredibly important the preparation and protection of our young people is. I have become a facilitator of “Virtus: Protecting God’s Children.” It’s a program responsible for training volunteers in the creation, implementation and enforcement of safe standards for children and youth programming. As part of those training sessions, I show a video that includes confessions from child abuse perpetrators and testimonies given by their victims. It is incredibly hard to watch. I have led dozens of such training sessions … enough times that I have the videos nearly memorized. And so I could do other work while those videos play. I could busy myself with emails or calendaring activities. But I don’t. I watch every time. And every time I burn.

I burn with sorrow for their pain. I burn with anger at the injustice. I burn with conviction that I will do everything I can to build a world of safety and security for my kids, both for the son and daughter who live under my roof and for my little brothers and sisters who live with me in the shared house of our faith.

franciscan-sisters-flames

Image courtesy Pixabay

I’m not sure why I watch. Perhaps it’s to remind myself of how important this all is. Perhaps it’s a form of self-inflicted penance – not for any crimes I have committed, but on behalf of the wider church and the ways it’s failed. Perhaps it’s that the sheer power of the testimony that calls out for continual witness. But it’s always hard, and I find myself praying, “Holy Spirit, fill me with your fire, so I can stand in these flames of tragedy, until every last one is put out.”

The men who have betrayed the church by victimizing those who trusted them, either in outright abuse or by protecting abusers, are not the church. As Father John Lankeit said in working through his own thoughts on the subject, they are to priests what Judas was to the apostles or the devil himself to the angels … at the moment of their crime they amputated and scarred the body of Christ. They scarred my family. But I love my family, and I’m not going to abandon them – especially in times of trial. They mean everything to me. They introduced me to the Lord, to the Gospel; they have given me a peace that surpasses all understanding, a joy beyond all telling. I will not allow criminals to take from my children the chance to find that same joy and grace, the chance for them to know the church that I have known – the community of quiet saints who don’t make headlines but who serve the poor and live lives of mercy and work every day for justice. I have seen religious sisters save the lives of abandoned orphans, I have watched a priest give food and medicine to a homeless man dying of neglect, and I have seen a thousand small acts of heroism by normal people who are sincerely trying to live and love like Christ. I have seen what the church can and should be. I will not concede my family to monsters, or my house to the flames they set.

I don’t write these words to defend myself or to assure you that I am part of the solution. I write these words only to say what I am absolutely convinced of: the Church of Christ is worth too much to let its betrayers define it. I cannot step away and let that happen. I would rather burn.

Steven Cottam

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Being part of a Church broken by sex abuse and lies

Imagine you were violently attacked and dropped off a balcony into a dark alley, and somehow you survived. Your body is broken, bloody, mangled; you are twisted and contorted into a mess upon cracked asphalt. Your arms and legs are shattered. The most private parts of you have been violated. All of your muscles ache as if they are being stabbed with a thousand spears.

You are gasping for life, for help. You feel all alone. You are helpless. You see no way out.

This broken body is yours. It is everyone’s who is a member of the Roman Catholic Church. The horribly broken, disfigured, wounded, twisted and mangled Church. The Church is the Body of Christ and we are the Church; we are the broken Body of Christ.

This body, the broken and disfigured and hurting body, is the Church that I have dedicated my life to as a Franciscan Sister. This is the body I love. I would not be me without my participation in this body: at this point, I can’t imagine my life in any other form.

And, when all the wounds are festering, infected — when it is apparent that this body is disfigured and ugly — it is only appropriate for each of us to struggle. To lament. To feel violently angry. To weep. To demand change.

The wounds of the body of Christ — the Church that I love dearly — have been exposed over and over in my lifetime. They first appeared when I was a college student and falling in love with the body, when I was being fed and experiencing a sense of belonging in its arms. And now, again, within the past week, when the results of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury investigation into sexual abuse and cover-ups became public, it has become visible to the masses how truly sick and broken this body is. It can be an ungodly sight, too awful to look at that. So ugly that a temptation nudges me to turn away, to decide that I can’t be part of it, that I want nothing to do with it, that it simply hurts way too much to be near the brokenness, the festering wounds.

But I can’t divorce myself from the body to which I belong. And, I know that the body cannot heal or become strong again without tiny little me being a part of it, either.

I am disgusted. The corrupt state of my body is due to the failure of those who are meant to be representatives of its head. Made sleazy by power and sickened by an evil that twists the sacred and holy — sexuality, service, sacramentality — into demons of torture and doubt, these men have damaged the body that helps me know meaning and belonging.

And for other members of the body, their pain is greater than anything I could know. They have been made powerless by those in power, they have been tortured by those who were supposed to be instruments of healing and peace. No attempt to make things right by any other member of the body will ever be an adequate response to their pain. Their voice of courage is a gift of hope to the rest of us. My chest aches with the sorrow of loss as separation is inevitable.

The body is likely to remain permanently disfigured. I don’t know how I could ever defend its goodness and beauty to the little ones again — to the members who have been hurt the worst; to those who have lost their faith and trust that the body is made for healing, not harm. They have every reason to argue with me if I try to teach them that the body is good and holy. I wonder if the body will ever be strong again, but I can’t stop thinking about how the body is made whole only through its weakness. The agony of paradox is disorienting and frustrating right now.

Except, somehow, below all the pain and misery is a feeling that is deeper and stronger than any other: I still love this body. I do believe in its goodness, its holiness. I know that many —most — of its members are willing to love to the point of self-sacrifice, they are willing to lay down their lives for their friends and enemies. Joy and love radiate from the face. A mercy flows from the wounds. Compassion runs through its still beating heart. Its lips are uttering constant prayers for forgiveness, for help, for reconciliation and peace.

Eventually, grace can uplift the body and help it from the concrete. But it will take a lot of work and repentance, a lot of restructuring and consideration of what caused the body to get to such bad shape. It will take a rescue from the Holy Spirit and all the angels and saints, before it goes off for a stint in reconstructive surgery and rehab. No matter how the recovery process goes the scars will be ugly; the body will forever wear the history.

Those days are a long way off, I am afraid. For now, we pause to admit the truth. We are broken and disfigured. We need help and healing. Much must change. But for now, the body is broken. The body is weak. The body is a mess of struggle. And it’s awful.

Photo by Ricky Turner on Unsplash
RESOURCES FOR READERS ON CATHOLIC SEX ABUSE

Pope Francis’ Letter to The People of God about the sex abuse crisis. August 20, 2018

Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report

LCWR Statement on Sexual Abuse by Clergy

Statement of Catholic Theologians, Educators, Parishioners, and Lay Leaders on Clergy Sexual Abuse In the United States

U.S. Church’s Response to Sex Abuse Shows Progress, but Questions Remain (A Timeline of the Catholic Church’s Response to Abuse Allegations Dating Back Several Decades) Catholic News Service. August 17, 2018.

“Prayer for Angry Catholics” by James Martin, S. J. America. June 6, 2012.

“For Catholics, Gradual Reform is No Longer an Option” By Kathleen Sprows Cummings, NY Times, August 17, 2018

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests 

Take Action: Stop Child Sexual Abuse

If you see child sexual abuse, have a reasonable suspicion of sexual abuse or your child has been sexually abused, call 911 or your local police immediately.

If you suspect abuse, call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child or visit the Child Help Hotline. Trained crisis operators staff the lines 24/7 to answer your questions. If necessary, they will show you how to report in your local area.

Child pornography is a federal crime. If you see or suspect images that may be child pornography, report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children CyberTip Line.

An American Dream

“An individual dies when they cease to be surprised. I am surprised every morning when I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil I don’t accommodate, I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I am still so surprised! That is why I am against it. We must learn to be surprised.” 

— Abraham Joshua Heschel

Wednesday night I woke from a deeply disturbing nightmare. My mom was shot and killed. She was right outside our house, the house I grew up in, checking to see what a stranger wanted. It was late at night and I’d wanted to stop her, to tell her to let my dog run out first with her snarling bark that usually annoys me but every once in a while helps me feel safe. But Mom is too hospitable for such things. Somehow, instead, I was still upstairs, looking out the bathroom window onto the scene as it happened.

When I woke, my feet were icy and tingling, the way they get when a bad dream has chilled me to the bone. My mind returned to what had initially kept me from falling asleep in the first place. Just before bed, my husband and I had read about the shooting in San Bernardino, California. Fourteen people were killed and 21 injured at a center for people with mental disabilities who were in the midst of a holiday party.

I am so heartbroken and bewildered. Why did this happen? How must the surviving loved ones be feeling?  How terrifying and devastating for all those present. I’m struggling with this tragedy, not only for its own sake, but also because of the tragedies it recalls. I have read that this is the largest mass shooting in the U.S. since the horrific event at Sandy Hook Elementary three years ago. More troubling still, this is the 355th documented mass shooting in the U.S. for this year alone. And surrounding all of this is the ongoing refugee crisis, terrorist outbursts in Iraq, Kenya, Paris and elsewhere; the innumerable wars and pseudo wars wreaking havoc on the lives of men, women and children.

 

Graphic courtesy of PBS.org
All documented mass shootings in America in 2015: graphic courtesy of PBS.org

Dwelling on all this I am filled with despair, outrage and, reluctant as I am to admit it, fear. However, what I am afraid of is not a terrorist attack. Nor do I dwell on being caught up in the violent outburst of a mentally deranged person. And certainly not dread of foreign invasion. I’m afraid of a tendency I’ve noticed to consider purveyors of violence “outsiders.”  I am afraid of a general lack of willingness to look in the mirror and recognize that the violence erupting in schools and churches, in city streets and now even in a residential home, are not about the “other,” they are about us; you and me, as individuals and as part of a community and country. Each of these acts are awful opportunities to examine our culture and ask how and why it compels and enables such violence. Yet, again and again, that opportunity is passed over and we are left with only sorrow, rage and despair at the devastating destruction of precious lives.

Part of my heart urges me to continue this train of thought by addressing the refusal of so many to take into consideration how entrenched the U.S. is in the production and distribution of weapons. It is an enormous and enormously profitable business in which machines made specifically for the purpose of destruction of life are sold with little to no discrimination both within and outside our borders. Part of my heart is prompting me to illustrate the terror that unfolds in villages that are haunted by drones or where the land has become a permanent battlefield because of unexploded ordnances, or where people live under threat of a night raid, always terrifying, often lethal.

Most of my heart, however, is consumed by the fullness of my womb, filtering everything through the lens of an expectant mother. When I was at this place of unborn fullness with my son Eli, who will soon be two, a friend asked if I was not afraid to bring a child into this world. At the time I said no, I was not afraid. What I didn’t realize then is that being a parent would in fact cause me to be more concerned for safety, more aware of danger, more sensitive to the precarity of life.

There were many nights when I would contemplate horrifying scenarios that would end with either one or all of us dead. I would consider how absurd it is that I should expect and feel entitled to safety in my home when so many others live without it, when so many whose lives are taken had no part in inviting such violence. However, I continue to see participating in creating and nurturing life (whether through pregnancy and parenting, art, activism or other means) as the greatest act of hope, of love, of resistance to violence and despair that we can offer this world. And so I pray that fear never be what stops me from sharing in such acts.

And this brings me back to the dream. I was troubled by the dream not only because of Mom’s death, but because of where I stood as it happened. I remained removed, hiding within the walls of our house, hiding behind my dog’s ability to intimidate. It is my mom, in this dream, who is the one stepping out in an act of love. I don’t consider myself to be in the wrong for having been afraid, but I am disturbed by my choice to follow fear and remove myself or drive away whatever or whoever triggered that fear.

Fear and anger have a place. They are important signals that tell us something is very wrong. But staring at the wrong does not lead us to what is right. I am grateful for the times that I have a visceral response to tragedy, for the times that I am still surprised by violence. I’m grateful because it means in that moment I am living outside of apathy and inside communion with living beings. However, if I become overwhelmed with anger or fear, judgment or disgust, I try to redirect those feelings toward grief. Turning to mourning allows sadness to soften and open my heart, creating a pathway for the grace and wisdom of the Spirit to enter in and do it’s healing, guiding work.

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Witness Against Torture activists participating in a Thanksgiving Day Fast near Guantanamo military prison in Cuba. Photo courtesy of www.flickr.com / Witness Against Torture.

There is a piece to this dream I failed to recount initially. As I am standing at the window, I am aware also of the presence of a few of my friends from Witness Against Torture who (in reality and in the dream) had just returned from Cuba. In the dream I am vaguely aware that they too have tried to get Mom’s attention, tried to ask her to wait. They, however, are not asking her to wait so they can send out the dog, but so that they can go with her.

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An American Dream was originally published by Amy Nee in her blog, Amy the Show.

Note to the reader: throughout this piece there are links that have been attached to statements and ideas that I thought might require further explanation or that I would have liked to share more about but others have already collected the information more efficiently or articulately. If you are interested in or object to anything that was said, please feel free to follow the links for further exploration.

Additional note to readers from Sister Julia:

I recommend watching this video to learn a bit more about the recent fast and protest by Witness Against Torture activists in Cuba: