WASHINGTON, D.C. — Amid the legal wrangling surrounding the long-standing clergy sexual abuse crisis, Barbara Thorp, a social worker who formerly led the Archdiocese of Boston’s office that supports and cares for abuse survivors, wants Catholic leaders to know that healing among survivors is a far more important path to pursue.
Greater transparency related to church procedures and changes in canon law to focus on the needs of victims will demonstrate that the Church truly cares about survivors, Thorp said during an April 9 panel discussion on the role of civil law and the action of lawyers in hiding and uncovering the abuse crisis sponsored by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.
Right now, Thorp told an audience at the Georgetown University Law Center, many survivors feel abandoned by the church, especially since new revelations of the Church’s response to alleged abuse and the actions of some prelates emerged in 2018.
When the abuse crisis exploded in 2002, abuse survivors felt a sense of betrayal, Thorp said. As church actions since then in many cases have failed to fully address the needs of survivors, the survivors realize that canon law is preventing strict action to address wayward clergy, she said.
Thorp credited changes in civil law and even some actions among church leaders that have led to greater transparency and steps to support the spiritual needs of abuse survivors. But she charged that canon law “is lagging far behind in terms of seeing itself as another opportunity to bring real healing and real confidence that the Church understands the depth of the harm in the damage that was done.”
Pointing to the upcoming Holy Week in which Jesus felt betrayed and abandoned, Thorp called on church leaders from Rome to local dioceses to remember that abuse survivors carry Christ’s passion “in our midst.”
“Now, if we can have that sense of urgency, not to let this moment pass, not to let Jesus be alone in the garden, not to let him walk the path without attending to those that feel a deep sense of betrayal and abandonment,” she said.
Two attorneys on the panel reviewed the legal side of the Church’s response to the crisis.
Thomas L. Johnson, a former prosecutor who served as ombudsman for sexual abuse victims in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said the Church’s response to the needs of abuse survivors has depended in large part on the advice attorneys provided local bishops and the era in which the advice was given.
In some cases, he said, attorneys called for secrecy and protection of the Church’s reputation, while others urged full disclosure in addressing the problem of abusive priests.
Lawyers who advised keeping abuse under wraps should have realized “it would blow up” and create “the worst nightmare,” he said.
Johnson added later that in his discussions with abuse survivors, the harm from their experiences in many cases “seems to get deeper.”
Going forward, he said, bishops, attorneys and others involved in addressing clergy sexual abuse must adopt “the approach and lens … from the perspective of the victim survivor and from the perspective of those who we don’t want to be harmed in the future.”
Panelist Margaret Graf, general counsel in the Los Angeles Archdiocese since 2003, said she urged collaboration among all parties rather than allowing lawyers to face off in reaching the $600 million settlement in 2007 with more than 500 people who claimed they had been sexually abused by priests and other church personnel.
“It was an effort that recognized victims. … We need to gather data, we need to find best practices, but we need to look at it through the eyes of victim survivors not just through the eyes of the institutional church,” Graf said.
Journalist Peter Steinfels explained that silence on clergy abuse “is no longer an option” for church leaders.
Beyond that, Steinfels called for critics of the Church to understand how church leaders have taken significant steps to reduce abuse since the scandal of 2002 that resulted in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopting the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” governing the Church’s response to reports of abuse and protocols for prevention and safe environments.
He cited reports that showed the number of new abuse cases has greatly declined since the adoption of the charter, but that such information has been overlooked in the media. He suggested that a similar decline in the number of murders in Chicago, his hometown, would generate major headlines.
Steinfels wrote a critique for Commonweal magazine in January challenging the findings of a Pennsylvania grand jury report that accused church leaders in six of the state’s eight Catholic dioceses for acting “in virtual lockstep” to cover up abuse allegations for 70 years. He wrote that some of the findings were “inaccurate, unfair and fundamentally misleading.”
Attorneys, he said, have helped define and distort society’s understanding of the crisis facing the Church, and he invited journalists and researchers to undertake a deeper analysis of the Church’s response to sexual abuse.
Johnson later in the discussion called on lawyers to review current laws in states across the county to ensure that they are “victim-centered.”
“If not, the law ought to be changed,” he said.
Despite the challenges still posed by the Church’s response to allegations of sexual abuse, each panelist agreed that the steps that have been taken toward transparency and offering support to survivors gives them hope.
“I feel a deep obligation in a sense, but not a burden, that I must hold the stories (of survivors) as a treasure,” Thorp said. “It’s holy ground. We walk together.”
Johnson, who became Catholic in 2016, explained that he found hope in the work of clergy and others who have taken a strong interest in promoting safe environments within the church and have deeply cared in their response to the needs of survivors.
“I realized this isn’t all about bad people,” he said. “There are good people doing things to address clergy sexual abuse.”