Responding to the Clerical Abuse Crisis: A Season of Discernment at Holy Trinity Parish in Washington, D.C.

As members of the Christian Faithful, we stand with and for our sisters and brothers who have been deeply wounded by clerical sexual abuse.  We also know that the clerical abuse crisis has greatly shaken the faith of many in the Church.  Throughout the country, many have already taken prophetic action towards providing a space for the faithful to process, reflect, and pray, and we want to lift up some of the ways parishes and dioceses are responding to this crisis in an effort to build community and solidarity. The following post is part of an ongoing series that will highlight some of these efforts.

people-sitting-circle-counseling-87643809After the tumultuous Summer of 2018, with news of on-going revelations relating to allegations regarding an Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, as well as the numbing effects of the findings of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report and other assertions of clerical improprieties, hearts were truly burdened at many parishes throughout this Archdiocese, including those in Holy Trinity Parish in Georgetown. As Father Kevin Gillespie, S.J., Pastor of Holy Trinity, noted, the poetic words of Charles Dickens, from “A Tale of Two Cities,” may well be applicable to the crises afflicting the Catholic Church. As Father Gillespie, S. J. observed, we do seem to be experiencing one of the “worst of times.”  The question that became central in the life of the Parish was: what can one parishioner or one parish do?

As mentioned in a column by the Pastor in the Holy Trinity Parish Bulletin soon after the crisis intensified, it was decided that the Parish should enter into a Season of Discernment whereby hundreds of Holy Trinity parishioners would be engaged in a series of listening sessions to respond to the anguish and anger prompted by the new allegations. Holy Trinity turned to a process of Ignatian discernment, which has roots in our Catholic tradition and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, to help process and respond to the current crisis. In this way, Holy Trinity was responding from its charism as a Jesuit-sponsored Parish.  In the Ignatian tradition, discernment involves paying attention to our experiences to understand whether they lead us toward God (authentic spiritual consolation) or away from God (spiritual desolation).

Participants’ responses during the listening sessions, as well as feedback received from emails to staff, phone calls, and a form on the Holy Trinity website were recorded, a dedicated team organized them into six thematic categories.  One category was, “What is heaviest in your heart?” which included the feelings parishioners expressed in response to recent revelations.  The other five were action-oriented categories:

  1. Church Structure
  2. Transparency and Accountability
  3. Role of the Laity
  4. Support of survivors and their families
  5. Prayer

The responses, arranged into these categories, were made available on the Holy Trinity website. As a way of following up on the listening sessions, the parish offered a Prayer Service for Healing and Reconciliation on October 17, 2018. A Parish Pastoral Council meeting, open to all parishioners, was held to discuss further appropriate next steps. As a result, all parishioners were invited to attend a Parish Open Forum in the Parish’s Trinity Hall on Sunday afternoon, November 4, 2018, from 2:30-5:00 p.m. Parishioners were invited to join one of the groups arranged by the thematic categories to plan for possible actions and follow-ups.

On November 4, 2018, the Parish Open Forum led by members of the Parish Pastoral Council and the Restorative Justice Ministry started with prayer and guidance on how to determine the best path in response to the challenges of this crisis, and how to respect the insights of all participants in this dialogue.

Facilitators invited participants to select one of the above categories and to join an associated breakout group to engage in a smaller group discussion focusing on specific plans and next steps. The breakout groups used the suggested outcomes as a starting point for their discussion, but also provided members the opportunity to weigh the merits of different approaches and to amend or expand on the outcomes. The next step in the forum was a plenary session in which individual spokespeople for each of the groups presented a brief report to the larger whole of attendees.  They suggested action items that included learning more about church structure, being laity who are empowered by Vatican II, initiating collaboration with other parishes, supporting priests of integrity, being welcoming and supportive to survivors, and ongoing prayerful discernment. To close the Forum, the facilitators led the participants in a reflection on what were the moments during the discussions when they experienced spiritual desolation or spiritual consolation—a prayer known in the Ignatian tradition as the Examen.

Based on the discussions and proposals for further action explored at the Parish Open Forum, the breakout groups have developed detailed recommendations for further review, consideration, and action by parish participants. Each parishioner is encouraged to continue to collaborate in this engagement, by offering reflections on the merits of specific proposals and calls to action. In this way, the views of the parish community will be reflected in concrete recommendations that will serve the Church as we face this crisis, in positive and constructive ways. As an individual parishioner, this process has accorded each member of the parish community an opportunity to channel feelings of betrayal and disillusionment into fruitful expressions of faith and hope for the authentic reform of Church structures and practices.

RichardColl

 

Richard Coll is a parishioner at Holy Trinity Church in Washington, D.C., and a member of its Parish Pastoral Council.

Engaging in a ‘racial examination of conscience’

“Mindful of its duty to be the advocate for those who hunger and thirst for justice’s sake, the Church cannot remain silent about the racial injustices in society and its own structures. Our concern over racism follows, as well, from our strong commitment to evangelization…We would betray our commitment to evangelize ourselves and our society were we not to strongly voice our condemnation of attitudes and practices so contrary to the Gospel.”

—‘Brothers and Sisters to Us, USCCB’

In light of the need for our society to heal from the sin of racism, I want to offer a simple “racial examination of conscience” to help each of us reflect on how we may grow as persons and children of God in our hospitality, love, and mercy for all of our brothers and sisters, regardless of race or religion.

This “racial examination of conscience” is not intended to implicate anyone as a racist. It is not a “test” to see how racist you are or are not. It is offered in all charity and humility as an opportunity to reflect on our daily lives and how we may be unaware of the impact that our everyday decisions have on ourselves, members of our community, nation, and world. Just as an examination of conscience before going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not intended to demean or shame anyone, neither is this particular examination of conscience. When we approach the confessional it is through our honesty and our sorrow that we are offered mercy from God and help to restore not only our personal relationship with God, but to offer restoration to a world we have harmed through our actions, even those of which we are unware. Research shows that many of us act towards others based on implicit, or unknown, bias. Most of us believe in the equality of all people and assume that such a belief is enough. There are many studies done regarding implicit bias, one such study by researchers at Northwestern University show clear findings that implicit bias does shape how we act towards others especially when it comes to our perception of others as threats. This type of research shows us that even those of us who believe all people are truly equal, other factors, especially those unknown to us, can lead us to act in a way that does not truly reflect our personal beliefs. This list of questions is not exhaustive but may be a good start in discovering our biases in ourselves, bring them to the light, and then work to correct them so that our actions mirror our personal beliefs.

  • Do I interact with people who are different from me outside of work or school?
  • Do I read books or stories written by people of different ethnic or religious heritage than myself?
  • Have I taken the time to listen to the voices of others who don’t look like me or have a different background and life experience than me?
  • If in a supervisor role, have I included people of various cultural or ethnic backgrounds when developing professional guidelines and/or dress codes?
  • Have I ever said the following phrases or something similar: “she’s pretty for a black girl” or “he’d be handsome if he wasn’t so dark” or “that little girl would be cute if her mom did her hair” or other such judgments on beauty and acceptance?
  • Have I ever asked someone about their heritage or ethnicity by asking “so, what are you?”?
  • Have I ever seen someone on the street and made a judgement based on how they dress, how their hair is styled, how they walk, how they speak?
  • Have I ever participated in or laughed at jokes or comments that belittle or denigrate people who don’t look like me or practice a different faith than me?
  • Do I blame the victims who suffer poverty and/or oppression for their plight?
  • Do I try to come up with excuses for things I do or say that are perceived as racist or harmful by others?
  • Do I dismiss the concerns or observations of others as simply being “overly sensitive” or being “PC”?
  • Do I ask someone that I am an acquaintance with in social or professional settings to speak for their entire culture?
  • Do I use a friend or family member who is of a different background than my own to “prove” that I have said or done nothing wrong?
  • Have I ever said “I’m not racist, but…”?
  • Do I always speak to others from different backgrounds with respectful tone and language?
  • Do I automatically associate negative attributes to an entire group of people?
  • Do I use dehumanizing language about others, referring to people as “thugs, animals, illegals,” etc.?
  • Do I categorize other ethnicities into groups like “good” and “troublesome”?
  • When trying to show a broad ethnic representation for my community or institution, do I randomly place minorities in advertisements? Do I ask for input on how advertisements may be perceived outside of my own culture?
  • Do I take the time to learn and listen to the stories of others’ lives in order to better understand them and the challenges they may face that I do not?
  • Do I see Jesus Christ in each and every person I encounter every single time? Do I love each and every person regardless of their heritage, the choices they have made, their status in society, or the perception I may have of them?

Once you finish praying and reflecting upon these questions I invite you to read “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity” a document by the US Catholic Bishops on our relationship with migrants and refugees in our midst.

Let us all seek peace and harmony in our communities and see each and every of our brothers and sisters as Jesus Christ in our midst. And let us pray to the saints to guide us and our nation towards healing.

Mark Schmidt is Director of the Office of Respect Life and Social Justice in the Archdiocese of Dubuque.


Going Deeper!

Visit the USCCB Racism page for the U.S. Catholic bishops examination of conscience on racism and other materials to help you work for racial justice.

Father Cyprian Davis and Racism in America

 “[The country] has yet to solve the question of race; that has been America’s tragic flaw. We have never really come to grips with race. We went through the civil-rights movement, but here we are in 1993 with young people who never knew racial segregation, never knew the civil-rights movement, and all of a sudden on college campuses you have a tremendous amount of racism. There’s still an awful separation between people. It isn’t only against blacks. It involves Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Not that other countries don’t have the same problem. The Church for a long time did not take a stand. It has started to.”

  • U.S. Catholic Magazine quoting Fr. Cyprian Davis, OSB

Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis, pictured in a 2009 photo. (CNS photo/St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology)

Fr. Cyprian Davis, OSB was my professor, mentor, and spiritual director. He was a Benedictine monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey whose passion was his monastic vows and his faith in Jesus Christ. He was also a Black Catholic, staunchly proud of his African American heritage. Fr. Cyprian was ordained a priest when Black American priests were few in number.

I fondly remember sitting in his classes and hanging on his every word. He was a storyteller. His voice had gravel in it, his stance was slightly bent over, and his eyes lit up as he recalled stories of the past. He also had a wonderful humor that brought those stories to life in a way that few can. I always imagined that around a campfire he would be king for no one could match his ability to speak of things that happened hundreds and even thousands of years ago as if they were modern day events. He literally put you as a bystander into those stories.

His detailed history of Black Catholicism is the seminal work on how truly diverse our faith is, and how our Catholic faith has never been nor will it ever be a “European” religion. Holding a doctorate in history, he wanted to study the Church Fathers but upon returning to the United States and the country in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement he realized that his contribution to the movement was to highlight the gift that black folks had offered to the Church and the nation. But he was not simply a bookworm. He was a man of action. He marched in Selma across the Edmund Pettis bridge and was one of many who faced down state and local law enforcement in the fight for equal rights. He personally placed himself in the midst of violence against an unjust system to demand he and all people of this country be treated as equals, to have his and others’ dignity recognized.

In addition to being a student, I had the blessing to have him as a spiritual director. There is an intimacy that comes with a spiritual director, a fraternal bond that allows not only the spiritual director to see into the heart of the directee but for the the directee to see deeper than the casual interaction between professor and student. It required me to humbly open myself up to his wisdom and guidance and to listen. I will always remember his voice the day he called me “friend”; I felt unworthy of the honor.

I trusted him and saw a prophet before me on religious, political, and social issues of today, particularly those connected to racism in America. Over the last couple years after I graduated from Saint Meinrad his health began to decline and so it was difficult to keep contact with him before he entered eternity in 2015. I have wondered over the past couple years since the protests in Ferguson, NYC, Chicago, Minneapolis, and elsewhere what he would have had to say about the Black Lives Matter movement and the challenge our nation faces with the racial division that never went away but was only masked over the course of the 5 decades since the Civil Rights Act. I know he would be disheartened by the injustices in our system but not surprised by what is transpiring in our nation. He would also offer hopefulness. This man who faced down the segregationists alongside Dr. King in Selma confronted the violence and knew that things can be better. As he taught about historical and contemporary prejudice and racism in society I never heard bitterness, only a passion to effect change. He challenged us all to examine how we may be contributing to injustice and how we may find our path to helping overcome it. He offered that challenge to dig deeper into resources and histories of America and of the Church. It was Fr. Cyprian’s way of giving voice to the stories often left untold in a culture dominated by a “whites only” voices.

As Catholics the Sacrament of Reconciliation is where we not only confess our sins, but discern how we may grow from our personal shortcomings and place ourselves at the mercy and love of God to help us learn from our sins. In the examination of conscience that we do to prepare for confession we open ourselves up to discern ways in which we may not be living up to the call of the Gospel and that examination helps us to discover things to work on for our own betterment of which we may not even be aware. In the spirit of Fr. Cyprian and his compassionate but challenging expectation for Catholics to address the sin of racism, in my next post we will have a “racial examination of conscience” to help us all become more aware of how we may grow in understanding and compassion for one another.

In the meantime, please consider reading the US Bishops’ document “Brothers and Sisters to US” which can be found online at: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/cultural-diversity/african-american/brothers-and-sisters-to-us.cfm

Mark Schmidt is Director of the Office of Respect Life and Social Justice in the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

This post was adapted for ToGoForth. Read the original version at The Witness.


Going Deeper!

Faith communities around the country are praying and acting for racial justice. For ideas, watch this Google hangout on racial justice that highlighted several examples.