Sorrowful Mysteries: Acknowledging the Pain of Clergy Sexual Abuse

By Paul Fericano
SAS Class of 1969
September 24, 2003
Trust is fragile and deceiving. Solid as a rock one minute, it can dissipate like moisture the next. Mindful of this tenuous nature and of the consequences of our own actions, trust encourages us to speak always from the heart and earn each other's respect.

Ultimately, it's what we do that builds trust, not what we say. When we succeed, trust creates an incredible bond that underscores the value of our friendships and loyalties. When we fail, it threatens to destroy the confidence and respect we have worked so hard to establish. And if it is we who have been failed, the devastation of that loss of trust can often cost us our faith.

The sexual abuse scandals have shattered trust on a number of levels with so many people. None of us has escaped injury. All of us bear our own cross of shame or guilt, rage or sorrow, confusion or denial. Survivors, perpetrators, non-offending Friars, family, friends, and community alike. We have all been betrayed by this attack on our faith and this indictment of our beliefs. Ask any of us who has suffered with this sin and you will find that we have all experienced the same fear of abandonment, tasted the same bitterness of alienation, and wept the same tears of heartbreak and isolation. There has been much to feel badly about. And it's worse for others. Some Survivors continue to struggle daily with the most basic acts of self-preservation, wondering if there will ever be a good reason again to get up in the morning. Everyone has been impacted. Everyone feels the pain. Everyone, in a sense, has been abused.

Talking about the pain helps to acknowledge and honor how much of it exists on both sides and how it affects us all. I was fourteen years old in 1965 when a member of the Franciscan religious order sexually abused me. At the time, I was studying for the priesthood at St. Anthony's Seminary in Santa Barbara, California. Over the years I have learned how to deal with the cyclical nature of my pain. I am not as strong as some may think, but then I'm not as weak as most would expect. No amount of therapy, self-help books, or any number of other distractions, both good and bad, will ever make the pain any less real. In this sense, I am no different than anyone else who has experienced a deep, personal sorrow.

Many Survivors who attended St. Anthony's Seminary live daily with the pain of being betrayed and the question of who knew. Many have grappled with this issue alone, one-on-one, in groups and even online. The hope is that if the pain can be articulated it can be understood. Most Survivors I've spoken with don't want to blame anyone for their pain. Many are working to gain control of their lives after long periods of neglect. When there is talk of wanting to know the truth, most tell me they would simply like to understand how the abuse could have happened without anyone's knowledge. This is not pointing a finger at anyone. It's simply raising a hand.

Friends and family of Survivors often have a very difficult time coping with their pain. Many are left feeling helpless and inconsequential by the abuse of a loved one. Others, struggling to remain close and to salvage their relationships, are repeatedly jolted by the aftershocks that test the limits of their patience and love.

It's clear that the sexual abuse crisis has severely impacted the laity in ways that have not been adequately addressed. My experience in the community has taught me that the abuse has created pain that is so deeply rooted that it is not often tended to. Many members of a parish community may feel that their faith has been stolen from them and little has been done to restore that faith. As a result, when one sees suspicion, lack of trust, and anger felt by members of the congregation, it's understandable that the actions of the Franciscans, as well as the Church, are not trusted.

It's unfortunate that many non-offending friars have become indistinguishable from the rest of the offending Catholic clergy. For many people who are unable to make such distinctions, they wear the robes that mark them now, not define them. At times it must seem as though no hopeful answer is possible, no moral explanation is sufficient, and no heartfelt prayer is ever quite consolable. I still have friends who are friars, and many feel as if the good they have done in the past has been forgotten, the good they are doing now is suspect, and that any good they might do in the future will never be enough.

Much of our pain and suffering is multi-layered and complex. Many friars live with both the heartbreak of the Survivors who were abused, and the anguish of their own brothers who perpetrated the abuse. Many Survivors like myself who attended the seminary live with both the joyfulness of our experiences and the horrors of our abuse--abuse made even more painful with the reminder that it occurred when we were just boys who dreamed of being priests someday. Many friars suffer for what they believe they should have known, for what they didn't know, and for what they could have done if they had known. Some suffer privately for knowing and not doing anything.

Because of the nature of peace work, honesty demands that I also acknowledge the perpetrators' pain. This is not easy for me to do sometimes. It's difficult for many to accept and even comprehend. Most refuse to address it. But I don't pretend to know what's in a perpetrator's heart. There are some who have been moved by shame and remorse. There are others who have been shackled by their own defiance and denial. They have all committed monstrous acts. Yet, if I only see them as monsters then I deny them their humanity, regardless of their crime. In doing so, I deny my own humanity. I can demonize them all I want--and I have done so in the past--but in the end they are just men. They may have failed us and themselves, but God has not stopped loving them.

I believe one of the greatest challenges facing the Catholic clergy in this century is to illuminate the deep sorrowful mysteries of sexual abuse. I believe the greatest challenge facing the Franciscans is to ease the pain and earn the trust of those who were sexually abused while in their care. They have already begun to travel this difficult road. They created a national model when they formed the Independent Response Team, providing needed therapy for Survivors, sponsoring spiritual healing retreats, and managing the aftercare program for perpetrators. And they continue to publicly acknowledge their mistakes and failures of the past, asking Survivors for their forgiveness. Any proactive move is a reminder of how peace and understanding can help us learn to trust again.

I have great respect for the rich and meaningful history of the Franciscan order. I always felt a part of that history. Francis was a man of action. He was direct in his approach and acted quickly because he acted from the heart. He lived the rule to take up the cross daily. "Francis, repair my Church" were the words he heard in the ancient church at San Damiano 800 years ago. In light of the spiritual reconstruction work that must be initiated by the Franciscans with the help of Survivors, I find these words more than relevant today.

Working to ease the pain of others who are angry with you is difficult, but there is nothing difficult about the decision to abandon confrontation. Acknowledging another's pain helps us heal our own, and this is particularly true when those in pain will not speak to you. This is when you tell yourself, "I will not turn away. I will not make it personal." This is when you say to all Survivors, "I will be there to help if you let me. I won't stop trying when you don't."

SafeNet is an association of Survivors and supporters who are present for one another. Those who are willing and able to do this work are committed to helping those who have been hurt on both sides. Peace and reconciliation work promotes healing--and healing involves motion. I believe that no matter how slow you may be going on some days, as long as you keep moving you're going to get there. We should be encouraged, all of us--Survivors, Franciscans, community members, family and friends--to acknowledge our pain and demonstrate our compassion. Seek understanding. Be involved in meaningful work. Trust. Listen. Pray. And like Francis, act from the heart.