Making It Right and Getting It Right: Clergy Sexual Abuse, the Franciscans and the Press

By Paul Fericano

SAS Class of 1969   

Over the past few years I've attended a number of meetings throughout California at the invitation of the Franciscan Province of St. Barbara to discuss policies and procedures regarding the sexual abuse crisis within their order. Our work with survivors, perpetrators, non-offending religious and church communities has helped to encourage the friars to move into areas of greater openness. Their response has been a gradual increase in outreach to all wounded parties, as well as a willingness to educate themselves and find ways to best inform the public on critical issues of safety.

In July, 2005, I attended one of these meetings in Santa Barbara, called by the Franciscans, and was surprised to see them slammed in the press afterwards. There’s no question the friars have made terrible mistakes in the past. Will they make others? Probably. Should they be held accountable? Of course. But this wasn’t one of those times. Being blamed for something you should be getting credit for is a set-up: no matter what you do you’re never going to get it right. The fact that this meeting was called to begin a process of informing the public appears to have been sadly overlooked. The actual point and purpose of the gathering—discussing ways to establish an ongoing policy and procedure for perpetrators—was largely ignored. Instead, the press chose to focus on the dissatisfaction of some individuals who wanted details regarding an unsubstantiated allegationof sexual misconduct directed at a priest. This occurred before it had been determined whether the priest in question had done anything wrong and whether the public, therefore, was entitled to such information. 

I was saddened to learn of the actions taken afterwards by some of the people who were at that meeting. For whatever reason, some chose to break trust with the Franciscans by sharing confidential and sensitive information with others and with the press. It’s important to understand the pain and anger of some who were present at that meeting. It’s also necessary to acknowledge the honest attempts by the Franciscans to be more transparent.

The St. Barbara Province is quietly emerging as one of the few Catholic groups in the Church actively working to cast light on their own dark past regarding the sexual abuse crisis. Do I believe the Franciscans want to abolish the perception of secrecy and deception within their order? Yes, but to do so requires courage on their part and encouragement on ours. They have a long way to go. The friars are up against a centuries-old Church tradition of silence that is rooted in our most basic need for self-preservation. Like so many of us, they sometimes fall victim to their own fears. But like so many others, they, too, wrestle to understand a horror that requires nothing less than the truth. We are obligated to remind ourselves of this whenever we sit at the same table with one another.