Saint John has some of the strongest and most pervasive protections in the Diocese for every single person who steps on our campus. In this day and age, with all that has gone on in the Catholic Church, and the degradation of trust and belief due to the persistent failure of the hierarchy in dealing with the sexual abuse scandal within our own walls, it is essential that we go above and beyond to safeguard our Parish Family. We have to be able to look every mother, father, son, and granddaughter who may have their child or elder here at Saint John in the eye and be able to say “this is a safe place for your family.” That is why we ensure every Minister, no matter their ministry, effort, or activity, has a background check and takes the Safe Environment Training. Every contractor, no matter if they are fixing our roof, cleaning our carpets, or playing music on our stage, receives the same screening as a staff member. We cannot allow for the loopholes that predators exploit to find their way into a community like ours.
Predators take advantage of “soft” environments like churches and social organizations either for their sexual gratification or to develop influence to exert some sick level of power over others. We have taken tremendous strides with our policies and procedures here at Saint John to close those loopholes and protect ourselves. I know some have baulked at these changes, and others still do not believe they are necessary. However, the current scandal of the Catholic Church illustrates the absolute need for these safeguards. A vast majority of our Parish Family has embraced these changes, and many have actually commented positively that it makes them feel safer leaving their children in our care here on campus.
Since we have taken care of our own house and will continue to improve our safety proactively, it is time for us to assist the larger Catholic Community with a powerful response to the sexual abuse scandal that is pervasive throughout the country and the world. The Florida Attorney General is currently gathering materials that will include the Diocese of Venice. We cannot sit quietly as the anger, outrage, frustration, and betrayal that many of us feel slowly erodes our church. And even if we do not feel that way ourselves, we know family members and friends that feel that way. Your children may leave the church because they do not believe in the structure anymore. Your friends may ask you why you are still Catholic when the church continues to hide what has happened and does nothing to fix it. It is our responsibility as part of the church to help find solutions and respond positively to repair the trust and bond we want to have in our church.
Saint John took the responsibility of hosting 4 Courageous Conversations in November. This Town Hall style listening session allowed our Parish Family members and members of other Parishes to validate our collective grief and sadness. We are not alone in those feelings and these sessions provided a mechanism to describe our thoughts on how to move forward as a church with accountability and transparency. Each Conversation had a specific question that was asked of the groups. The responses were at both personal and communal. At the end of the Conversations, the individuals who participated were grateful for the opportunity to communicate and desired to ensure their voices were heard. So, here are some unedited, non-attributed highlights of the 4 Courageous Conversations for our Parish Family to reflect on:
Conversation 1: Sharing Our Hearts – What are your feelings about the Catholic Church Sex Abuse Crisis? I feel…
- The Church put guilt on me when they were the ones doing bad things.
- Betrayed, grief, anger, frustrated, shattered, robbed.
- I can’t look at a priest without feeling suspicion and thinking, “I can’t trust you.”
- I still trust priests; they are consecrated men.
- Abusers are sick people, but those who cover it up are worse.
- Disillusioned at the Church leadership for not acting as they should.
- I have lost the trust in clergy that I had as a child.
- My religion is Jesus, Mary, saying the rosary and going to Mass.
- Betrayed; I trusted priests but now doubt all priests.
- I don’t respect bishops; they didn’t protect our children.
- Sad for the good priests. This hurts them too.
- Betrayed by the church. Jesus meant the church to bring us to heaven. Priests represent Jesus, but they are not being responsible or good representatives of Jesus.
- The Church has already lost one of my sons and his family because of this. It scares me.
- Deep sadness, anger, shock that nothing has changed since the 2002 Boston exposure, and I have considered leaving the faith because of this. I don’t want to but this makes it harder to stay.
- Two of my sons no longer go to church; I don’t know why and this makes it even harder.
- Wonder what will enable the Church to be believed again; respect is lost.
- Sadness, fear for the future of the Church, disappointment and betrayal in the lack of action taken. A lack of hope that church will act and do what is right.
Conversation 2: On Roots and Causes – What are the most important factors that you identify as the root causes of the Crisis?
- The drive to maintain the image of the Church at all costs.
- Lack of married people and women in Church leadership, like in the early Church. Going back to this would find better people.
- We have lost a sense of community.
- Making celibacy a condition to be a priest.
- The bishop’s failure to take action.
- Seminary formation and ongoing human formation is not being done well.
- Revisit celibacy and the vow of chastity.
- Cover-up encouraged more abuse.
- No consequences for the perpetrators.
- Individual bishops fostering the belief that the church is more important than the victims.
- Lack of accountability and leadership in the church.
- Certain clergy in the church feel entitled to do what they want. They feel above the law.
Conversation 3: Speaking Our Truth – What are the most important things you want church leadership (any level) to be aware of as they and we consider how to respond?
- The Church should be willing to be more in tune with people of 2018, not always falling back on “the way it’s always been and the way we have always done it.”
- Laity holds the Vatican responsible. Let the laity step up; Pope Francis must follow through.
- How profoundly betrayed and angry we feel; it must be cleaned up for all.
- Accountability at every level with Zero tolerance.
- Formally written protocols at parish and every level; assurance of no repetition.
- Transparency; we need to have open and honest conversations at the parish level.
- Agree to transparency. The biggest enemy is the church itself. The hierarchy needs to include every level, from Pope to laity. Laity Isn’t involved enough in anything, and their opinions are being ignored. The church IS the laity.
- Bishops need to know there is anger and people need to be heard. Can’t shut the door anymore, need to hear how people feel and what we think. Then the Bishop needs to respond.
- It needs to be an ongoing conversation from now on in the church. Honesty is encouraged and required. As well as consequences for those who do bad.
- I want church leadership to speak the truth. Start at St John’s. Priests need to address the issue
Conversation 4: What Now? What Next? – All of this says to me that
- The Church must be 110% transparent with the congregation – in all things.
- The clergy work for the people in the parish – they work for and with us.
- We are desperate; we want to have trust and faith in our Church. Please help us by being trustworthy.
- Betrayal at the highest levels of the Church can become normalized. We must prevent this from happening again in the future.
- Rules and procedures implemented must be made public and shared. Our entire community needs to make our Church and our society safe for every child, including altar boys and girls.
- Level of disgust by laity demands swift and definite action by leadership.
- The Church needs to be honest, transparent, contrite, and to seek real solutions to their problem (whether screening priests, or rooting out the offenders, even bishops). The Church needs to take action, not hide behind “the church.”
- We should not give up on this and that we should have more conversations and meetings
- A report should be sent to the parish about this so they know what was heard and spoken
- These Courageous Conversation should be happening in every parish
- Faithful Catholics want action NOW. We’ve been held off for a long time. This conversation is a wonderful opportunity. I don’t want to leave the church. I just need to see change soon.
The full set of responses, along with our thank you letter to those who took the time to be part of this process, is available here: