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Holding on to Hope: A Reflection on Clerical Abuse in the Church

August 23, 2018
Rev. Matthew Gworek is a priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford. He studied and was formed under the care of the Sulpicians at Theological College in Washington, DC, and was ordained in 2016. He has been Parochial Vicar at both Saint Mary Church in Branford, CT, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Hamden, CT. He additionally worked as Catholic Chaplain at Quinnipiac University. Fr. Matt is currently a priest intern at Salt + Light Media in Toronto, Ontario, in Canada.
Each of us has had the opportunity in these recent days and weeks to hear tragic things. Stories of unthinkable acts, of criminal, awful moments, of ways in which our Church and its leaders have failed, sometimes again and again. For all of us being exposed to these stories for the first time, it’s been a challenging, difficult period, but that difficulty in no way comes anywhere close to the pain and struggle forced into the lives of those who have been abused and mistreated.
There is no excuse for what happened to those men, women, and most especially, to those children. There’s no thing that can be said to make up for what’s happened, no apologetic words or well-crafted responses that can take away the pain.
Because of that, the impulse for many might be to throw up our hands and just quit, to think that we’ve just gone too far off the deep end or point to the stories that have come to light and just give up on our bishops, our priests, our Church. And to be honest, that impulse is… understandable. When we’re faced with such darkness, such manipulation, such a twisting of who we as a Church are supposed to be, the instinct to run might seem reasonable.
As painful as it’s been for me, though, to see the darkness that’s happened in this Church that I’m a part of and love, there’s been one thing that’s helped me to not run, to not give up, and that one thing is hope. I’ll be honest and say it: I have hope. Hope for our Church. Hope for our future. Hope for our pope, our bishops, our priests, our deacons, and all our leaders. Hope, too, for the men, women, and children in our pews.
That hope comes from Christ. It’s a hope that he gave to the people of ancient Palestine who had been mistreated by those around them and then gave to the world when he sacrificed himself for me and you and everyone. It’s a hope that throughout our history has helped faithful men and women endure struggles, pains, and tragedies of all kinds, from outside and inside the Church. And it’s the hope that I hold onto now as tightly as I can.
I also know, however, that at times like these having a priest stand in front of you and just say, “Have hope in God! Jesus will somehow make it okay!” can sound hollow, trite, or just cliché. As true as I believe the power of our hope in God to be, in moments like this one there can be times when we need something a little more concrete and specific to point to and say, “That is why I have hope.”
For me, that specific and concrete something is the experience I’ve had as a young priest and, especially, as a seminarian. Now, of course, I can only speak from my own experience, and I’ll admit that even in recent days we’ve heard of situations and activities in seminaries that are, well, simply unacceptable. Even so, I think that what I encountered is important to share.
I attended Theological College in Washington, DC, entering the seminary in 2010 and spending six years there learning, praying, and discerning. It was a time for me of growth and change, a time in which I came to realize over and over just how little I knew and how much room there was to grow, so that’s what I tried my best to do. In many ways, it was a wonderful time. It certainly wasn’t perfect. Seminary had its ups and downs for sure, but it was a wonderful time of learning, maturing, and growing in my faith.
In the midst of it all, we were challenged as seminarians to become integrated and healthy priests. In trying to do this, just about everything that we did was focused in some way around what were called the four key pillars or elements of priestly formation: human formation, spiritual formation, intellectual formation, and pastoral formation. The idea is pretty simple. Basically, if you’ve been well formed in those four key areas, then you’re set up to live out a healthy priestly ministry.
If there’s one thing that’s certain in the reports that have come out about clerical sexual abuse, it’s that the men involved were not living a healthy priestly ministry. They weren’t living a healthy anything. They were men who were lost, who were sick, who were able to do appalling things to the most vulnerable. Why they decided to enter that life, how they were allowed to be ordained, what led them to abuse and sin in the ways they did… those are big questions, often with awful and complicated stories that go back decades. I don’t have answers for those, and there probably are no good ones.
What I do have an answer for is what I experienced only a few years ago as I was trained in those various areas of priestly formation. At the seminary I was in, the priests and formation team were tasked with getting to know the men in the program, recognizing our strengths and weaknesses, learning who we were, how we acted, and what made us tick. Through spiritual direction, advising, intellectual work, and just spending time with each seminarian, they came to understand what kind of a person he was. They got to know him so that they could help him become an even better priest someday or, sometimes, to make the decision that he wasn’t ready or fit to live that life, weeding out anyone not right for this delicate, critical kind of work and ministry. The seminarian, the seminary, and the bishops went through this intricate process of discernment together, attempting to truly follow God’s will in choosing priests who would lovingly care for God’s people.
Especially since the revelations of abuse in 2002, this whole process of learning and formation has included a much stronger focus on topics such as proper boundaries, sexual health, and emotional maturity. On a regular basis each and every year, we were asked in different ways to consider and recognize what it meant to be a healthy individual, physically, mentally, spiritually, and sexually. This is something that simply did not take place decades ago, at least not in the same way or to anywhere near the same extent, but it’s something now that is so critical in the formation process for those who will be ordained and in the removal of those who shouldn’t be.
I’ll admit, there were times when we’d walk into yet another conversation, workshop, or conference to discuss sex or sexuality, and I’d be irritated, thinking, “We already talked about this. Why do we have to do it again?” The amount of times we went over those topics just felt excessive, and yet, looking back on it, that’s the point. That’s the point because there will never be a “too many times” for talking about what’s okay and what’s not. There will never be a “too often” for driving home the importance of protecting the safety of children. There will never be a “too thorough” when it comes to making sure that the heinous sins of abuse, cover up, clericalism, or ignorance in our past are not repeated.
If forcing our seminarians to hear and think about proper sexuality, mental health, boundaries, and protection means that even a single child won’t be mistreated or abused in the future, then there is no doubt that it’s the right thing, the needed thing to do.
That’s what happens in our seminaries today. It’s what happened in mine at least, and that’s what gives me hope. It gives me hope because I know that for six years I was surrounded by men who were taught those things and in a place that put a great deal of focus on preparing the priests of the future to live in that kind of healthy way.
It is tragic that this wasn’t always how things went in the past and that, as a result, some priests, bishops, and others were poorly formed to the point where horrific abuse took place and situations were unacceptably handled. As heartbroken as that makes me, it does not deter my hope for the future. It does not dissuade my hope that the generation of the Church I’ve grown up in will be better. It does not thwart my hope that the new priests and leaders I’ve studied and been formed with will be more prepared to listen, learn, and do whatever we can to stop abuse and injustice.
As a young priest, there are countless things I’m still figuring out and so much that I’ve yet to experience, but I do know what I experienced in seminary: a place that pushed me and those around me to become more integrated, healthy individuals, a place that often considered the failings of our past, and a place that was trying to do what it could to build up a Church that would be and do better in the future.
What happened in our Church is truly unacceptable, and all of us need to work diligently to make sure that it never happens again. Together as men and women, clergy and laity, we need to respond with loving prayer, action, and change. I believe we will. I believe that, from top to bottom, we will work to better protect our children and every single child of God. I believe it, and I have hope. I do so not just because I have to or because having “hope” is a very Christian thing to say and do. I have hope because I’ve seen the beginnings, firsthand, of the change that’s taking place in our seminaries, in our priests, and in all the men and women of our Church.

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