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Sr. Nuala Kenny, who has authored two books on sexual abuse in the Church, sees Concerned Lay Catholics as an valuable piece in the renewal of the Church. Photo by Michael Swan

Concerned Catholics seek healing path from sexual abuse

  • September 10, 2021

Ever since the world learned about priests and brothers abusing orphan boys at Mount Cashel, for 40 years Canada’s Catholics have lived with a public image of their Church as hypocritical and defensive.  As more abuse scandals rumbled across headlines and through the courts, public contempt for the Catholic Church became commonplace. Add onto this mountain of shame all that we’ve learned lately about Indian residential schools.

In response, a lay movement has been growing over the last year — a network of faithful lay Catholics who are not going to live with the scandals or the paralysis of their Church anymore. Concerned Lay Catholics (www.concernedlaycatholics.ca) have been inspired by Pope Francis to take ownership of their Church and its problems. There are representatives now in nine provinces, and growing.

Among the inspirations for this lay movement is abuse survivor William O’Sullivan, who has been picketing outside of St. Kevin’s Parish in Welland, Ont., for nearly three years. O’Sullivan and the organization that supports him, the #ChurchToo Movement, presented a petition with 1,228 signatures to Parliament this spring calling for a public inquiry into the history of Catholic clerical sex abuse and cover-ups. Unsatisfied with the government’s official, April 12 response to the petition, O’Sullivan began walking from Welland to Parliament Hill on Aug. 30. In Ottawa, he intends to make his demand for a national, public inquiry into the Catholic Church in person.

“I’m not leaving (Ottawa) until I get some answers, that’s for sure,” O’Sullivan told The Catholic Register.

Members of Concerned Lay Catholics have spoken to O’Sullivan and find his experience of sexual abuse at the hands of three different priests a compelling reason for anger and shame. But they don’t think he should have to go to the government for an explanation, or even an appropriate response. That’s the Church’s job.

Concerned Lay Catholics has been quietly organizing for the past three years, at first in response to the clerical abuse scandals highlighted in the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, and now out of concern for genuine reconciliation with Indigenous communities devastated by the legacy of residential schools.

“The Church is in a crisis,” said Brenda Coleman, a parishioner at St. Mary of the Assumption in St. Catharines, Ont. “But there are lots of very faithful Catholics out there that love the Church and want to be a force for change. They maybe don’t know how to do that on their own. So here’s a group that is going to help them find their voice.”

Starting from a base in St. Joseph’s Parish in Hamilton, Ont., CLC co-founder Cathie Pead sees hope in Pope Francis’ call for a more synodal Church and in the positive response the nascent organization has had from St. Catharines Bishop Gerard Bergie and Hamilton Bishop Doug Crosby.

“Our discussions have always been open, friendly, courteous and informative,” Crosby told The Catholic Register.

Concerned Lay Catholics and the diocese are both working on the basis of the diocesan safeguarding protocols, and Crosby appreciates the help.

“Because of her knowledge and professionalism, Cathie (Pead) has been invited to participate on one of the sub-committees of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops (of Ontario). I am always grateful when Catholics from the Diocese of Hamilton can make a contribution,” Crosby said in an e-mail.

The lay group isn’t politicking on behalf of some cause, or trying to push the bishops into any particular course of action, Pead said.

“We love the Church as the body of Christ, even if sometimes the institution disappoints us. We believe the Church has an important mission to carry out in the world and we want to advance that,” said the former high school chaplain.

Inspired by Sr. Nuala Kenny and her books on sexual abuse in the Church (2012’s Healing the Church and the 2019 follow-up Still Unhealed), Pead sees the mission of the Church and Concerned Lay Catholics in terms of healing.

“We recognize that many victims want nothing to do with the Catholic Church, and that’s absolutely understandable,” said Pead. “At a minimum, some victims may appreciate that some lay people are actually trying to hear and understand their pain. That we are praying for them, that we care about what happened to them.”

Kenny herself is pleased to see an organized, lay response to the abuse issue.

“From my 40 years work in the clergy sexual abuse of minors, on the underlying systemic and cultural beliefs and practices in need of conversion, reform and renewal, I believe these prayerful, well researched and referenced, team-led initiatives are crucial in the healing and renewal of the post-pandemic Church,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Kenny sees CLC as a “practical manifestation of the theology of the baptized, where all have been given charisms and gifts for building up the Body of Christ.”

But with the residential schools issue now roiling the nation, raising questions about the Church and its commitments, it’s hard to keep the focus exclusively on sexual abuse by priests, said founding member Gary Warner, emeritus professor and former director of arts and sciences at McMaster University.

“There is now the whole residential schools issue as well, which is linked to it,” he said. “It’s all part of the same issue.”

The connections run deep, according to Warner.

“Sexual abuse has been facilitated by clericalism. That sin, clericalism, it’s a close relative of that whole colonial mindset,” he said. “Any response has to engage lay people in a substantive way.”

The upcoming, global, two-year Synod on Synodality will require lay contributions, Warner said.

“It has to be a true synodal process,” he said.

It’s not as though Canada’s bishops haven’t already committed themselves to a less clerical and more transparent Church. In 2018 the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ own document on sexual abuse, called Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse, named clericalism as the enemy. In Protecting Minors, the bishops have stressed authenticity and transparency in response to the sexual abuse crisis.

“In the Canadian experience of the sexual abuse of minors there is an evident call to all members of the Catholic Church in this country to strive for greater authenticity and to engage in a process of regaining credibility. Although the response to this call starts by addressing past failures, it must be followed by a firm commitment to put into action the necessary ways and means of avoiding past mistakes,” the 2018 document said.

Pead and her friends want to hold the bishops to their commitments.

“It (Concerned Lay Catholics) is trying to collaborate with the bishops in carrying out what is clearly and quite understandably in that (CCCB) document — more transparency, working actively with the laity and the clergy, and following the course of Vatican II and Pope Francis,” Pead said.

As a former nurse who spent 15 years working for the Canadian Mental Health Association, and as a regular volunteer visitor at the Niagara Detention Centre, Coleman has seen the trauma that results from sexual abuse.

Lay people have a job to do, reaching out to abuse survivors such as O’Sullivan with an offer of reconciliation and healing, she said.

“Our focus is on the victim-survivors that we know are still out there,” said Coleman.

That’s good news as far as O’Sullivan is concerned.

“To have somebody, organizations like this, who are looking to root this out and show full transparency — absolutely, I’m 100-per-cent supportive of this,” he said.

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