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Survivors' Voices: Meeting with the Bishop
As you probably know, many Catholic bishops highlight their willingness to meet with any abuse survivor who would like to see them. I have personally heard many stories from survivors who have taken their bishops up on this offer, so I thought you might like to hear firsthand what it’s like for a survivor to meet with a bishop. Of course, each person’s experience is unique, but hopefully these stories give you some sense of the various ways these meetings can unfold.
If you have experienced sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, I would be honored to include your perspective in this “Survivors’ Voices” series. You can find more information and express your interest here.
I met with my bishop in 2011. It was a disaster. He allocated 20 minutes to talk, with one of his staff at his side. I wasn't allowed to bring anyone along with me. (A canon lawyer later told me I had a right to have someone else with me. They took advantage of me.) I had 10 minutes to speak. They made clear that it didn't matter what I said, they had already decided their course of action. I was to be put out of my parish. The staff member said all he could to drive me out of the Church. I left sobbing and threw myself on the floor in front of the chapel. A friend had driven me and was waiting in the lobby. She helped me up and took me home.
I met with the bishop of a neighboring diocese in 2018, at the request of my mother who lives there. This bishop was compassionate and agreed to help me contact my own bishop, but he admitted that he could not offer me much support since I do not live in his diocese. A fellow victim of the same priest attended this meeting, and she was able to be engaged in support and healing groups right away. There are no programs for survivors in my diocese. I am on my own.
I reported my 2014 assault via the diocesan website in 2019, told my story, and simply asked that they take it seriously. The diocese notified the abbey where my abuser lived, and the abbey sent a representative. She tried to manipulate me into saying I'd be ok with this priest returning to ministry, and she seemed indignant that I'd approached the diocese rather than the abbey. I'm thankful that I went into it expecting to be handed a bunch of BS rather than any real attempt at reconciliation; it probably saved me a lot more trauma. The bishop never offered to meet, and I didn't see the point of asking for a meeting.
I waited four months to meet the bishop. He wore his priestly symbolism even after he was informed that it would trigger me. I wanted to meet with the Abbot of the Order as well; the Abbot would have received me that day if I wanted to. When we met, he was in plain clothes and we met in a room void of symbolism.
I went to the bishop with the intention of letting him know this happened to me. He listened, had a compassionate posture. I was skeptical. He chose words carefully so as not to acknowledge any wrongdoing. In the following years he betrayed my trust in several ways. In publications he writes that he “walks with victims and survivors.” That wasn’t true in my case and I never wanted him to walk with me, only do something about the criminal and moral offenses.
I was advocating for myself directly with the diocesan victim advocate for almost ten months when I felt the need to return to ministry in my church. Because I reported the priest who abused me, the pastor banned me from all ministry. I addressed him directly first, but he did not change his position. So, I met with the bishop to ask if he would help by asking the pastor to drop the ban (that should have never been applied). I felt punished for not remaining silent. The bishop listened to me, recognized that I was abused, and said he prays for me daily. But when I asked for what I needed to try and reclaim my self prior to the abuse, he said that this isn’t his method of operating. In other words, he declined to intervene. His reasoning? He doesn’t involve himself with local church matters where volunteer positions are involved. He leaves it to the discretion of the pastor. This is what ultimately led to my contacting a lawyer and filing a lawsuit, which was never my intention. By standing up with the power and advocacy of the attorney, I found my voice. It opened the door to deeper self-recovery efforts. I felt heard and validated. My attorney did something beyond just praying for me. Sometimes action is required with prayer.
The priest who abused me had told me a story about picking up a male hitchhiker and having sex with him. When I shared this with the bishop, he said that the priest just told me that because he wanted to impress me and hoped I would “think he was macho.” I had no words, and I was in shock that a priest or bishop would think this is “macho.” I knew then that the meeting was a joke, and I lost all hope that he was a holy shepherd who would protect one of his flock. The rest of the meeting continued to spiral downward, and I left disillusioned, with my faith in the Church's hierarchy starting to dismantle. This was in 2019.
One aspect of my healing process was a meeting with the cardinal who was my archbishop. I had never met a cardinal, prince of the Church, before. I was anxious about this meeting. I was conflicted because of my deep respect for his office, but I also wanted to tell my story as a way to unburden myself. I told the cardinal my story of childhood sexual abuse and the impact it has had on me and my family throughout my life. The cardinal listened. He apologized to me for the abuse imposed upon me when I was a little boy. Also, I brought family photographs of my abuser at many of our family functions to the meeting and shared them. The cardinal asked about my parents and my siblings. We had a very nice discussion and because of the time he spent with me, and because that conversation was so good, I feel comfortable continuing to practice my faith.
In March 2019, just a few weeks after the sex abuse summit in the Vatican, I met with my archbishop. While my hopes weren't high, I tried to reset my expectations and go into the meeting with a clean slate and an open mind. However, I was immediately disappointed when my archbishop started off the meeting by saying, right up front, "But my hope with everybody I’ve met is that... Even if we can’t have healing with the church because of what has happened..." At least the archbishop made it clear, right up front, that he wasn't going to do anything to help me. He then preceded to offer to serve as my spiritual advisor, but I couldn't see how I could accept spiritual advice from a man who could so quickly, easily, and abruptly disregard what was done to my family and me. Rather than react, I simply allowed the archbishop to keep talking, during which time he made it clear to me, multiple times, that he wasn't around when what was done to me occurred and he didn't know anything about it. I did try to take up the archbishop on his offer of a follow-up meeting, in an attempt to try to get through to him, but the archdiocese cut off all communication with me.
My bishop has not chosen to meet with me, even when a bishop from a neighboring diocese met with me and invited my bishop to meet with both of us. My bishop insisted he could not meet while the criminal investigation was taking place, but he also had not agreed before there was a criminal investigation. The priest is in jail now, but my bishop still has not agreed to meet with me.
I met with the new bishop in 2019. He promised to review the file and get to the bottom of it. He never did. I had to recreate the file of evidence and almost a year later take him through each piece. He finally acknowledged that things were not as he was told. He wrote a letter stating I was free to participate in parish life, with approval of the local priest. There were no consequences for the lies the diocesan staff had spread or the harm they caused. No reparation was made. He left me with these words: "I hope you heal. Good luck."
Thank you to each survivor who shared their story here, and to each reader who has taken the time to listen. Stay tuned for Part 2 next week.