Three Perspectives on the Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church

September 2018

Three Perspectives on the Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church, from Heather Rose Bress, Ann Dilulio and Catherine Maresca

My Thoughts on the Abuse and Cover-Up Crisis

Heather Rose Bress

Thank you for asking me to share my perspective as a Catholic catechist on the abuse and cover-up crisis. I thought it would be easy to write something up because I’ve been thinking about it almost constantly, but I’m discovering that I actually feel a lot more anxiety over it than I had realized. I feel so much powerlessness and bewilderment about why there is only silence from Pope Francis, as if it doesn’t even matter. I find myself wondering about every priest and bishop even though I know that the vast majority of them are good men. It’s weighing down on me so very much and I hadn’t even realized it.

I think I’m still processing it all. I don’t feel like I have any answers except for where else would I go? The Catholic Church is where I can get the most direct access to Jesus through the Eucharist. There IS nowhere else for me. I had gotten away from my habit of daily Mass after our recent adoption – there was SO much catching up to do that I wanted to spend every possible moment teaching my son. But he has entered school now and I find myself slipping into church after drop-off, reading through the readings prior to the beginning of Mass and seeing EVERYTHING in light of this crisis. I feel comforted there and somehow know that the best and maybe only thing I can really do is be open to ALL the grace I can get and work on my own holiness.

I read something today about looking to our children to see what they do when they are angry and tired and afraid, how they climb into their mother’s lap and cry. That’s what I feel like doing. In addition to daily Mass I’ve been going to Mary more frequently. Praying the rosary more often comforts me too. Mary was there when the first priests and bishops betrayed Jesus, running away in cowardice. And she was with them afterwards when they had repented, when Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to sanctify them and give them the courage to spread the Good News to all, eventually laying down their lives as truly good shepherds. I choose to trust that through Mary’s intercession, God will again cleanse the Church and infuse it with contrite and courageous leaders. 

Response to the Crisis 

by Ann Dilulio

As the news of the crisis broke (and continued to break our hearts) over the summer, I felt so much sorrow – for the victims, for the faithful who feel abandoned, for the holy men that have given up everything for the Kingdom, and for the broken men that committed the crimes (how very broken they must be). I found myself overwhelmed by the anxiety and emotions swirling around and turned inward to sort out what my response should be to this crisis. If I am to serve the children in the atrium, I must be able to answer this for myself. I considered, who am I in the Church? I am a child of God, children honor. I am a sheep in the fold, sheep follow.I am a branch on the True Vine, branches cling.  I am a member of a Body, seeking to remain whole.

In considering who I am, I also felt shame as I was all too aware of my own shortcomings as part of the Body of Christ. Everyone wanted to do something. I agreed that we should take steps to protect the Church and the people of God from these crimes in the future, but I believed that this was a wound that was deeper than policies, committees, assistance funds, etc. could heal. Justice will take it’s course, we know, and these other steps will be helpful, but they are not capable of changing hearts or behavior. They will not be enough. 

When I reflected on the scandal, I saw those who were not following the Shepherd, who were not clinging tightly to the Vine. Their actions (or lack thereof) were not rooted in a deep, interior prayer life to keep them connected to God and to each other.  If now, my actions in responding to their failures do not spring from a deep prayer life, such as that cultivated through CGS, I cannot expect my efforts to bear any fruit. But if I remain…I will bear fruit.

What does it mean to remain? I found myself going back to the True Vine meditation that we do with our Level II CGS children over and over again.

Standing by the Church in the face of persecution feels heroic. Standing by the Church in the face of betrayal can feel like foolishness. Yet even Jesus was betrayed by one of His chosen, He knows deeply the cost of betrayal. And we have seen this betrayal and scandal before, not so many years ago. Why haven’t we been able to cast it out? When the disciples asked Jesus that very question in their failed attempt to cast out a demon, He responded that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, nothing would be impossible. 

Remaining sounds so passive, but it isn’t.

By remaining, I am participating in the Plan of God – which is very active. God’s work is that of justice and mercy, of forgiveness and of binding up the brokenhearted. God’s work is much bigger than mine. My work is that of being faithful. 

How will I remain? How can I model this for the children I serve?I will embrace the Plan of God – I have been put here for such a time as this. I will strive to become the person that God created me to be. (If the whole world did this….) I will wait in hope for the beauty and miracles that spring from what can seem ugly and hopeless. I will be a wise bridesmaid, clutching my flask of oil. I will recognize that I cannot be prepared for someone else, or make them prepare.  I will trade my anxiety for the peace that surpasses all understanding, and remember that no one can destroy the Church. It is in times such as these, that it is made most evident that God is holding the Church together, and God has a mechanism for working miracles in the Church – the Holy Spirit. Our Good Shepherd has promised to remain with us for all time.I will pray. I will fast. I will do penance. I will trust. I will make sacrifices on behalf of my wounded brothers and sisters because out of sacrifice comes love.  I will remain, and with God’s grace, I will bear fruit.    

For the Catholic Catechist

by Catherine Maresca 

Since I became a catechist in 1982, we were tossed this summer by the third big wave of reporting on the horrific reality of abuse of children by clergy in the Catholic Church in the United States (1985, 2002-2004, 2018). This is a sad and painful time for catechists and parents. We love our faith, and we love children. How do we hold these two loves in the midst of leadership that ignores or covers up the scandal and protects the institution at the price of terribly wounded children? How do I continue to serve children even if I have decided to try to separate our faith from the institution or the hierarchy? And how do I, as the director of CCTheo, support and encourage colleagues on their individual faith journeys as we respond to this situation?

Along with the joy of our work we have also carried the burden of serving this institution that, in many ways, has not given its heart to children. In my opinion, there is a lack of commitment to understanding the needs and place of children in the church. There is a lack of respect for volunteer and underpaid catechists struggling to provide resources for children at great cost of time and money to their own families, requiring them to justify themselves and their work again and again. There is a lack of education regarding the spirituality of children in our seminaries. There is the parish/diocesan structure that tosses programs out with the advent of new clergy who have little respect for the work of existing parish ministries. There are bishops who have refused to consider CGS and other programs on their own merits and judge them instead on the vague standard of conformity to protocol. 

And now I have to ask again: Can the institution be trusted with our children, even though I know abusers are a small percentage of the clergy? Are we putting children in harm’s way by serving them on church property? Do we have choices that are safe for and respectful of children, parents and catechists?

I have lived with these questions as an active catechist since the 1980’s. Here are some of the ways I have navigated them.

Language and Materials

I began by considering my language regarding the institution of the churcl. We have a rich Catholic faith – rooted in the Bible and Liturgy, defined as the work of the people. We have a church, which includes the whole body of believers. We have a hierarchy and the institutions they control that is not the whole church but has spoken and acted far too often as if they alone arethe church, often without the assent of other believers. I try to use language that is exact when I use the word “church.” If I am referring to all Catholics it is appropriate. If I am referring to the hierarchy or any part of it, I try to use narrower language.

In the atrium, our materials and language focus on the faith of the church rather than the institution. Much of this is evident by noticing what is not present. No materials on the hierarchy, structure, or organization of the institution. Now more than ever, I am grateful for Dr. Cavalletti’s discipline in accepting the essentiality of the children. In choosing to include only that which nurtures their relationship with God, we have a rich body of work we can present with freedom and integrity. We find there the true heart of our faith for both children and adults.


Control of the institution’s finances are part of the hierarchy’s power. Huge settlements have been and will continue to be paid for the abuse of children in the church. These settlements should be paid by the hierarchy, not the laity.  I have withdrawn my financial support from the institution as it seeks to maintain the very power that led to physical abuse of children and other abuses of power and control. We have many charities offering critical human services that can continue to be supported directly.  The good spiritual and social services of the church should not suffer due to the hierarchy’s sin.

Space and Independence

There are many catechists who have created safe spaces for children in the church. Sofia Cavalletti, with her colleagues, created space in her own home to serve children. While loosely affiliated with the local parish they never relinquished control of the decisions they were making about their work to the clergy. In the gentlest words possible, Sofia once wrote that priests were not well prepared to serve children and, in general, were not in a good position to make decisions regarding their spiritual lives. She quietly led the good work of her colleagues in consultation with trusted theologians and priests, but not under their supervision or control.  

There are independent Catholic Eucharistic communities who offer Catechesis of the Good Shepherd to their children, including the St. Giles Family Mass Community where Tina Lillig, who served as the director of CGSUSA for years,  had been a member and catechist. These communities organize and run themselves, inviting a priest to preside at liturgy, but making all communal decisions according to their own preferred structure. 

There are communities of Catholic homeschoolers who collaborate to offer guidance or “classes” in a variety of subjects for their children. Among these are some parents who have developed an atrium in their homes to serve homeschooling families and other friends. Some of these might have started in a parish if there had been room or support, but without that, decided to go ahead and develop CGS independently. They work as parents who are the first and primary catechists of their children.

There are independent Catholic schools, (such as Christian Family Montessori School in Washington DC where I worked for many years) that offer CGS as part of their program without clerical supervision or control. 

There are catechists who have worked for many years in a parish setting, but eventually moved into an independent setting close enough to serve the families of the parish without jumping the hurdles of clerical control or Catholic bureaucracies. 

There are many parents who desire community and faith formation for themselves and their children, but have left the only model the hierarchy considers “Catholic” for the laity (with the exception of religious orders): the parish under the control of the hierarchy. We have, and need more, new models of lay led Catholic communities, and catechists are needed to serve their children.

Support the choices of our colleagues

I see a settling as the weeks since the PA report was released. The initial horror is once again yielding to the pretense that nothing is wrong that the hierarchy alone can’t fix and no substantial change is needed. Parishes and diocese are doing business as usual, hoping parishioners will stay in the pews. But, as the Attorneys General of an increasing number of states have realized, something does need to change. And this change will not and should not be led by hierarchy. For years, people have been quietly leaving a church or parish to join another denomination, or another parish, or to rely on books, personal prayer, retreats, speakers, and other events to share in Catholic life. Many are at home, unable to return and equally unable to join another community.  

Many are asking, “Should I leave the church?” I have also struggled with this question. If your answer is “Yes,” peace be with you, there are good denominations where you can also serve as catechists. If your answer is “No,” consider the breadth of models just outside of clerical control. You can bethe church in many ways unavailable to you within the clerical structure. They may be messy, or disorganized, or require the work of many decisions together. But in these models are the seeds of our new church. As we make our choices, let us support one another; change will come from the good work of people who have left the Catholic institution, who are faithfully observant outside the structure of the institution, and who have found pockets within the institution to worship and serve with integrity.

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