The continuing story of sex abuse by Catholic clergy members has dominated news coverage and opinion pages this last year. Betrayal of the public trust, cover up and injustice on every level lead many to despair and hopelessness.
But Christians and compassionate persons have hope at their core. My father, a devout Catholic, told me that the only real sin was despair.
Gil Gustafson and I have been demonstrating hope since we first began to collaborate in 2012. I was a victim of sexual abuse by a trusted religion teacher in a Catholic high school. Gil is an ex-priest whose name surfaces regularly in the press in connection with the crimes of pedophilia to which he pleaded guilty in 1983. Together, we have piloted a project we call Uncommon Conversation, bringing together survivors, clinicians, clergy, grieving lay people and, yes, Gil, as a perpetrator willing to stand publicly and remorsefully in the presence of the justifiable anger of many.
With these stakeholders, we have sought to discern the way forward in our archdiocese as a community of faith.
The Gilead Project was founded in order to continue this work more publicly, by seeking to purchase the archdiocese’s chancery, across from the St. Paul Cathedral and currently for sale under bankruptcy proceedings. In that building, we will create a center for systemic transformation.
Catholics in Boston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul and elsewhere desperately needed to know the truth about how our leaders tried harder to protect their institutional reputations than to protect the vulnerable. The press has helped jolt all of us out of denial. It has been painful. Voices in my survivor community have called for a Catholic Truth and Reconciliation Commission, like the one that brought restorative justice processes to South Africa. We listened; we built a model for that — Uncommon Conversation.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that Gil’s participation has prompted controversy. But without some vision of reconciliation to follow upon truth-telling, we will never transform. Disturbing news about perpetrators, whom we have needed for truth-telling, risks becoming an addiction that revictimizes if those are the only stories we tell.
As a survivor of sexual abuse, I know this well. The abuse I experienced as a young person is only the beginning of my story. I know the trauma and shame of survivors whose journey to integration is the task of a lifetime. As an adult woman who sought justice for that abuse from her church, I know the shame and contempt victims meet when they speak truth to the powerful. I know the pain and anger of secondary victims — family members whose rage and powerlessness destroy serenity, as well as faith communities whose trusted pastor proves complicit in a coverup.
I see relatives of abusers experience their own shell shock, rage and shame. I see abusers either locked in denial of the grave sins they have committed or so filled with shame they think no mercy is available. With the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, they have been tempted to despair, asking: “Is there no balm in Gilead?”
Survivors are revictimized when we are treated as though we are still the children we once were. I am an adult now, who has a longer story to tell. I do not need leaders of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) or bishops to tell my story or dictate with whom I can collaborate. I need them to be accountable to their safety protocols, accept oversight, and engage survivors and offenders as adults and not as objects of pity or scorn.
We recently marked the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. Americans need to watch the heart-wrenching fall of the twin towers on occasion, in order to honor the heroism and suffering of the victims. Similarly, our first hope for the chancery is to reclaim it as a memorial, lest some developer tear it down and erase our memory with condos.
Victims and even perpetrators must have an opportunity to do more, however, than replay the tape of falling towers again and again. Our hope, therefore, is to open the facility to multiple programs and organizations, creating a consortium that shares best practices for preventing and responding to sexual abuse. Together, we can help restore the spiritual and psychological health of this community.
Gil serves as a lightning rod, but he is a flesh-on-bone human being. His victims and their families may never forgive him. But making him a demon to justify our outrage only avoids acknowledging our piece in multiple failures. Building better safety protocols into institutions is critical to society. Finding safe ways for offenders to re-enter the community safely and productively is equally important to our future.
What is fact and not opinion is that Gil has 32 years of nonoffending, decent living; obedience to his superiors, and compliance with his recovery program. The clear and demonstrably positive features of his life, together with his public expressions of responsibility and remorse, earn his right to community. Driving an offender underground by shunning and shaming has never made one child safer and will not now.
Research, education and sharing best practices for all harmed is the vision the Gilead Project offers our future. Together we can become “a balm in Gilead” for all.
Susan Pavlak is president of the Gilead Project.