Lay Advisory Groups, Renewal efforts

The silent collateral damage of the clergy sex abuse crisis points to the absurdity of the Church Synod

Want to be an instrument of change in the Catholic Church?  Samaria Rice, whose 12-yr-old son brandished a toy gun and was killed by a police officer, shares a lesson for all institutions looking to cleans themselves of institutional brutality.
[Photo screenshot from Good Morning America video.] 

“I don’t want my name associated with an institution that could do what it did,” he said, referring to the way bishops handled clergy sexual abuse reports. So he’s washed his hands of the Catholic Church. “That’s my only reason.” He didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

He is a successful professional in his field and a lifelong Catholic—the third such Catholic I had happened to encounter with that sentiment in the last month alone in the Diocese of Buffalo.

Another professional—also a lifelong Catholic—brought the subject up after someone at the table casually talked about his plans to hit Mass on Saturday in order to make a Sunday tee time.

“Not me. I’m done,” he said. “The way they handled things [nobody wants to say the words, “clergy sexual abuse”] is just sickening. I don’t mean the bad priests,” he said. “They’re just sick. I mean the guys in charge who were supposed to take care of this. The way they treated those poor victims and let those priests off. And they get away with it. I’m out. ”

Then there was the friend with whom my family works on a professional basis. He is a lifelong Catholic (his children are educated in diocesan Catholic schools) who used to volunteer to help fundraise for the Diocese of Buffalo. I don’t mean bake sales. He co-chaired at least one major diocesan event that I’m aware of. He said he hadn’t been back to church since COVID hit, and while he admitted he needs to get his “butt back to church,” he scoffed at the notion he needs to return to a Catholic church.

As hard as that is to read, it isn’t like we haven’t heard these sentiments among Catholic laity who otherwise have not been touched directly by the crisis. For them, there isn’t a scintilla of credibility left in the religion that was so much a part of their life journey. Now, in the peak of their professional lives, a lot of these folks are bailing. Who knows how many because it’s not like they publicize their abdication. If anyone cares to check, they are among those regular contributors who have disappeared from donation lists.

What can anyone say to them? “We need the sacraments”?

Surveys reveal that most Catholics don’t even believe in them anyway, so ineffective were our bishops in overseeing our religious education. So these Catholics just quietly drop their tools and walk off the job.

This is yet another face of the silent collateral damage in this clergy sex abuse crisis.

So when I opened the latest email from the Movement to Restore Trust, a press release positively giddy with news of the diocese’s participation in the pope’s two-year “synod” [big meeting to discuss how we can be a better Church], excuse me if I didn’t join their enthusiasm. The MRT is led by another group of professionals among Catholic laity in our diocese. The difference is, most of them have enjoyed working with our bishops as advisors over the course of literally decades. Some have acted as official advisors for as many as FIVE bishops in Buffalo.

Curiously, they now work to also advise us. Let that sink in.

I have written and spoken extensively about how these lay advisors appear to have been groomed so well in the diocesan system that they are blinded to the fact that the men they protect are the very men who cultivated and protected the clergy who inflicted untold horrors upon innocent victims. That these particular laypeople  refuse to call for professional accountability–even among those diocesan officials involved in the most egregious cases flagged in the New York State Attorney General lawsuit against the diocese–is all we need to know.

Perhaps it’s time we laity advise the lay advisors.

Let’s start with taking a look at a similar example outside the Church to get a sense of what we’re dealing with. We need look no further than the current crisis in law enforcement, rife with police brutality, particularly against people of color. The acts of cruelty too many police mete out on the streets is one thing. It’s what leaders in law enforcement failed to do with these reports of brutality that we find so disturbing. While law enforcement is profoundly important for our safety and security, its foundational integrity crumbles to dust when it systematically ignores cries from victims of their own police. We’re talking all areas of law enforcement where this occurs—from the FBI to our local police. And no amount of violent protests or voting or law suits over the decades seems to make a difference.

Why is that?

Because the people in charge will never hold themselves accountable and citizens remain silent— groomed into submission, cowered by these who hold power and authority.

There are exceptions though.

Samaria Rice, mother of boy killed by Cleveland police.

Remember several years ago in Cleveland, a police officer shot and killed a 12-year-old black boy who was playing with a toy gun. It made international news. There were protests. But nothing of legal substance happened to the officer who shot the kid. A few years later, Cleveland law enforcement held a meeting with various constituencies (a “synod” of sorts) to discuss how they could improve their work in their communities. The mother of the murdered boy participated in one of the breakout sessions. A New York Times reporter captured audio [linked here, season 3–episode 3] of the heated exchange in her group. The mother cut to the crux of the problem citizens had with police. It was more than just police brutality. It was about the culture of the system that would nurture brutality to begin with.

She wanted to know what discipline was dealt out to police officers “who harass people in the community.” That was a polite way to put it. The question stumped the moderator. Then the mother said, “the City of Cleveland Police Department has been corrupt for over 70 years. When will it end?” Another large question that has to be answered before there can be fundamental institutional change.

Finally, she asked this obvious question: Why are there not more white police officers here? “They need to be here hearing this.” Remember, this is an assembly of stakeholders in dialogue (“synod”) to help the police.

The mother of the murdered boy looked at the list of questions for the community to answer and asked: When are the questions going to be for the police? “Because they need to be answering these questions….That’s what this meeting should be about.” The moderator tells her that the meeting is about a variety of topics that “need to be addressed.”

The mother of the boy the police officer murdered cut her off. “No. That’s the main topic,” she said.

“Not until the police change the way police think,” the mother instructed, “and anything else falls under that.”

A police officer politely entered the discussion and asked, “How can you help us do that?”

“How can I help y’all do that?” she asked incredulously. The mother laughed at the absurdity of the question.

The Times reporter agreed and rephrased the mother’s question: Why is it the victim’s job to help the police do their job they way they’re supposed to? After all, the reporter noted, they’re the ones with the guns, the cruisers and the tasers.

That little “synod” in Cleveland had the pretense of being an agent for change of an institution without any substance. That’s because the leaders with the guns and the tasers and the cruisers and the handcuffs, and the strobe lights, and the sirens and the badges and the titles of office and all the authority stubbornly refuse to even entertain the thought that they should be held accountable for anything.

Sound familiar?

Now we laity are asked to accept a “synod” designed to come up with solutions to make the Church better. Yet the initiative refuses to address the very reason we are at a point in history where we need a “synod” to begin with. Of course, the Church leaders who brought us into this crisis are above having to answer for what they did, so it won’t be discussed. This is clericalism, a form of elitism for clerics in the Church who play by a different set of rules than the rest of us. And we are all catering to it through our silence, like the silence of the three men I spoke with last month.

Don’t drop your tools and walk away from your job.

Grab your rosary and pray for courage and healing.

Take care of your soul.

Love more.

Hold them accountable.

Be the mother of that boy murdered in Cleveland.

Show up.

Ask questions of our Church leaders anyway.

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