Laity is the Catholic Church’s last hope
The disgust, distress and anger that West Virginia Catholics feel are relieved when our Diocese does something, anything, about the sex abuse and its cover-up by bishops. Yet, regardless of “official” efforts, there will still be more to do, more truth to uncover, before healing can begin. That work belongs to us, the laity.
The Second Vatican Council declared that the People of God have authority, too, something which was rarely acknowledged during the previous 1,965 years. But over 50 years after the Council, many laypeople still automatically acquiesce to clerics, and understandably so. Following blindly is a hard habit to break, and it is one reason Jesus referred to us as sheep.
Jesus knew, as any West Virginia farmer and 4-H student knows, that sheep won’t naturally follow. They can only be guided from behind or flanked. That is, unless they are halter trained. Then, it takes rope, sweet treats, and fear-based habit to lead them. God knows no self-respecting human, let alone a West Virginian, takes well to being tethered, buttered up or dragged down. But we Catholics are programmed to comply, however subtly or unconsciously our shepherds manipulate us.
When we don’t speak up, we are complicit in the abuse and its cover-up through our silence. Our fellow Catholics— children of God — have been raped! What can we, as laypeople, do about it?
For the sake of survivors, we cannot be content that our Diocese has released its own list of names of priests they consider to be credibly accused, especially when obvious names are omitted.
For the sake of truth and transparency, laypeople cannot wait for the results of the Church’s internal investigation of former Bishop Bransfield’s alleged harassment of adults when, now, there are mounting reports that he is in regular contact with seminarians, clergy, and lay officials from this Diocese. Waiting only postpones inevitable action laypeople will need to take when the results of this investigation fail to include closure of the ambiguous, unresolved case of Bransfield’s alleged abuse of teens in Philadelphia in the 1970s.
And, for the sake of our God-given role in the church, we cannot rely on our interim shepherd, Archbishop Lori. Since his appointment, he has consistently prioritized meetings with the Finance Council and clerics over consultations with faithful yet critical laypeople. Laser focus seems to be on the flow of money and solidifying the current caste system for the future. How, then, do laypeople respond?
Prayers are, of course, important, but we are called to much more as the people of God. We propose the following:
• Op-eds are effective. However, those that blame the victims, impatiently pressing them to come forward as a recent Huntington op-ed did, are not helpful. For survivors to come forward, we must repeat loudly and clearly that the Church is not only sorry and walks with them in their pain but that, first and foremost, we believe them.
• Advise priests to regularly tie the crisis into their preaching and liturgies. Abuse is the ongoing, elephant-in-the-room issue that shakes our Catholic identity, our entire way of being. We need priests to find connections in scripture and share those insights to encourage us in our faith.
• Insist the West Virginia Attorney General convene a grand jury investigation and reform the statute of limitations.
• Confront Diocesan Delegate Bryan Minor, Archbishop Lori and Pope Francis with questions and concerns. Every single one is valid and deserves their attention and response.
• Reach out to and support the West Virginia chapter of SNAP (Survivors of those Abused by Priests).
• Brainstorm more ideas within parish councils, women’s circles, youth groups and men’s groups.
• Contact us. Tell us what you’re doing. We will promote the hope.
Laypeople are called to guide the whole church from our place in the pews. We can speak truth to power unapologetically in ways that are respectful but still demand accountability. In light of this holiday season, let us confidently claim our own power as the people of God-with-us, God-in-the-flesh. Let us work to provide justice for lambs we have lost, return dignity to those surviving, and bestow merciful, tough love on our clerics. Indeed, let us go, in peace, to love and serve the Lord.
Jeannie Kirkhope and Michael J. Iafrate are co-coordinators of Catholic Committee of Appalachia.