Parishes must confront the church’s legacy of sexual abuse

How to reckon with, prevent, and promote healing from sexual abuse in the church.
In the Pews

In the not too distant past, the sexual abuse of children was not seen for the terrible, unacceptable thing that it is. Often when it happened, not only in our parishes but also elsewhere in society, it was covered up or ignored for various reasons: to prevent scandal; to preserve institutions, families, and social groups; to avoid retraumatizing the victim; or simply to avoid uneasiness or discomfort.

None of these are good reasons. But they are reasons responsible adults too often relied on and that led to an overall societal devaluation of abuse’s harms.

We know better now. Perhaps we always knew better but did not want to face the consequences of our knowledge. We now know that the damage caused by the sexual abuse of a child can be lifelong, harming not only the child but also the families they come from and the families they create. 

The church must deal with its own legacy of sexual abuse of children. These abusers are not always priests: Unfortunately, school teachers, religious education instructors, school aides, choir directors, janitors, and youth leaders—the list is endless—have also been abusers. Pedophiles are led to seek positions where they will be near children and have opportunities to be alone with them. Evil has its craft.

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We cannot ignore, soft-pedal, or forget the church’s history of abuse. We cannot wish it away. We must confront it head-on to move forward and to bring about healing for those who have suffered abuse within our church. Below are some suggestions for how parishes can both reckon with the church’s legacy and prevent future abuse from occurring. 

Address the legacy of Catholic sexual abuse head-on.

Our parishes are littered with memorials to former pastors, priests, school principals, and teachers. Their portraits hang in church vestibules and schools. Sometimes parish buildings or meeting rooms are named for them. The vast majority of these memorials are well deserved. But when it becomes known that any of these people were sexual abusers, that they were aware of sexual abuse and did nothing about it—or worse, helped to hide it—such memorials become inappropriate and must be removed. 

Some may say that this damnatio memoriae (condemnation of memory) is an exaggerated response. After all, we cannot rewrite history. However, such memorials perpetuate harm against these people’s victims. When the choice is between preventing harm or honoring a former parish grandee, the weight must fall on the former. 

Many parishes also have memorials to the unborn children lost through abortion. As we take down parish memorials to child sexual abusers or their enablers, parishes may consider instead setting up memorials to those children whose lives have been destroyed by sexual abuse in the church. Such memorials would serve as a reminder that such evil can never be permitted again. 

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Move forward with intention.

The first suggestion offers advice for how to address the history of sexual abuse in our parishes. But how do we move forward? The worst thing we can do is assume this problem is over. As long as our parishes seek out children to evangelize them, offer the sacraments, and provide a basis for happiness in this life and the next, how we deal with child sexual abuse is a question that must always be present in our parishes.

This does not require reinventing the wheel. Our church actually has done much good work in this regard. In the early 2010s, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops established the very first National Review Board (NRB) for the Protection of Children and Young People, on which I served as a member and chair. The group has come up with several standards and projects that work well. 

First, parishes should require a criminal background screening of every employee and volunteer. All of these people may come into contact with youngsters at our parishes and have the ability to use the credibility that working for the parish gives to victimize these children. Some may believe that people will not volunteer to work at a parish if they have to undergo a background check, but that has proved to be untrue. Persons of goodwill readily comply. And persons who have something to hide need not apply.  

In addition to background checks, the NRB also recommends that every parish make use of safe environment training programs. These programs are both for adults who work or volunteer at the parish and for children who frequent the parish. The goal is to educate everyone involved about child sexual abuse and how to prevent it. These programs must be conducted by credentialed professionals: This is not an area for amateurs or do-it-yourselfers, no matter how well-intended. Parishes need then ensure that these programs remain effective and well used.

Adults must be trained in how to create and maintain environments in which our youngsters feel safe. They need to be educated on how to recognize the early signs of an abuser and the grooming practices an abuser will use to set up their potential victim, such as singling a child out by giving them special attention and gifts. This early warning system can be very important in preventing abuse before it happens. Adults also need to learn how to talk to children about sexual abuse. Although parents should be primarily responsible for these conversations, all adults who work with children should have training in how to address a child’s questions on sexual matters and to appreciate what may be behind the child’s questions.

Children, too, need to be educated. Age-appropriate programs should teach children the difference between appropriate and inappropriate contact. Children should also be told how to report inappropriate contact with an adult should it occur.

De-memorialize the perpetrators, memorialize and reach out to the victims, conduct background checks on all parish employees and volunteers, and hold safe environment training programs: These suggestions offer a start for how parishes can address sexual abuse within their congregations. None of this work is easy, but doing these and other actions reaffirms our church’s commitment to preventing the tragedy of child sexual abuse from happening at any Catholic parish.


This article also appears in the August issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 8, pages 27-29). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

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About the author

Nicholas Cafardi

Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus and professor of law at Duquesne University, is a former chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People.

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