Two Leaders Show How Churches Really Move Past Abuse

By | November 9, 2019

Two church leaders have in recent weeks stepped forward to show that, despite the often clueless mess that is mainline Christianity, there are those who understand abuse, how to address it, and how to promote health, healing and wholeness. This, despite the fact they come from profoundly different faith traditions, and are dealing with differing types of abuse.

Episcopal Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe

In the first case, the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Central New York, DeDe Duncan-Probe, recently announced that the Rev. Joell Szachara, who had served as rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in New Hartford NY, has been suspended amidst allegations of financial misconduct at her parish.  In addition, the diocese and Duncan-Probe announced that:

  • Szachara had been directed to resign from all church roles.
  • The parish is conducting a forensic audit as it works with the diocese to implement fiduciary financial controls within the parish.
  • The diocese has is conducting a Title IV clergy disciplinary case against Szachara.
  • They may refer the matter to police.

“We regret deeply the misconduct of any clergyperson in the church,” said Bishop Duncan-Probe. “Such misconduct represents a betrayal of the sacred trust conferred on the church by its people and the wider community. We are working with civil authorities in this matter. Our primary concern will be caring for those who are impacted by this painful situation, particularly the people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, the Utica and New Hartford community, and the people of the wider diocese.”

What’s noteworthy about all of this?

First and foremost, the diocese apparently is taking the matter seriously. None of the usual, “One of our priests would never do this,” or “who are you?” routines. That’s refreshing in a denomination that far too often treats allegations of misconduct as beneath the dignity of its bishops, or reflecting badly on the complainant.

Second, the matter is being handled in the light of day. Far too often, such matters result in a behind-the-scenes deal in which the clergyperson is asked to resign or retire in order to spare adverse publicity. In these situations, laity all too often are treated with patronizing condescension, as not able to handle the revelation that clergy engage in wrongdoing.

Third, we are hearing about things directly from the diocese. Far too often, diocesan officials only go public in response to media inquiries, or when they simply have no other choice. Here, it appears that the diocese indeed is the source of the news —again, a good sign in a denomination in which the knee jerk reaction is secrecy.

Fourth, it appears that the diocese recognizes the need to care for those affected. None of the routine of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, in which church officials remove a wayward priest, only to make themselves scare in the months to come based on the advice of attorneys to avoid getting too involved, despite the canonically mandated care of affected communities. Here, the diocese appears to genuinely care for all involved, and to be taking seriously its obligations.

Kudos to DeDe and the diocese for what so far appears to be a job well done.

Cardinal Blase Kupich Discusses Healing from Sexual Abuse

Similarly, Roman Catholic Cardinal Blase Kupich of Chicago, speaking at a Mexico City conference, recently praised the courage of clergy abuse survivors who have come forward.

“We need to listen to and accompany victim-survivors,” he said. “We owe much to them. It is because of their courage that the church has begun the essential process of authentic purification.”

Kupich went on to decry situations in which the church causes additional harm by either ignoring survivors, or even worse, reacting defensively to them.

Authentic purification, Kupich added, includes four steps:

  • Solidarity with survivors.
  • Synodality, meaning that the church must walk together towards the protection and care of minors, survivors and victims, while never demanding that survivors abandon or “move past” their experiences.
  • Conversion, or taking to heart and holding each other accountable. In this area, Cupich added, the church had failed in efforts following the 2002 Dallas Charter, which established standards for the protection of minors and others. “We lost sight of the truth in our tradition that purification comes through a conversion that costs us something and makes demands, not just in one area, but on all aspects of our lives.” Thus, he argued, the results of the 2002 efforts were a “cheap purification,” in which the church arrogantly held that written policies were adequate to fix the problem.
  • Transparency, or openness about our failings, which leads to further opportunities for healing. This, he noted, is often the hardest for church officials, and may require time and patience.

One recurring theme in Cupich’s comments was the notion that survivors represent the image of the Risen Christ. Through their suffering, he noted, survivors lead the church towards healing and purification.

So What’s Newsworthy?

In his comments Kupich, like Duncan-Probe, seems willing to challenge the de facto norms of the church establishment when it comes to abusive conduct. Much as The Episcopal Church often fails to address abuse due to a lack of organizational accountability, Kupich recognizes that efforts to address abuse rise and fall when church officials take responsibility for their own actions, and for those of the larger institution,

Kupich also recognizes the theological problems that many faith traditions have with accountability and forgiveness. Far too often, church officials and laity alike view it as the obligation of victims to forgive, despite the fact that the church often has done little to make restitution. But as the perpetrator of abuse, the church has no right to insist on anything. It can offer encouragement, prayer, and support, but it is entirely within the rights of victims to decline any or all of these. In short, churches far too often are organizational narcissists, demanding that victims act in a way that meets the church’s needs, versus the other way around.

Looking Forward

Will the larger church learn to address abuse effectively? Given its track record over the past 2,000 years, there’s reason to be dubious.

Of course, if the church does get it right, change won’t happen overnight. In fact, it likely will take decades, at a minimum.

But if church leaders like Duncan-Probe and Kupich are heard, and their examples followed, there indeed may be hope for the future.

Perhaps we are indeed on the brink of another reformation of the organized church.

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