If you’re a bishop, what do you do with parishioners when their beloved priest is accused of child sexual abuse?
One option: Do virtually nothing.
Another option: Express compassion.
A third option: Give them information, context and guidance.
That’s the smartest and most caring choice.
Sadly, however, most Catholic officials opt for saying nothing or token expressions of sympathy. (A common one is “Our hearts and prayers go out to everyone touched by these allegations.”)
What do we mean by “information, context and guidance.”
—“Information” is easy. Tell the flock as much as you can without jeopardizing the privacy of the accuser. For example, “Fr. Bob allegedly molested a boy on a camping trip.” That way, other parents whose kids went camping with Fr. Bob are more apt to ask their children “Did Fr. Bob ever do anything that made you hurt or feel uncomfortable?”
—“Context” is a little bit harder, but just as crucial. By definition, a “beloved priest” is popular. And no one wants to believe they and their loved ones are or have been at risk of horrific abuse. So naturally, the accused predator’s congregants desperately hope and believe he’s innocent.
But a real leader would make sure the flock knows that fewer than two percent of abuse reports against priests are false. There’s a bunch of evidence proving this at BishopAccountability.org
Wouldn’t you, as bishop, want to spare Catholics more pain by explaining that the likelihood of Fr. Bob being exonerated and returning to work is pretty low?
—“Guidance” means teaching parishioners how to act in the wake of the accusation. Let’s face it: to most church-goers, having their pastor charged, publicly or criminally, with such a heinous crime is highly unusual. They’re in uncharted waters. They need guidance from spiritual figures.
And they can either help or hurt others through their actions. Here’s a short, simple list of recommendations, from survivors themselves, on how to make a dreadful situation less dreadful.
The tragedy is that we at Horowitz Law have rarely seen church authorities, in any denomination, offer such guidance to wounded, confused congregants.
We bring this up now because of the case involving Fr. Michael Pfleger in Chicago. He’s been a popular community crusader, taking on drug dealers, violence, disrespectful depictions of women in the media and other causes. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Pfleger
But he’s also been accused of child sexual abuse of two boys and sexual abuse of a then-18 year old. Thankfully, his superior Cardinal Blasé Cupich, has suspended Fr. Pfleger.
But sadly, Pfleger’s flock is aggressively rallying around him. By doing so, they’re making the investigation into the abuse reports tougher. And they’re very likely scaring other witnesses, victims and whistleblowers who might shed light on the situation into keeping quiet.
Let’s not, however, blame the parishioners entirely. Much of the fault here lies with Cupich. He has the experience, resources, education and, in fact, the duty to teach his flock how they can privately express support for their ousted pastor while at the same time protecting the privacy of accusers.
Cupich hasn’t done so, however. And virtually none of his clerical colleagues have either.
He’s acting selfishly, doing and saying little, when he should be acting responsibly, doing and saying lots to make sure a tough situation isn’t made tougher for all.