Accompaniment and healing from sexual abuse – Reflections of Mark Joseph Williams and Cardinal Joseph Tobin

Reflection of Mark Joseph Williams to the USCCB General Assembly

As a clerical abuse survivor, a victim of a half-century ago, I am deeply grateful to have this opportunity to speak with you, the custodians of our Roman Catholic faith. You are entrusted across these vast United States to lead pilgrims of faith in the Joy of the Gospel. You are the primary evangelizers at this time here and now in all your respective dioceses. Pope Francis put it clearly and powerfully at the start of his papacy:  

“May the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ.”

It is in this hopeful joy, that I thank you for your courage to enact the Dallas Charter 20 years ago. I pray for your ongoing missionary work, that you will keep an unwavering commitment to hear the voices of the victims, and the survivors in and out of the pews towards greater healing and essential redemption. The Charter must continue to evolve. Accountability at all levels is of utmost importance to more fully realize a synodal Church.

As we mark this anniversary, I am grateful and I am encouraged by the work you are doing to rid abuse from our beloved Church. The countless abused in our midst desire to walk with you. We hunger for communion, to come together and partake of the bread of life, to share the eucharist, to have His body and blood heal us. I believe the Church is the solution, the way back and the way forward. It is the shared suffering of Calvary. It is the peace of reconciliation found in the living presence of the risen Lord. That peace fills one’s core when healing comes from the deep shame felt, the piercing pain of sexual abuse, a pain compounded by those who do not listen to the voices of victims. Many of the abused remain alone, cautious and cowering in fear. They need love. God’s love. For God is love. As Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus, he must now weep for the abused. Today we have a unique and heartened opportunity to be a synodal Church – a collaborative pilgrimage in faith – walking the common road.

We must heed Jesus’ command – “love one another as I have loved you.” I believe this means weeping to cleanse our sinful ways and as it has meant for me to rise from the abuse, the addiction, suicidal impulse. With the gift of grace, I had to create a new heart and work through my excruciating poverty of spirit. In order to do this, I needed to forgive my abuser – forgiveness not exoneration – to forgive in order to go on – to be free in Christ, his servant – albeit an ashamed, unworthy one. In the spirit of accompaniment, the journey as brothers and sisters in Christ along the synodal road, St. Paul speaks to us:

“Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”

The concrete reality of my relationship to Christ and his mystical body is the relationship he has allowed me to share with Joseph Tobin, the Cardinal Archbishop of Newark – his personal understanding, his humility, his selfless friendship, his merciful embrace of my wounds – all have been sacred gifts to me and life sustaining. They came in the midst of retriggered trauma when the revelations in the summer of 2018 hit us all so hard…how a prelate strayed – what a grand jury report documented – and so much more across the global Church. Close to home, in my own parish, there was behavior and cover-up I thought had long had its day. In this suffering, touching the raw wood of the cross again, the Holy Spirit taught me, opened to me the gift of – encounter – how Cardinal Tobin and I found a trust to simply be present to each other – to share Christ, to live his Paschal Mystery in real time as the summer of 2018 struck the Church like a ton of bricks. Trauma is the devil and mine was retriggered.

Synodality calls upon us to be open to the relationships that heal, that truly help, that engender faith. The synodal way, the common path, our shared road of the “Good News” is not an abstract idea. Rather, its fruit is realized through grace, especially out of suffering. Hope is real. Hope is Christ. Hope is found walking together.

Those hurt in the Church and by the Church must be part of the transformative grace that is the Cross.

We can carry one another’s Cross as Simon of Cyrene did for our Lord. I am so blessed to have the fraternal friendship of Cardinal Tobin, our recognition of each other’s dignity in our brokenness, in our search for more sustaining humility and lasting recovery in Christ. Pope Benedict XVI described the very heart of the Gospel when he wrote:

“Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and decisive direction.”

Joseph Cardinal Tobin has shown me in our encounter his decisive Christian way. I know I’ve shown him mine, too. This is grace. We will keep walking together. I pray at this moment that all here will walk with us and all who have been terribly abused in our Church.

Tomorrow I fly to the eternal city to be with my Global Collaborative colleagues, and fellow survivors: Dr. Jennifer Wortham, Archdiocese of Boston; Michael Hoffman, Archdiocese of Chicago, affirmed by Cardinal Blasé Cupich; Fr. Jerry McGlone, Archdiocese of Washington; and many others…to join other survivors near and far and leaders who work on behalf of victims and survivors from around the globe, especially our trusted brother and friend, Fr. Hans Zollner in Rome – with great comfort in our Holy Father’s blessing – to celebrate this year, November 18th and every year thereafter – as commissioned by the United Nations …

The World Day for the Prevention of, and Healing from Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Violence

This remarkable event would not have been possible without you, the American bishops … (notably Cardinal Sean O’Malley… his constancy on behalf of victims worldwide; his   … support of Jennifer Wortham …  whose extraordinary leadership literally helped to mobilize the globe … with the UN adopting the World Day just a week ago. It was emotional …  moving for me and other survivors to be in that Assembly when over 120 countries voted YES, followed up by such affirming comments by Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, Permanent Observer, Holy See Mission to the United Nations… the passage …  –  our Lord’s divine providence.

Your collective voice to make the charter part of the DNA of our Church in 2002 – two decades ago led by Bishop – now Cardinal Wilton Gregory – was necessary and prophetic.

And, this World Day certainly would never have happened without the strength, fortitude and hope I discovered just a few years ago by Joseph Tobin accompanying me – in the love of our Lord, Redeemer – the crucified and risen one.

As our Holy Father has shared, “ [the Synod on Synodality] is not to create another Church, but to create a different Church.” I believe this creation is alive in this room today. Together we can be renewed in communion, in participation, and in mission – through the boundless gifts of the Holy Spirit.

St. Paul wrote to the Romans and speaks to us right now, and forever more, on our common synodal road:

“ …[and] We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.”

My healing has come by being heard when I cried out. Jesus listened. He asked my name. He asked all of our names. His purpose is ours to live.

Thank you for walking with me and all the abused.

Reflection of Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R. to the USCCB General Assembly

Brother Bishops,
Brothers and sisters in Christ,

I speak to you today from a grateful heart: appreciating the call of Jesus Christ to follow Him, knowing the desolations and consolations of our vocation, and thankful for His healing grace that has been so generously lavished on me. The motto of my religious family, the Redemptorist missionaries, are four words taken from Psalm 130: Copiosa apud Eum Redemptio. I continue to learn the boundless depth of the word “copiosa”.

A crucial part of the experience of abundant redemption has been my friendship with Mark Williams. Mark and I met in September 2018 at probably the most difficult period of my life. That summer three incendiary events ignited a crisis for the Church in this country, and the Archdiocese I serve found itself at the epicenter of that conflagration.

In June of that year, the Archdioceses of New York, Washington, D.C. and Newark communicated details of abuse that was allegedly committed by Theodore McCarrick, including until then secret settlements of civil suits that the Archdiocese of Newark had approved some years before. The month of August featured the publication of the attorney general’s investigation into the sexual abuse of minors by clerics in the dioceses of our neighboring state of Pennsylvania, and finally, the spread of the inflammatory “testimony” of a former nuncio to the United States against the Holy Father.

That fire was raging when I encountered Mark in New York City at the conclusion of a program sponsored by the Center for Religion and Culture at Fordham University. He introduced himself as having been abused in early adolescence by a trusted priest, but – to my surprise – offered to help me address the crisis facing the Church in a way that would promote healing of victim survivors as well as the scandalized faithful. Looking back at that night in the early autumn of 2018, his sincere generosity startled me even more than the television cameras that were waiting in the hallway for an “ambush interview.”

Soon after our initial meeting, the Archdiocese of Newark began a series of penitential liturgies in our Cathedral. A different victim-survivor spoke at each. That testimony, often delivered with angry words that were freighted with unspeakable pain, bore stark witness to men and women enduring a crucifixion that began in their childhood or adolescence and persisted for decades, torture that neither their Church nor society acknowledged.

Mark spoke at one of those archdiocesan celebrations. He was not the first survivor of clerical sexual abuse that I had met. What made him unique was the degree to which he had successfully integrated into his own spiritual journey the devastating experiences of abuse and the subsequent trauma that pursued him into adulthood. That night in the cathedral as well as in the conversations that would follow, his testimony made it clear that, though he had come to forgive the priest that abused him, forgiveness was not exoneration. There would be no “cheap grace” for Mark nor a “one-and-done” repentance for the Church. He usually makes sure that I know about the latest allegations of clerical sexual abuse or coverup in this country or abroad. But he also recognizes that the healing grace he continues to receive is mediated in a uniquely powerful way by the Church. He worries that the shepherds of the Church aren’t doing enough to help victims heal, perhaps because we are ashamed, fear rejection, cannot bear the accounts of pain, or are overly concerned with legalities.

I quickly learned the respect and affection Mark has for Pope Francis. He is attracted and inspired by the prominent role that mercy plays in the universal ministry of the Holy Father, his evocative image of the Church as a “field hospital” that aims to stop the bleeding of wounded men and women, and the pope’s desire that pastors are close enough to their people that they cannot remain unmoved.

Accompaniment, already an important concept in Catholic Social Teaching, has found fresh meaning and profound value in the pastoral vision of Francis. The act of providing emotional, physical, and spiritual support to people in need as well as walking in their shoes is a critical part in recognizing the human dignity and experience of every person. In his first Apostolic ExhortationThe Joy of the Gospel, – arguably the programmatic statement of his pontificate – he teaches:

The Church will have to initiate everyone—priests, religious and laity—into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5). (Evangelii Gaudium, 169).

Accompanying victims of sexual abuse always demands humility, especially when the abuse has been perpetrated by clerics. Not every encounter leads to a relationship like I share with Mark. At times, a meeting with a victim means sitting silent before a torrent of accusations, insults, and gut-wrenching screams. To my knowledge, in the accounts of healing preserved in the Gospels, no one comes to Jesus with a sanguine request to “feel better”. Listening to the Word of God, I hear shrieks of pain as a person names the torment and the tormentor. There have been meetings that showed me that I personally could do nothing for the person who just left my office. My hope is that, in naming the source of their suffering to a representative of those who caused it, an obstacle might be cleared that had prevented the healing grace of Jesus from reaching them in all its abundance. That the more our Church is perceived as a field hospital, the better the chance that another disciple would come to be an instrument of God’s grace.

The art of accompaniment points to a kind of bedside manner that is important, though not always obvious to everyone, in the work of evangelization. The relationship can produce abundant fruit. Mark assists the Archdiocese of Newark in significant ways. He has spoken to our major seminarians, helping them to glimpse the incredible harm wreaked on children and adolescents by abuse from a person in whom they had unquestionably trusted. He is among the experts I can call upon in an investigation required by the motu proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi. He has shared with you his national and international activities aimed at protecting children and young people, promoting accountability, and enabling healing.

The eyes of both disciples were eventually opened by Jesus on the walk to Emmaus. As this Assembly marks a milestone in our pilgrimage – the 20th anniversary of the Dallas Charter and the Essential Norms – let us continue to listen to the cries of victims and survivors – and walk with them – so that our eyes may be opened, and the abundant gifts entrusted to the Church are accessible to all. For “with the LORD is mercy, with him is plenteous redemption, and he will redeem Israel from all its sins.” (Ps. 130, 7-8)