It seems we just cannot escape being personally affected by sexual abuse within the Church—with the news of Fr. Michael Sullivan, L.C. being the latest in a series of priests we have known or worked with that have violated the sacred trust we allotted in them. I worked with Fr. Sullivan in Conquest (a ministry to children and adolescent boys) and my wife regularly interacted with him when he would serve at our parish. We both considered him a friend, even though it has been many years since we partnered with him in ministry. The revelations that he abused and took advantage of several adult women beginning in 2013 are shocking. Unfortunately for us, this is not the first priest—and may not be the last—that we have known and trusted, who has been found to have used his position within the Church to abuse others.
My wife and I are very active in the Catholic Church and thus we know quite a few priests, but that still does not minimize the sheer number of priest abusers whom we have encountered in our lifetime. Here is the list of known abusers who have played a role in our lives:
- Fr. Andy Willemsen – Abused me personally between the ages of 11 and 14
- Fr. Roger Temme – Campus minister at St. Edward’s University and witnessed our marriage vows
- Fr. Izzy – We attended college with him at St. Edward’s University
- Fr. Jack Hanna – Taught me while I attended St. Thomas High School in Houston, TX
- Brother Gerald Muller – On on staff during the time we attended college at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX
- Fr. Marciel Maciel – Founder of the Legionaries of Christ, my wife was a member of Regnum Christi and we worked extensively with their youth programs, while we did not know him personally, he led an organization that we were very involved with.
- Fr. Marie Dominique Philippe – Founder of the Community of St. John, while we did not know him personally, he founded an organization that we were and continue to be very involved with.
I am sure each of you have your own list—hopefully it is very short. Mercifully, the list of faithful priests who we have encountered far outnumbers the list above.
Abusers Groom Everyone
but only abuse a few.
In the immediate wake of the revelations concerning Fr. Sullivan, there are already people who are struggling to believe that a priest they thought was very holy and virtuous—he regularly spoke passionately about these topics—was actually taking advantage of numerous women who he encountered during the course of his ministry. Some of the people who knew him have expressed on social media platforms their suspicion concerning the accusations. If you are tempted to defend Fr. Sullivan, keep in mind that it took great courage for these young women to come forward. Remember that it took significant risk of not being believed or being blamed for leading a good man astray for them to share their painful experiences. Reconsider making comments about how you cannot believe it is true. Avoid bemoaning this as an unjust attack on a holy priest. Instead, reflect on how you, too, may have been groomed by Fr. Sullivan to believe he could never do such a heinous thing. If you are struggling to come to grips with being fooled, know that you are not alone. You are a victim too, the whole community is affected by the actions of this priest. The whole community now needs to go through the healing process. Do not forget to pray. Pray for the victims, pray for the community and pray for Fr. Sullivan. Take time to console the priests with whom he worked most closely, they may be suffering even more than those who are in the pews.
How Should I Feel?
Given that I am a victim of clerical sexual abuse, I often get asked by friends what they should do. How should they talk to their children? They wonder if they should continue to give money to the Church? How can they express their frustration? Then the big question of how can we affect change in the Church? These are not easy questions to answer, and I do not have all of the answers; but I do have opinions. My first advice is to pray—not only for the victims, the community and the perpetrator—but for God to increase your empathy, grow your understanding, and strengthen your faith. These are difficult times and I recommend that we use this opportunity to examine the reason for our faith. God alone is worthy of our complete trust and if we keep our eyes focused on Him, there is little that can be done to cause us to lose faith.
Talking to your children
If you have been blessed with children, before you speak with them about this topic, be sure that you have worked through your own feelings. Our children look to us for guidance, they should not be asked to help us understand and process our own feelings, as they lack the maturity to do so. It is important to be careful not to discuss the situation with them unless you have successfully worked through it yourself. If you are still struggling, and your children ask you questions about it, tell them that you are praying and working through your own feelings and need a bit more time before you are ready to discuss it with them. Ask them to pray for all those involved and for an increase in their faith.
Money and Affecting Change
This is a deeply personal and political question. I am not going to tell you what to do. For us, the discernment has been long and difficult. In our society, money talks, and it can guide actions. The Church cannot survive without monetary support, your local parish cannot pay the utility bills without money, yet the Church makes decisions daily on how to use donations from the faithful to engage in many activities outside of the necessities of your local parish. Do not be afraid to express your concerns with leaders of the Church and follow where God leads you, remember that by virtue of your baptism, you are priest, prophet, and king, and have just as many rights as any other member of the Church (Priests, Bishops and Pope included). Support those activities that help the Church to heal and that are core to the mission Christ gave us. Each of us must discern how God is calling us to help guide our Church through this scandal. Do not underestimate how God may use your gifts and talents.
I know many people who have left the Church because they were abused or because they cannot support or promote an organization that protected—and in some cases promoted—abusers. I get it, and the struggle to remain Catholic is real.
As I have pondered and experienced this new injury inflicted on me and my fellow survivors, I have sought to find a way to continue to be a practicing Catholic and evangelizer of the faith. The only way I have found to persevere is to trust in the Lord and not lose hope in His promises. On a more practical level, I have had to view the Catholic Church as having two natures. Spiritual and Secular.
The Spiritual nature is the sacraments, the authoritative teachings on faith and morals, and the men and women who pursue holiness. I can sit in the adoration chapel and feel part of this spiritual nature of the Catholic Church and it is truly beautiful. I feel in full communion with the Church here.
The Secular nature is not so pretty and I feel very alone and isolated participating in this part of the Church. It can be extremely political in nature and there appear to be very few members of the Spiritual Church who are active in the Secular side. If I choose to volunteer in a ministry I am forced to enter the Secular Catholic Church. Everything that hurts my wound of clerical sexual abuse is from the Secular Catholic Church: Corruption, scandal, nepotism, using the sacraments as weapons against the faithful, asserting political power over the laity, and the list goes on and on.
The Church cannot be just spiritual or sacred. We live in the world and thus must engage in secular activities. However, when the divide between secular and spiritual becomes too wide, we begin to see major issues, as we do today. I cannot live in the secular church, it does not love as Christ loves, it does not desire to heal as Christ heals, and it most certainly does not seek to die to self as Christ does. A purification is needed. We need saints who will right the secular Catholic Church and return it to what Jesus intended, that his Church be One.
What Can I Do?
We, as a community, have experienced a secondary trauma, and we, like the victims, also go through the feelings of disbelief, anger, and grief. We may feel like sheep without a shepherd. We are looking for strong leadership in the Church. We are looking for saints. Saints are formed by families—holy families—families that pray, work, and play together. The saints we are looking for may, in fact, be you and me, our children, and our grandchildren.
“Not all can become rich, wise, famous… Yet, all of us — yes, all of us — are called to be saints.” – St. Josemaria Escriva
The Church must provide support and equip families in this effort. A healthy, holy family is a place of safety and security, where a child is protected and nurtured and the process of discipleship is most effective. Now is the time for the Church to become a family of families that follow the model that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph gave us.
We recently published a book to help the Church through these turbulent times, it is available at Amazon.com. The proceeds go towards getting this book into the hands of leaders of the Church. If you can’t afford to purchase a book, contact me and I will provide you a copy free of charge. If you know of a priest who could benefit from it, we will send you a copy for him, free of charge.
After I published this article, a good friend of mine, Shawn Rain Chapman, published this one, entitled “Processing the truth about Fr. Michael Sullivan and why we should“. Shawn is a member of the parish in College Station in which Fr. Michael last served.
I have also encountered many in the community of St. Mary’s in College Station and my own community in Round Rock who knew Fr. Sullivan and have struggled to reconcile the holy priest that ministered to them with the abusive priest described in the official press release from the Legionaries and the Diocese of Austin, which only shares a few high level facts about the allegations and the circumstances that prompted his removal from active ministry. Some of the women he manipulated have come forward to share their experiences, you can and should read this article to better understand the scope and damage caused by Fr. Sullivan. Please continue to pray for all involved, including Fr. Michael and his brother priests as well as all the lay people whom he provided spiritual direction to and those who worked closely in ministry with him. Their story was shared in an article by JD Flynn of the Catholic News Agency.