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Julie Zimmerman

The following Links for Learners study guide is based on an article in the St. Anthony Messenger online edition. It is designed for young Catholics, particularly those in high school.

Links for Learners | June 2003

Crisis in the Church: Our Search for Healing, a special issue of St. Anthony Messenger



Finding Curriculum Connections
Understanding Basic Terms
Crisis in the Church: Our Search for Healing
Parents and Other Family Members
Priests and Bishops
The Laity
Research Resources

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Links for Learning

Finding Curriculum Connections for High School Students and Their Teachers

This month’s Links for Learners will support high school curriculum in:

• Christian lifestyles—experiences of faith; dealing with crisis; church leadership
• Psychology—healthy relationships; healthy child development

Understanding Basic Terms in This Month’s Article

Look for these key words and terms as you read the article.  Definitions or explanations can be researched from the article itself, or from the resource materials cited throughout the Link for Learners. 

Clergy sex-abuse crisis









Catholic laity

National Review Board

Voice of the Faithful

Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People

Crisis in the Church: Our Search for Healing

Catholics everywhere have been horrified and ashamed by the news that some priests had sexually abused children, and some bishops had allowed abusive priests to continue their work even after their crimes were known. Although revelations of the sex-abuse crisis began in the mid-1980s, the year 2002 was a turning point. At that time it became clear that at least some leaders had placed children in harm's way by returning pedophiles to parish duty. The crisis was especially painful in the Archdiocese of Boston, where Cardinal Bernard Law resigned after several high-profile cases of abusive priests emerged.

How can the Catholic Church begin to recover from the effects of this crisis? A first step is understanding who has been affected by clergy sexual abuse and who can help lead the Church on a path toward healing.


People who have been sexually abused in childhood often suffer from long-term, damaging effects. According to the Survivors Healing Center, these effects include fear, depression, self-destructive behaviors, low self esteem, feelings of confusion, sexual acting out behaviors, nightmares, hostility, phobias, antisocial behavior, and socialization problems. Abuse at the hands of a priest can be even more difficult to overcome, because the victims often view the priest as a representative of God.

Still, many survivors are able to go beyond their past abuse to lead fulfilling lives. Many find support groups such as the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and The Linkup - Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse. Other factors that help survivors heal are telling an adult soon after the abuse, receiving prompt treatment and seeing their abusers punished quickly. Those whose families are unsupportive, abusive or chaotic and victims who carry the secret for years or who are not believed tend to do worse.

Parents and other family members

It is common for parents of sexual-abuse survivors to feel guilt, confusion, shame and anger when they learn that their child was abused. When the abuser is a priest, some parents feel even more guilty or angry because they trusted the priest and considered him a member of the family.

In some instances, abusive priests targeted families in which the father was absent or unavailable, and the mother looked to the priest to be a role model for her children. In other cases, the parents were happily married and very devoted Catholics, so devoted that they would never question a priest's desire to spend time with their children. "The parents were the victims, also," one mother told the Boston Globe. "It's never-ending pain, like a scab that falls off and doesn't heal."

Research has provided us with clues that parents can use to look for signs that their child might have been sexually abused. Clues include depression, secretiveness, problems sleeping, nightmares, refusal to go to school, aggressiveness and other severe behavioral changes. To prevent abuse, parents should tell children not to allow other people to touch their bodies in a way that makes them uncomfortable; teach children that respecting adults doesn't always mean doing everything they say; and encourage schools to have professional prevention programs.

Priests and bishops

Fewer than two percent of Catholic priests have ever been accused of abusing children, but many felt they have been under a cloud of suspicion since the clergy sex-abuse scandal emerged. As a result, many felt demoralized and powerless, especially in dioceses such as Boston, where the scandal was the greatest. Many found themselves angry at offending priests and at bishops who covered up crimes; others had to reassure anxious parishioners and even reexamine their own practices to remove any cause for doubt.

At the same time, some were concerned that the rights of priests were being pushed aside in the rush to find and punish abusive priests. In several cases, accusers withdrew their charges after a priest's name had been made public, and others complained that dioceses were too quick to suspend priests when an allegation was made.

Priests in organizations such as the National Federation of Priests' Councils (NFPC) and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM) called for policies that protect both children and innocent priests. They apologized to survivors of clergy sexual abuse and backed punishment for abusive priests. But in the case of CMSM, they opposed plans to kick abusers out of the priesthood, saying they could better protect children by keeping offenders in a closely supervised environment.

While many priests were under suspicion because of the crisis, American bishops became the object of anger for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Some victims sued bishops who returned pedophile priests to active duty, and others were forced to give testimony in front of grand juries. While Cardinal Law of Boston was the best-known American prelate to resign, there were calls for several others to resign as well. The bishops worked to restore the trust of Catholics by creating a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, an Office of Child and Youth Protection, and a National Review Board of prominent lay Catholics to monitor the new office.

The Laity

The sex-abuse crisis that unfolded in 2002 energized the Catholic laity in ways that previous scandals in the mid-80s and early 90s did not. As with so much else in the crisis, the epicenter was in Boston, where anger led to the formation of Voice of the Faithful, a lay-led group that advocated change in the Church.

But Voice of the Faithful, which had 30,000 members by the end of the year, was not the only way in which Catholics protested against the crisis. Some formed local advocacy groups, while many others withheld their donations to the Church in an effort to force reforms.

Research Resources

Try accessing some of these Internet sources for further general reference.  Be aware, however, that some of these sites may charge for downloading articles contained within the site’s archives.

The Boston Globe (Winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the clergy sex-abuse crisis)

Poynter Institute Clergy Abuse Tracker

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

The New York Times

The Los Angeles Times

The Chicago Tribune

The Washington Post

The Miami Herald

The Associated Press

Time Magazine



ABC News

Channel One—online resource for the school channel

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