So you wake up to seeing news about the Catholic Church in the headlines, but it’s not the kind of news that makes you feel proud to be Catholic. Last week, it was the report of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI mishandling four cases of clerical sexual abuse during his tenure as Archbishop of Munich. But this is not the first time the abuse crisis has been in the headlines in the last few years - and it won’t be the last. 

As you read through the article (or scroll by it in disgust), you probably have mixed emotions. Maybe you’re feeling angry, disappointed, or disheartened. Maybe you’ve even thought about leaving the Church in protest. But you also know there’s so much more to the Catholic Church than this scandal, and you’re a bit sad that the good things you see in the Church don’t tend to make headlines.

On top of all that, you also have to think about how to respond when your friends or coworkers bring up this latest news. What in the world do you say? 

As a Catholic who has had hundreds of conversations about the abuse crisis over the last few years, I have a few suggestions for how to respond when someone asks you about the subject:

Listen First

Before you launch into a lengthy explanation of your own thoughts, take some time to listen to their perspective. Ask a follow-up question to better understand where they are coming from and how you can best respond. Listen with your ears and your heart, take a deep breath, and say a quick prayer to the Holy Spirit for guidance before speaking.

Don’t Defend the Indefensible

Let’s start with what not to do when it's your turn to respond. This is not the time to fall back on knee-jerk responses, protesting that abuse also happens in other contexts or that things are getting better in the Church. While these assertions may be true, they are beside the point. The fact is that too many people have been harmed by abuse in a Catholic context, and Church leaders have too often responded by dismissing, minimizing, shaming, and even outright covering things up. There is no way to defend this behavior, and we shouldn’t try. Instead, acknowledge the horror of abuse and of the numerous leadership failures in responding to that abuse. Share your own feelings of anger and betrayal, and your empathy for those who have been harmed.

Be Sensitive to Trauma

Sadly, an estimated 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 13 boys will experience sexual abuse before they reach age 18; and the number of people who experience sexual violence during adulthood is equally disturbing. This means that you should be aware that the person you’re speaking to might be an abuse survivor herself. Even if her abuse happened in a different context (family, sports, scouting, etc.), she may be deeply impacted by any abuse-related news. Please keep this in mind during your conversation. 

Share What You’re Doing to Help

If you have taken action as a Catholic to support survivors or work for change, you might want to mention what you are doing to be part of the solution. If not, perhaps now is the time to consider how you can use your own resources to raise awareness, advocate for change, and support survivors. Find a local or national organization that is addressing this issue and offer your time, talent, or treasure to support their work. 

Move Towards Hope

This does not mean clinging to false optimism. Instead of denying the darkness, think about where you find hope in the midst of that darkness and consider sharing that. One simple approach is to acknowledge that each new disclosure is a step towards transparency, accountability, and real change. While these headlines are painful to read, media reports don’t cause the abuse and cover-up to happen - they bring to light what has already happened. Facing the truth might be difficult, but it’s a necessary and even hopeful step.

Personally, I spend a lot of time grappling with this evil in my Church, so I have to be intentional about combatting discouragement and cultivating hope. I find great hope when I am united with other Catholics who care about this issue and are working together to make things better. Most importantly, I often remind myself that we have a powerful God that is always working on the side of truth and justice. These problems may seem insurmountable by human efforts, but nothing is impossible for God.

One final note: After a difficult conversation, take some time to acknowledge your own feelings. Are you feeling distressed, angry, or discouraged? Does this news trigger pain and trauma from your own life? Did the conversation make you doubt your own convictions? These are important things to take to prayer and to discuss with fellow Catholics. Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is a complex and difficult issue, and we are not meant to face it alone.

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Sara Larson

Sara Larson is the executive director of Awake Milwaukee, a grassroots Catholic nonprofit organization addressing the issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. She also lifts up the voices and stories of abuse survivors in her personal blog, In Spirit and Truth.

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