Earlier this week, news of actor Shia LaBeouf’s conversion to Catholicism broke after Bishop Robert Barron shared a conversation between the two of them on his YouTube channel. The video amassed over one million views in less than a week, lighting both Catholic and secular social media on fire.
Celebrations of LaBeouf's Conversion Made Complicated by Abuse Allegations
The news comes after LaBeouf finished filming an upcoming movie about the life and miracles of Padre Pio, following a short stay with the Capuchin monks in Northern California. While brief, his time at the monastery was deeply impactful, leading him to begin the process of converting to Catholicism. While it remains unclear how far along he is in the formal process of becoming Catholic, his change of heart was immediately celebrated by many of the biggest names in Catholic media.
A soul moved to repent and convert is always cause for celebration. At the same time, the celebration of LaBeouf’s conversion is made complicated by the slew of allegations against him by former girlfriends. Most notably, LaBeouf’s ex-girlfriend, British singer FKA Twigs, sued him in 2021 for “relentless abuse” that ranged from emotional abuse to sexual battery and assault. Allegedly, he knowingly gave her a sexually transmitted disease, as well. Their case is set to be heard in 2023 and is corroborated in many ways by other accusations against Mr. LaBeouf.
In the face of these allegations, some Catholics have been quick to cry out, “But people change!” and “Can’t we just have this one win?”
As a Catholic who grew up in the center of the sex abuse scandal as it erupted in my hometown of Boston, I worry that some Catholics might be willing to accept and celebrate a convert with a history of sexual abuse (specifically of a brown woman) faster than they would accept and celebrate a convert whose crimes were of a different nature. Would we have been so quick to accept a converting abortion doctor who professed a love for Catholicism but didn’t take full responsibility for the infant lives they ended? Who just said, “I’ve made some mistakes,” and then moved on?
For some reason, perhaps because we’ve (tragically) been desensitized to it over time, we Catholics seem to be the most forgiving of sexual crimes, especially sexual crimes against women.
While it doesn't increase or decrease the severity of the crime, for what it’s worth, FKA Twigs was educated in the Catholic school system and even created an entire album about Mary Magdelene. In many ways, this was one of our own who was abused. But in a Church that I like to consider the champion of the vulnerable and refuge for the abused, that shouldn’t matter at all.
How Abuse Survivors Reacted to LaBeouf's Conversion
I spoke with a number of physical and sexual abuse survivors within the Church to hear how they felt about the Catholic media fanfare around LaBeouf’s conversion.
One young woman, a survivor of multiple abusers within the Church, likened seeing LaBeouf celebrated to seeing her own abusers celebrated:
“The men who traumatized me and stole so much from me were also highly praised. Were very publicly Catholic. Attended sacraments frequently. One was the student body president of the high-profile Catholic college I attended, as well as an RA. I personally know two other women he has sexually assaulted. There was no accountability for him, no consequences from any individual, let alone the college, despite the reports against him. There was no accountability for any of them, just praise. It’s hard, as a Catholic woman, not to feel as if the Church is at fault. All of my trauma happened in Catholic spaces and feels sanctioned by Catholic circles. It’s hard to feel that Catholicism is a place I belong, let alone one that is safe.”
The heart of this issue isn’t that we shouldn’t accept converts, especially the repentant ones. Of course, we should. We are a Church full of sinners striving to become better. Some of our greatest saints and role models started as the worst sinners: St. Paul, St. Dismas (the good thief), and as LaBeouf and Bishop Barron discuss, Brother Jim Townsend.
In Bishop Barron’s video, the two men describe the great inspiration that Shia draws from Brother Jim Townsend’s story. For those unfamiliar, Brother Jim’s story started out as a sad but typical one. He was brutally abused as a child, which led to him becoming an abuser himself. At the age of 20, he shot his pregnant wife in the face with a rifle, killing both her and the baby.
But as you can guess by the “Brother” in front of his name, Jim Townsend’s story doesn’t end there. It is, of course, a story of miraculous repentance and conversion followed by a lifetime of doing good as a Capuchin brother.
It’s clear to see why Shia LaBeouf looks to him as a sign of hope – and he should, because the complete 180-degree conversion is just as available to Shia as it was to Br. Townsend. At the same time, the difference between Br. Townsend and LaBeouf is that one served twenty years for his crimes and the other was made into a Catholic celebrity overnight. This is unfair to Bishop Barron’s viewers, sure, but mostly it’s unfair to Shia LaBeouf himself.
True Reconciliation Requires Penance
As the Church welcomes Shia LaBeouf through her doors and assumedly, through the RCIA process, the greatest gift we can give him is the fullness of the sacraments. This will, of course, mean the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
There is no sin that the sacrament excludes and no sin that Jesus Christ, in His sacrifice, did not pay for – including LaBeouf’s. However, the Sacrament of Reconciliation requires more than confessing what wrongs were done: true reconciliation requires penance afterwards.
True penance goes beyond the three apologetic Hail Marys we’re asked to say after leaving the confessional. True penance drives us to justice in an effort to make right our wrongs. In the case of an (admitted) abuser seeking mercy, he can begin that process by giving justice. For LaBeouf, this may mean serving time, like Br. Townsend did. And hopefully, like Br. Townsend’s penitentiary time (notice the root of that word?), LaBeouf’s could also be focused on mental, spiritual, and emotional rehabilitation, rather than just pure punishment.
Seeing LaBeouf take responsibility for the abuse of FKA Twigs while continuing his conversion would not only be just and good. It would be deeply healing for the women of the Church who feel that their abusers often go not only unpunished, but also remain celebrated.
In welcoming LaBeouf with both mercy and accountability, Church leaders have the opportunity to affirm their dedication to society’s most vulnerable, especially after our troubled past of putting the perception of the Church before the protection of her members.
All of my hemming and hawing pales in comparison to the mercy-filled, justice-driven testimony from the abuser survivor whose words I shared earlier in this piece:
“And yet, I’m torn again. Because if I believe in the God I say I do, if I truly believe in scandalously, unconditional love and mercy that is meant for the inmost heart of each person, I want to welcome Shia. I want him to be home, I want him to know Christ, I want him to be undone and rebuilt by grace. There is a child rapist who goes to my parish; I pray the same for her. I want to want them in the Church. I want accountability. I want to feel safe and protected here. I want our Church to stop turning a blind eye, acknowledge the evils that exist under her wings, and take real and actual steps to help redeem her rapists and abusers.”