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The Denial and the Dissonance
A guest post from Franciscan alum Elizabeth Hansen
Regularly in Letters From a Catholic Feminist, I host guest posts on topics I find interesting. I’ve learned over the past year or so that open dialogue is one of my deepest values, so it’s my joy to host some of my favorite Catholic writers in this space. I reached out to Elizabeth Hansen and asked if she would be interested in sharing her perspective on the abuse accusations leveled at Franciscan University, her alma mater. Elizabeth’s writing is brave, thoughtful, and generous. Let me know what you think of her words in the comments, and if you have a friend wrestling with abuse in church systems that helped cultivate their faith, please forward this email to her. ❤️
I was in my van recently when a song I hadn’t thought of in years surfaced in my head, stirring up my complicated feelings toward my Catholic alma mater. Typical driving thoughts on the way home from the library, I know.
Written by Bob Rice, a veteran of Franciscan University of Steubenville’s popular youth conferences, its chorus put me back in a time and place when my entire faith life was rooted in the distinctive spirituality of that small, Catholic university in the Ohio Steel Valley.
For I am not worthy to receive You now/No I am not worthy of Your Body and Your Blood/Only say the word and Your mercy is revealed/Say the word and I shall be healed.
I later found it on Spotify, and everything about the recording – Rice’s reedy tenor, the plaintive melody, the lyrics’ simplicity – is filled with earnestness and yearning. It is exactly how I’d describe the spiritual environment I experienced in my undergrad: not particularly concerned with ornamentation and self-consciousness, but marked by a longing so keen it cuts to the heart. It’s beautiful in its own way, and considering the life of the passionate, single-hearted saint from medieval Assisi, it’s quite Franciscan.
That same environment was also host to unspeakable abuse, and in hindsight my memories of it are now tainted by anger and grief.
I know this feeling isn’t unique to Steubenville grads – what part of the Church hasn’t been ravaged by abuse? I’ve known people who can’t look at their wedding pictures without seeing at least one clergy member implicated by scandal. Where does it leave us, when the crisis comes to roost in the corner of the Church that felt most like home? How does the Church’s response affect not only victims of abuse, but everyone else left trying to sort out the wreckage and salvage their faith?
Two years ago, news broke that a priest from my time on campus had been charged with the rape and sexual battery of a female student. The more details emerged, the more my alumni circle – who knew Fr. David Morrier, TOR, from his many roles on campus – grappled with anger, horror, and bewilderment.
Rightly so, much of that reaction was directed toward the heinous acts against this woman that Morrier eventually pled guilty to last year. Everyone knows what the primary scandal is. However, watching the University respond, I started sensing a familiar, second scandal that washes over the pews each time the abuse crisis rears its head – and that I don’t think is adequately acknowledged by those in the position to address it.
The place that taught me to seek Truth was becoming a microcosm of the Church that doesn’t want to dwell on ugly things. With its careful statements that placed all wrongdoing on one person in the past and deafening silence regarding the obvious question on everyone’s mind – who else knew and needs to be held accountable? – the implicit message to me and other stunned alumni was that that question didn’t matter.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this attitude in the Church.
Do you remember 2018? That summer of scandal? For a brief moment, especially after the allegations that former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had molested youth, seminarians, and priests, it seemed like all factions of the American Catholic Church were united in disgust. Not just anger over the alleged abuse, but at the anemic responses from the rest of the hierarchy. We wanted concrete action and moral leadership to face their own house and confront a culture that allowed manipulation, deception, and abuse to flourish for decades. We wanted to know they knew that the allegations were only one part of the scandal – that it’s the coverup, and the continued lack of forthrightness, that inflict a new, distinct wound in the pews.
I can’t think of a single Catholic – conservative, liberal, charismatic, traditional – who thinks we’ve seen that type of courage from the Church as a whole. And from their actions over the past two years, I include my alma mater in that void of moral leadership as well. When the woman whom Morrier abused read her victim impact statement at his sentencing, she asserted that numerous leaders in the FUS community knew about her abuse, and that instead of using their position to help her, they were complicit, even actively silencing her. Verified police documents leaked since Morrier’s sentencing confirm this.
In its response, FUS has stuck to a script: they’re so sorry. They’re praying for healing. The Title IX office was notified in 2015, and “policies have improved over the years.” No mention of who else was notified prior to that. No acknowledgement of the need for accountability for anyone else involved. Notably, the police observed that FUS only triggered the Title IX investigation after the victim signed an agreement to not retain a lawyer or mention the abuse outside of therapy – provided by the school – in exchange for financial assistance.
How are we supposed to take this seriously?
“In the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi responded to God’s call to ‘Rebuild my Church,’” the university proclaims in its vision statement. “Today, Franciscan University of Steubenville continues to answer that call.”
I don’t doubt that they believe this. But when their – at best, lackluster; at worst, disingenuous – response to abuse mirrors that of the wider Church, how can I believe they’re in a place to rebuild anything?
FUS alumni aren’t a monolith, and this goes for everyone impacted by the wider clergy abuse crisis as well. I’ve talked to alumni in the throes of wanting to burn it all down, many of them at various stages of shedding their faith – the dissonance between what they were taught and what they’ve seen from our alma mater is too much. I’ve heard from others who are frustrated with my view, and think the university leadership should be taken at their word that the scandal was appropriately dealt with. For the sake of the school’s mission, and all the good it accomplishes, we need to move on.
Then there are those of us just trying to hold on. Many are active in ministries or have worked for the Church since graduation. We’re getting close to our 40s. In terms of encountering corruption and abuse within the Body of Christ, this isn’t our first time around the block. These are some of the laments I’ve heard:
I feel deeply unmoored and betrayed.
I’m scared that if I pull this thread and start to doubt and reexamine my experiences at Franciscan, my faith will start to unravel, too.
It’s a devastating spiritual trauma.
I feel like a fool for sacrificing so much to serve while I was there, when this was happening at the same time.
It leaves me feeling orphaned.
At one point last year I realized I carried anger over this into every single Mass I attended. There on the kneeler, facing the altar, I’d be struggling to separate that anger from the knowledge that it was my time at Franciscan that taught me to love the Mass in the first place.
I talked to a priest I trusted, and his candidness caught me off guard: Yes, this does damage to our faith. As obvious as that is, it was validating, and I didn’t realize I needed to hear it. I’d been bracing myself for one of the well-intentioned responses I think many of us are used to instead.
All I needed to hear in that moment was, This is real, and it’s wounding. You’re not a worse Catholic for admitting that. Not reasons to stay or reminders that the Church is made up of sinners. Not statistics on rates of abuse in secular spaces. And then he went on, and again, I realized how rarely I’ve heard this conviction or level of understanding from pulpits, much less from those in the hierarchy: No institution is worth protecting at the expense of transparency. As the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant.
I think much of what animates Franciscan University is rooted in sincere faith. I especially think most of the students, who I’m positive are still singing songs like “I Shall be Healed” with all their hearts, are genuine in their desire to seek the Lord. They deserve better. And they deserve to know what a Church willing to undergo painful purification looks like. You want to rebuild the Church? First, St. Francis stripped naked and renounced his nobility in front of everyone who mattered. You want to send disciples out into the world with the Splendor of Truth? Clean your house – and shine the light of that Truth in every dark corner. Show us. Anything less either inflicts new wounds or creates another generation of Catholics unable to come to grips with the depth and layers of the abuse crisis.
I haven’t found an easy answer for my own struggle to reconcile what I loved and what I now know about some of the most formative years of my life. This tension colors my experience in the Church in general, and I know I’m not alone in that – if you’ve read this far, I suspect you’ve felt that, too. I know that I need Jesus, and I still believe the Church, and Her Sacraments, offer Him to me in a way nothing else in the world can.
We may never have a satisfactory outcome from Franciscan University or from the hierarchy of the Church in general. I realize the dissonance will never, really, be resolved until Christ comes again for His Bride. But I believe He hears and responds to that act of faith: Say the word, and I shall be healed. And I know that when I’m angry, His altar is big enough to take it.
Elizabeth Hansen lives in Michigan, where she and husband raise their four children. She's written for Magnificat, FAITH Magazine, the National Catholic Register, FemCatholic.com, and many other publications. Her Twitter handle is @LizEHansen.
On My Nightstand
All the Beauty in the World by Patrick Bringley: I think I’m in my #artgirl era. Loved this memoir by a former New Yorker writer who quit his job in a hurricane of grief and became a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet by Alice Robb: I have a strange fascination with all things ballet (and a 4-year-old who dances) so I found this read from a former ballerina pretty fascinating, especially as it collides with issues like body positivity, the #metoo movement, and femininity in general.
Craving a Roofless Place: Love this essay from one of my favorite spiritual writers, Lore Wilbert. “To be an artist is to be loyal to the division within oneself and the world. It is to be honest about what is both good and beautiful, as well as what is grievous and terrible. It is to not look away from complexity because it makes one uncomfortable, but to stare into it and ask, ‘What do you want to make of me with this?’”
In case you missed these Letters:
A Dual Vocation - for everyone
Who Do You Listen To? - for subscribers
NFP Resources, The Chosen, the Future of the Catholic Feminist, and more - for subscribers
Did you hear? We’re going to Poland!
The New Feminism Pilgrimage to Poland will take place October 15-25, 2023. Seats are filling, but we’d love to have you join us. Learn more here. Registration closes June 30.
We’ll be traveling to Saint John Paul the Great’s childhood home and museum (on! his!! feast day!!!) as well as seeing the tomb of St. Faustina, the Divine Mercy image, the image of Our Lady of Częstochowa, Auschwitz concentration camp where Edith Stein + Maximilian Kolbe were martyred, and more.
The first Catholic Feminist Pilgrimage changed my life. I hope + pray that if the Lord is calling you to join us in Poland, you will give it a “hell, yes” and come along.
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