Praying during the royal commission8 Jul 2015
Last year, I did an interview with Patricia Feenan for Australian Catholics magazine. In her book, Holy Hell, Patricia tells the story of her son Daniel and the years of abuse and suffering he endured at the hands of their parish priest Fr Jim Fletcher.
Daniel was a promising young cricketer, and was elected school captain in primary school and at his Year 7 to 10 secondary school. He had so many opportunities ahead of him, but then his behaviour started to change. It began with disappearances and emotional outbursts as a teenager, and continued with alcohol abuse and a suicide attempt at 19.
It wasn’t until Daniel turned 23 that Patricia learned the reason behind the drastic change in behaviour that had derailed his life. Daniel revealed to his parents that their parish priest Fr Fletcher had begun abusing Daniel when he was 12 years old, and that abuse had continued throughout his teenage years.
Hearing and sharing their story in the magazine, I couldn’t help but be struck by the parallels with my own life. Daniel was born in the same year I was born – in 1977. He had a loving family, who took him to church each week and were heavily involved in their parish community, just as mine was. I might not have had his sporting gifts, but I had academic gifts. Then our pathways diverged. Daniel’s teenage years saw him dealing with situations that I couldn’t even imagine, taking a drastic toll on his life.
The circumstances around the abuse, and the Church’s response to it, are outlined in Patricia’s book. The actions of Catholics in leadership, and the parish community, left much to be desired. Yet Patricia struck me as a strong, pragmatic and spirit-filled woman. She was forgiving of human failings, while also deeply aware of the impact that they left on her family.
In the interview, Patricia expressed her hope that the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse would ensure the Church wasn’t left to manage the issue in-house but forced to confront it by the broader society. While she can no longer bring herself to go to Mass – the sight of a priest at the altar brings up too many memories – she still has a strong belief in God. She has been active in supporting other victims and their families in the Newcastle Diocese and other parts of Australia.
The Royal Commission has been a difficult time for many Catholics. For those of us in media ministries in particular, it can feel like it’s ‘open season’ time on the Catholic Church. Each week brings new articles, with the abuse crisis raised to justify attacks not just on Church heirarchy, but on Catholic education, health and welfare organisations as well as organised religion as a whole. Defending what we might see as an overall good for society has become almost impossible in the face of such terrible acts. It can sap the spirit, and easily draw us away from our mission to bring the love of God into the world.
In fact, though, it seems to me that the Royal Commission is an opportunity for Catholics. Whether or not we personally know people who have suffered abuse (and many of us likely do), we should make an effort to read some of the accounts that have been given to the Royal Commission so that we can better understand the suffering these people endured. It’s a chance to listen with humility to the voices of those whose experiences in the Church haven’t been as blessed as ours might have been. It’s a chance to open our hearts to those who’ve had to carry so much pain with them for so long – many of them doing so in silence and fear.
Searching for a greater understanding of the pain of clerical sexual abuse leads me into a richer prayer life. It allows me to express to God my feelings of sympathy for victims, and my desire for them to find a place of peace and healing. It adds to my prayers for our Church leadership – that they will learn from the mistakes of the past, and find it in their hearts to do more to support those who have been harmed in the way they need.
Moreover, it allows me to pray for myself. To give thanks for my own blessed experiences, and to ask for the wisdom to recognise the lessons from these terrible events so I can apply them in the way that I carry on Christ’s mission.
This time of listening will be followed by a time of response – where we will be called on to help those who have suffered in more material ways. Let us listen attentively then, and pray that we will find the right way forward, knowing that people like Patricia will be praying alongside us.
Michael McVeigh is the Editor of Australian Catholics magazine, and senior editor at Jesuit Communications.