Helping kids and teens deal with the scandal

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Three tips for addressing clergy sex abuse and the cover-up with your children

How do we talk to our young children and teens about clergy sex abuse and the cover-up by bishops? It is good that victims’ stories are getting heard like never before. It is healthy for the church that systematic cover-up be exposed and addressed. Yet, for most Catholic families, struggling through this “summer of shame” has been a blow. Cardinal McCarrick’s double life. The Pennsylvania grand jury report. The controversy surrounding former papal nuncio Viganò’s accusations, and Pope Francis’ enigmatic response. Faith has been shaken, trust has been broken, and learning about the accounts of abuse may have caused secondary trauma for many. How do we address these difficult topics with our children?

  1. Young children need to be taught to be safe

If you haven’t already done so, now is a good time to have frank conversations with your young children. Make sure they know the proper names of their private parts. Make sure they know that no one is allowed to touch them. Make sure they know they can always talk to you if they feel uncomfortable or weird around someone. It’s a terrible thing to have to tell your sweet young children that some bad priests have hurt kids by doing things with their private parts. To be able to talk about it openly, however, helps break the culture of harmful silence on this issue. In my own family, we’ve added regular intentions to our evening family rosary for victims of clergy sexual abuse, for an end to bishop cover-up, and for our church to be purified.

  1. Teens have deeper questions — address them with faith

“Mom, how could those priests do such things? Why does God give us these priests when he knows they will abuse people?”

My friend’s teenage daughter came to her in tears with these questions.

While these are hard enough to grapple with ourselves, it is essential to acknowledge the pain and injustice at work. Then (with a prayer to the Holy Spirit in your heart, and maybe brushing up on the philosophical question of theodicy) venture into a discussion of the problem of evil and of free will. As Kendra Tierney put it on her blog,, the table hadn’t even been cleared from the Last Supper at which Jesus instituted the sacramental priesthood before one of the newly made priests got up to go betray the holiness of his calling. The church that Jesus established has suffered corruption of various kinds throughout history, from political intrigue to exploitation for financial profit. It is still the means through which Jesus gives us grace through the sacraments. The church’s teachings are still true, even if her leaders don’t always live by the truth.

Church leaders have often recognized and apologized for the sins or mistakes of their predecessors. Pope St. John Paul II apologized for the Inquisition, for example. This summer, bishops were much quicker to offer apologies about this scandal, and many throughout the country also offered Masses for victims, led prayer vigils, and fasted.

  1. Help teens see their role

God always raises up great saints to help the church navigate through crises. We are all called to help our church by becoming those saints in our time. We are called to lead the church in holiness, rather than leave the church in despair.

Watching scandal-response videos with your teen by Bishop Robert Barron and Father Mike Schmitz can help spur good discussion about this.

Provide your teen a sense of connection by listening to their questions seriously and having an honest discussion. Witnessing your own mature faith in God’s goodness despite the failings, ambiguity, or limits of church leaders will help your teen find their own lifelong Catholic faith. They, like all of us, have an important role in helping the church go forward toward ever greater attention to victims and whistleblowers in a climate of transparency.

Northwest Catholic - October 2018

Sarah Bartel

Sarah Bartel, a member of St. Andrew Parish in Sumner, holds a doctorate in moral theology and ethics from The Catholic University of America, where she specialized in marriage, family, sexual ethics and bioethics. Her website is