The Scandal of the Synod, by Terence McKiernan,

The Synod on the Family is now beginning its third and final week at the Vatican – does it matter?

Most reporting has focused on 13 dissident prelates, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, who complained in a leaked letter to Pope Francis that the synod procedures seemed “designed to facilitate predetermined results” on the issue of “Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried” – the “Plot to Change Catholicism,” Ross Douthat calls it at the Times.

Meanwhile, judging from the reports of small groups and the interventions (three-minute speeches to the plenary), participants have mostly been toiling on amendments (so-called modi) to make the synodal work plan sing. This would seem to be a lost cause.

Churchspeak and a Phrase Unspoken

In all the synod’s waffly churchspeak, as Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge calls it, one phrase remains unspoken – the sexual abuse of children by clergy.

Why is this?

Billions of dollars have been spent on the problem in the United States, where more than 6,427 clerics are accused of sexually assaulting more than 17,259 victims. Government inquiries are being conducted in Australia and Northern Ireland, and in the Republic of Ireland, church attendance has plunged in the wake of the Ryan, Murphy, and Cloyne reports. The installation of a tainted Chilean bishop caused a near-riot, and serious questions have been raised about the Pope’s own performance in Argentina. Francis has removed three U.S. bishops for criminal mismanagement of abuse cases (1, 2&3), and he has named a Pontifical Commission to advise him on the whole mess.

Yet the many thousands of damaged and destroyed families behind those headlines merit no attention whatsoever at the 14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops: The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World.

The one honorable exception is Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland, who said in his little-noticed intervention, “We know only too well the horrific impact of sins and crimes of abuse in the Church family: the betrayal of trust, the violation of dignity, the shame – both public and private, the anger and alienation, the wound that never seems to heal.”

A Modest Proposal

Archbishop Martin proposes that perhaps paragraph 70 of the work plan could be revised to “reflect more openly these awful realities.” That paragraph talks about “tenderness,” and the archbishop reminds us that Pope Francis has called for “revolutionaries of tenderness.” That is an apt description of Janet Patterson, pictured above with her son Eric.

I ask that Archbishop Martin press to have Janet Patterson named in paragraph 70 as one of those revolutionaries of tenderness, with a link to her account of her own family’s experience: her son Eric’s abuse at age 12 by Fr. Robert Larson, and Eric’s courageous battle with depression and despair, and his death by his own hand, and Janet’s work with many other families of abuse victims.

I ask that Archbishop Martin press to have Christine and Anthony Foster named as revolutionaries of tenderness also, to honor their love for their daughters Emma and Katie, drugged and sexually assaulted by Fr. Kevin O’Donnell at Sacred Heart parish, in the Melbourne archdiocese, Australia. I hope the archbishop will link to Christine Foster’s account for the Royal Commission of her family’s travail, and her daughter Emma’s death, and the resistance her family experienced from the Catholic church, and how they overcame it.

Then Archbishop Martin could ask Cardinal Gerhard Müller to open the abuse archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Thousands of revolutionaries of tenderness are named in those files, and their cases could be linked in a now encyclopedic paragraph 70. Of course, Cardinal Müller would insist that Fr. Peter Kramer’s victims and their families be honored.

The Scandal of the Synod

Countless families have been harmed by sexually offending clerics and by the bishops and superiors who tolerated, transferred, and concealed them. It is a scandalous act, by the church’s own definition, to ignore those families in the Synod on the Family. Those families are the church’s first and immediate responsibility. Until they are cared for, the evangelizing of other families cannot be credible.

The families’ stories are also an invaluable record of the modern family and its dangers and joys. Archbishop Martin is correct – the celibate men at the synod “can only imagine” what it’s like to raise a child. The files of clerical abuse are a highly detailed repository of Catholic life and the ways it can go awry.

The experiences of families harmed by clerical abuse are also more specifically instructive. For example, it’s often difficult for survivors of clerical abuse to start families of their own. Should a survivor whose marriage ends in divorce be barred from the sacraments? While the prayer & penance priest, credibly accused of abuse, continues to celebrate Mass, and the laicized priest receives Communion? And the enabling emeritus bishop is ordaining new priests?

It’s right and just that Archbishop Eamon Martin and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin would help the synod understand the plight of clerically abused families. They are farther along than their brother bishops in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The synod would be a good place for bishops to learn best practices.

The synod work plan envisages the Church’s “caring for wounded families.”

Say rather that a mortally self-wounded church might be saved by the very families it has harmed.


Founded in 2003, is based in Waltham, Massachusetts, USA, and documents the crisis of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. It offers an online collection of more than 100,000 pages of church records, legal documents, and media reports. Its hardcopy archive is approaching one million pages. The mission of the organization is to give the public convenient access to information pertaining to the abuse crisis in the U.S. and worldwide. An independent non-profit corporation, is an archive and a data center. It is not a victims’ advocacy group or a reform group.