A Listening Session for Teens on the Mishandling of Sexual Abuse by Clergy
About this articleThe purpose of this session is to allow young people in a school or parish to gather in a safe and trusting place to voice their feelings, thoughts, and concerns, on the issues surrounding sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. The need to hear the concerns of young people surfaces again each time sexual abuse and misconduct scandals in the Church become known. This session has been updated by the author, Maureen P. Provencher. Maureen was formerly the director for ministry for youth, Saint Mary’s Parish, Chelmsford, Massachusetts, in the Archdiocese of Boston and is currently a member of the St. Mary’s Press sales team.
* a 3-by-5-inch index card for each young person
* a pencil for each young person
* prayer materials (Select one of the "Options for Ritual Actions" below.)
* 3 readers for the closing prayer
* handouts with sexual abuse resources and contact phone numbers
* a comfortable and accessible gathering space
* refreshments (optional)
2 hours (adaptable)
The purpose of this session is to allow the young people in a school or parish to gather in a safe and trusting place to voice their feelings, thoughts, and concerns on the issues surrounding sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. The need to hear the concerns of young people surfaces again each time sexual abuse and misconduct scandals in the Church become known.
This session is not to rally people’s criticisms, views, or protests. Its purpose is not to persuade others toward a particular view or opinion; it is strictly a listening session for feelings and concerns to be expressed and heard, and for the sharing or clarification of facts. This session creates a safe space for the young people to name the feelings that can be stepping stones in the process of healing for the individual and for the community. It can help rebuild trust that has been broken by the coverup of sexual abuse by members of the hierarchy in the Catholic church. Also, this listening session is a great place to provide handouts on sexual abuse resources and contact phone numbers. Check with your (arch)diocese and within your community for a list of local resources.
The gathering space should provide an atmosphere of comfort, safety, and trust. Invite the young people and adults to sit in a circle, either on chairs or on the floor so that they are all at the same eye-level.
The Role of the Adult Facilitator
The facilitator’s role is to allow for an open discussion where all who would like to share will be given the opportunity to do so, with respect to the time allotted for the session. She or he introduces the purpose of the session and the guidelines for the discussion. The facilitator does not necessarily need to be a professional counselor, although she or he should be an adult whose profession includes working with adolescents. It is recommended that the facilitator not be a member of the clergy.
The Role of Other Adults
Other adults who are present should be attentive listeners, allowing teens to voice their feelings, thoughts, and concerns as needed. The adults may also report or clarify the facts. Adults should be sporadically seated as a part of the circle, though this is not a forum for them to voice their views, unless asked by the young people. Adults should be careful not to dominate the conversations, only to promote and support them. Adults should be honest and respectful at all times, allowing the facilitator to function in his or her role and aiding him or her in that role.
Note: Consider inviting at least one member of the parish pastoral staff, all parish youth-ministry staff, and at least one of the parish priests to be present. This allows for the voices of the young to be heard by those who can take action, and helps key players to become better aware of their needs for a pastoral response. If you do have a counselor or social worker in the parish, you may want to invite him or her as well, as his or her skill set may prove to be helpful in both discussion and individual follow up, if needed.
Begin the session by stating the purpose for gathering (see the section "Purpose" above). Explain that an atmosphere of respect for all feelings, thoughts, and opinions must be maintained. Reassure the young people that confidentiality will also be respected.
Introduce the facilitator and explain her or his role. Then introduce everyone else who is present.
2. Call to Prayer
Leader: We gather in the presence of God. May God hear our prayer and strengthen us with the grace we need to voice our feelings and confusion from the hurt and betrayal we’re experiencing in our church.
All: Lord, bring us hope and understanding that our vision may be clear and our minds may be open. Help us begin a process of healing.
3. Gathering Song
See the "Suggested Music Selections" below.
Leader: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Leader: The Lord be with you.
All: And with your spirit.
5. Opening Prayer
Leader: God, our Creator, we ask you to give us hope in the midst of discouragement, perseverance in our frustration, and continuous reminders of your love throughout this difficult time. May we be of support to one another, always attentive and caring. Send us your Spirit of wisdom and guidance. Be at our side now and always. We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord.
6. Introduction of Procedures and Discussion Guidelines
Share with the group the guidelines for the discussion. Distribute the 3-by-5-inch cards and the pencils. Explain that using an "I statement" will allow each participant to focus on feelings and thoughts, rather than on complaints or criticisms. Invite the young people to write down the following sentence, leaving a blank space after each phrase:
"I feel ____________ when ____________ because __________."
Give the young people time to fill in the blanks by writing down their feelings (first blank), the situations that are causing the feelings (second blank), and, if they can, the reason for their feelings about the situation (third blank). Make sure they understand that filling in the third blank is optional. Not everyone is ready or able to give the reasons for their feelings. Make sure that they do not put their name on the cards.
Collect all of the cards and shuffle them. Ask each young person to choose one card. Once all young people have selected a card, ask for a volunteer to read the card she or he has chosen. Provide ample time for feedback or clarification after each card is read. Proceed in a circle until each card has been read and responded to.
7. Summary of the Discussion
After all the cards have been read and discussed, conduct a brief summation of what has been heard. Allow everyone the opportunity to voice what they heard--one piece of information at a time. Suggest that they use the phrase, "Tonight I heard . . ." Write each comment on newsprint.
Mention the following points in your own words:
- In times like these, it is often difficult for adult members of the church to feel like they have any influence or control over the situation or something that is systemic. We recognize that these feelings are also true for young people.
- Pointing to signs of hope and positive action is crucial during such times. We do have control over our own actions.
- One action that we can take in difficult times is personal reflection for our own growth and transformation. Commitment to our own, personal growth is something we can do to affect the betterment of our communities, our church, our world, and ourselves.
- Sometimes our feelings of hurt and anger can be great energizers to take action. Let’s use that energy in healthy, holy, and transformative ways.
Discuss what the group should do as a next step. They may decide to meet again to revisit feelings and the process of healing, or they may brainstorm concrete, proactive ways to grow from the situation and be agents of God’s love, mercy, and healing within the parish, local community, and/or globally. In the words of Gandhi, invite the young people to, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
8. Closing Prayer
The closing prayer should bring together five key elements:
* all of what was shared during the session--the feelings, thoughts, and concerns
* the need for healing for the victims and those who suffer any type of abuse
* the need for tranformation for those who have brought harm against another through any kind of abuse
* the need for honesty and the courage to do what is right for the leadership of the Church
* the need for healing and reconciliation of members within parish communities who suffer and struggle in this time of pain
Ask the group to pay close attention to the Gospel reading about Peter’s denial of Jesus. Then, proclaim Matthew 26:69-75.
Ask the group to share what message, they think, this Gospel reading has for us, today, given the betrayal and uncertainty (include any of the feelings shared in the session) many feel.
Summarize what you heard in the sharing and make the following points:
- Jesus knew betrayal and he knew Peter would deny him not once, but three times! Jesus, however, believed in Peter, even knowing that he would betray him, and left to him the leadership of his church. God always sees our potential, despite our sin, and provides us with the opportunities to learn from it and to grow.
- With repentance, healing can begin and great, life-giving things can come from it.
Respond in song with Psalm 25. (See "Suggested Music Selections" below).
Pray together using a ritual action. (Select one of the "Options for Ritual Actions" below.)
Lead the following intercessions:
Leader: Let us pray. Gracious and merciful God, hear the prayers of your people as we come before you with humble hearts.
Reader 1: Please respond, "Lord, help us to trust in you."
* In these dark moments of pain, anger, sadness, disappointment, and betrayal, we pray . . .
* When we struggle to move on toward greater growth but find it difficult to let go of the past, we pray . . .
* As we seek to find our way to truth and wholeness we pray . . .
Reader 2: Please respond, "Draw near, O God."
* For all victims of abuse and their families, we pray . . .
* For perpetrators of abuse, that they may have the courage to seek the help that is needed, we pray . . .
* For all in authority, that they may have the wisdom and strength to make difficult yet just decisions, we pray. . .
* For the Church of [your diocese] and our parish community of [your parish], that we may be open to receiving your grace and know your healing and peace, we pray . . .
Leader: We make our prayer through Christ, our Lord.
Leader: God, who dwells within, God who is with us in good times and in bad, we turn our hearts again to you, and we proclaim:
All: Nothing can come between us and your love for us…
Reader 1: …even if we are troubled, angry, or worried
Reader 2: …even if we are being persecuted or betrayed
Reader 3: …and even in times when we find ourselves guilty of sin and having caused hurt. We can grow through difficult times because of the power of your love at work in our lives.
All: Help us to trust in you.
Leader: Jesus taught us of your love and forgiveness and showed us your mercy through his death and resurrection. “Your compassion and mercy are ages old.” Shower us with your mercy, calling us to healing and growth for your kingdom, here, on earth.
Reader 1: Show us the way.
Reader 2: Guide us in righteousness.
Reader 3: Teach us the way of mercy and truth.
Leader: And so, we lean on you, O God, and we offer you our thanks and praise as we pray together in the words Jesus taught, “Our Father…”
Leader: The Lord be with you.
All: And with your spirit.
Leader: (The leader makes the sign of the cross on him or herself as she or he says…) May God bless us all in the name of the Father…
Leader: Let us go forth proclaiming the Good News with our lives.
All: Thanks be to God.
9. Song of Sending Forth
See "Suggested Music Selections" below.
Options for Ritual Actions
A Blessing with Oil
Oil, an ancient historical symbol of healing and anointing, can be a powerful agent within the context of prayer. Note that the oil used should not be a sacramental oil, as these are reserved strictly for the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders. You can use any plain olive oil. Provide a brief explanation of the biblical accounts in which oil is used as a sign of healing, a sign of being called to ministerial leadership, a sign of being anointed as prophet, and to speak the truth courageously in a world that does not want to hear. Follow the anointing with a blessing of hands. With the oil, place the sign of the cross on the back of the hands, symbolizing the healing agents the work of our hands can be in the world and in our communities.
As another option, again begin with an explanation of oil as a symbol and its ritual uses. Collect the 3-by-5-inch cards from step 6 and place them in a glass bowl. Pour the oil over them, and continue the service with the intercessions.
Create a Paper Chain
Use slips of paper instead of 3-by-5-inch cards for the comments. Ask each young person to prayerfully hold the statement that he or she read. Explain that each person will be either taping or stapling the ends of their slip together to form a circular link. One at a time, invite each person to bring his or her slip of paper forward. Create a paper chain with the slips of paper by looping each slip into the previous slip and taping or stapling the ends together. Offering the chain can symbolize that even in our brokenness we are called to be the one Body of Christ.
Suggested Music Selections
"Canticle of the Turning," Rory Cooney, Gather Comprehensive (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1994), p. 556.
"Christ, Be Beside Me," Laura Wasson, Today’s Missal Music Issue (Portland, OR: Oregon Catholic Press, 2002), p. 401.
"Christ, Be Our Light," Bernadette Farrell, Today’s Missal Music Issue (Portland, OR: Oregon Catholic Press, 2002), p. 560.
"City of God," Dan Schutte, Today’s Missal Music Issue (Portland, OR: Oregon Catholic Press, 2002), p. 369.
"Confitemini Domino / Come and Fill," Jacques Berthier / Taizé Community, Gather Comprehensive (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1994), p. 570.
"Gather Us In," Marty Haugen, Gather Comprehensive (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1994), p. 744.
"God of Day and God of Darkness," Marty Haugen, Gather Comprehensive (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1994), p. 761.
"Here I Am," Tom Booth, Today’s Missal Music Issue (Portland, OR: Oregon Catholic Press, 2002), p. 443.
"How Can I Keep from Singing," a Quaker hymn, Gather Comprehensive (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1994), p. 603.
"I (We) Need You to Listen," Marty Haugen, Gather Comprehensive (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1994), p. 582.
"Lead Me, Lord," John D. Becker, Today’s Missal Music Issue (Portland, OR: Oregon Catholic Press, 2002), p. 542.
"Let There Be Peace on Earth," Sy Miller and Jill Jackson, Today’s Missal Music Issue (Portland, OR: Oregon Catholic Press, 2002), p. 413.
"Psalm 63: My Soul Is Thirsting," Steve Angrisano, Today’s Missal Music Issue (Portland, OR: Oregon Catholic Press, 2002), p. 762.
"O God, Hear Us," Bob Hurd, Today’s Missal Music Issue (Portland, OR: Oregon Catholic Press, 2002), p. 985.
"Psalm 25: To You, O Lord," Scott Soper, Today’s Missal Music Issue (Portland, OR: Oregon Catholic Press, 2002), p. 736.
“Psalm 25: To You, O Lord,” Marty Haugen, Gather Comprehensive, 2nd Edition (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1982) #26.
"Remember Your Love," D. Ducote, G. Daigle, and M. Balhoff, Today’s Missal Music Issue(Portland, OR: Oregon Catholic Press, 2002), p. 630.
"With the Lord," Michael Joncas, Today’s Missal Music Issue, (Portland, OR: Oregon Catholic Press, 2002), p. 631.
AcknowledgmentsMaureen P. Provencher was formerly the director for ministry for youth, Saint Mary's Parish, Chelmsford, Massachusetts, in the Archdiocese of Boston, in 2002. She is currently a member of the St. Mary’s Press sales team. Used with permission. Published April 1, 2002; revised 2018.
Published April 1, 2002.