Addressing the very valid concerns of Catholic parents is of immediate need.
The recent scandals involving former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick have raised a great deal of concerns among the laity, specifically parents, who worry about the protection and safety of their children. This deep wound has caused a great deal of mistrust and fear.
The question that most parents seem to communicate to me and elsewhere on the internet is “Will our children be safe in the Church, and will our sons be safe in seminary?” One father wrote to me asking how to discourage his son from joining seminary, while another parent was worried about her seven-year-old being alone in a confessional with a priest. Parents of teen boys wanted to know if they thought their sons would be safe at summer retreats designed to foster vocations. On the flip side, priests innocent of any wrongdoing have become targets of suspicion and hostility simply by association of their vocation. Distrust and anger is everywhere and it is heartbreaking to see it has come to this.
The Catholic Church has always taught that we are to protect the most vulnerable, and this grievous violation of our trust is rippling outward to affect all Catholics. As with any violation of trust, we will have to rebuild our confidence. How to do that is being hotly discussed.
But right now the immediate need is to address the very valid concerns of Catholic parents. My own teen son is very active in the Church, goes to Catholic school, and attends Catholic youth events. He’s also the son of a single mother (statistically, the perfect target for predators). I am very well aware of this fact. To say I am not concerned isn’t completely accurate, because as a parent I never stop being concerned for his safety. I will always be on the lookout for signs of abuse or trouble and I will never do anything to intentionally put him in harm’s way. Basically, I do what any parent does, regardless of religious affiliation.
There was a time when people associated “safety” with the Catholic Church and would blindly put their unreserved trust in her priests and bishops. The time when parents could place their trust in any institution has long come and gone; however, that doesn’t mean we should try to shield our kids completely from participating in the world around them, and that goes for the Church as well. Abuse can happen anywhere. In youth sports, schools, and even within our own families. This is certainly not to excuse what our bishops have allowed to happen, but to simply point out that parents must be vigilant everywhere.
For the mom who’s afraid of letting her seven-year-old be alone in the confessional, your child still needs the sacrament. Has the priest, your child’s confessor, given you any valid reason to be suspicious or are you worried because you feel like every priest is now under a cloud of distrust? These are questions you’ll need to ask yourself and things you’ll need to talk to your child about because throughout the course of their young life there may be many instances they find themselves alone with another adult, not just a priest, but maybe another family member or teacher.
Dad, if your son is interested in the priesthood, please don’t discourage that. Instead let him know that he is free to come to you with any misgivings and problems he may encounter. Tell him you are there for him and will always listen. Parents of younger children, be vigilant and watchful but also let them participate in the life of the Church, as you would with any other activity.
We all just need to use the same common sense that we’d apply in any situation, making sure our children have our trust and confidence in the knowledge that we’re always on their side and have their best interests at heart. Parents should trust their instincts and their children’s instincts by not forcing them into situations that might make them unnecessarily uncomfortable.
It will take a time to rebuild confidence and trust, but in the meantime, we still need to live our faith fully and teach our children to do the same.