When Scandal Shakes Your Faith

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former Archbishop of Washington, has been accused of the sexual abuse of both minors and seminarians, and the faithful must once again work through the scandal and the betrayal of a shepherd who has caused serious harm to his flock.

In the midst of such a scandal, many faithful Catholics feel their faith being tested. How should we react when we have been betrayed and harmed by those in the Church? What can we, as the laity, do to help solve this problem in the Church?

Recently on St. Joseph’s Workshop, Father Matthew Spencer, OSJ reflected on his experience of entering the seminary amidst the sexual abuse scandal of the early 2000s. He offered his insights of how we can view our own journey of faith in a climate where there is abuse at the highest levels in the Church. Father Matthew said:

“The victims in all of this are many. First and foremost, those who are personally, directly affected by the actions of abusers. But then there’s the Church herself, who deserves the holy service of her shepherds, and is wounded when there is sin, deceit, and cover-up.

I feel very personally about this because I entered the seminary soon after the sexual abuse crisis exploded onto the scene in 2002. … I remember many of my own friends, many of them practicing Catholics themselves, asking me why on earth would I ever contemplate becoming a priest in the current climate. Why could I even continue to be Catholic when the abuse and cover-up were so scandalous?

It was a very difficult part of my own discernment to the priesthood. And if not for the grace of God could have easily derailed my own following of the Lord as a priest. Why become a priest when you see such abuses of a select few? Why trust the shepherds of the Church when some have let down the flock so terribly? Why be affiliated at all with an institution in which a small cohort has perpetrated such vile behavior?

I had to look at all of this when I was discerning my vocation. And interestingly enough, over the course of the years, the answer that I had to come to, the understanding that I had to arrive at hasn’t changed. Though my faith sometimes is challenged by sin inside of the Church, of course. There is a realization of why God calls me to be a priest in this kind of climate, and why God calls you in this kind of climate.

That while I can’t fix the problem, and it’s unlikely you’re in a position to fix the problem, the sins of others don’t excuse me from doing my part to serve Jesus, however He calls me. And the sins of a few don’t remove the calling that I have, even though it makes the call harder. To be a priest of the Lord means I have to be faithful, even when others aren’t.

For all of us, to be Catholic we need to be faithful even when others aren’t. Even when those who are in authority aren’t, we need to continue to be faithful to the Lord. The gates of hell will not prevail over Jesus’ Church.

So what is the solution here? I don’t know what the juridical solution is, I don’t know what the administrative solution is … these things are not my responsibility to decide on. But what I see as what I can contribute is holiness of life, living my vocation well. I have made vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience as an Oblate of St. Joseph, and at my ordination I reaffirmed those commitments. And if I am failing in that, I am failing in my part in the Church.

I need to be holy. God calls me to be holy. That’s part of the solution to this problem. I need to be transformed by my own cooperation with God’s grace, by trusting in His presence – body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharist – by availing myself of the sacraments, trusting in His mercy inside the sacrament of Confession, recognizing that through penance, reparation, and prayer.

Consistency, constancy in prayer has an effect. Not only in my own life, but in the Church at large as well. See, we’re all in this together as the Body of Christ. What part can we play, sometimes, except for you and I to seek holiness ourselves? For you and I to take responsibility for what we can, and to turn over to the Lord those things that are not our responsibility?

I know this has shaken the faith of many people. I’ve talked to many people, and we have to address this. … But maybe that’s the only thing I can do, is take away the lesson that I need to be more holy. That I need to call others to holiness to other as well. That I need to continue to preach the truth to the best of my ability, to never fall prey to the wiles of the Evil One, to do my best to always remain in God’s loving embrace and to share that Good News with all the people who need to hear it.

This is hard. I recognize that it’s difficult. We want rapid, radical change. And that needs to happen, of course, and there needs to be swift, unequivocal action to address the sins and crimes of many. But you and I need to do our part in holiness too.”

Listen to the full reflection below:

St. Joseph’s Workshop with Father Matthew Spencer airs weekdays at 7:00 p.m. Eastern/4:00 p.m. Pacific on Relevant Radio and the Relevant Radio App.

Stephanie Foley serves as a Digital Media Producer at Relevant Radio®. She is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where she studied journalism, and she has worked in Catholic radio for 12 years. Stephanie is a wife, a mother of three boys, and in her free time she enjoys reading, running, and really good coffee. You can find more of Stephanie’s writing at relevantradio.com and on the free Relevant Radio mobile app.