Describing himself as “damaged goods” and “the broken one,” civil and criminal trial attorney Kevin Byrnes summed up the sentiment of many who have suffered sexual abuse at the hand of those entrusted with spiritual guidance in the Catholic Church. “That’s all I’ve got.”
Byrnes was one of several panelists to give testimony during an event at Georgetown University titled, “Confronting a Moral Catastrophe: Lay Leadership, Catholic Social Teaching, and the Sexual Abuse Crisis.” The event focused on the path forward for Catholics, the Catholic Church, and those who have been betrayed by some in the Church leadership.
Byrnes, a partner with the law firm of Fluet, Huber, & Hoang (FH+H), was selected to both open and close the conference, and his testimony warranted such attention.
He began by sharing his childhood experience of sexual abuse at the hand of one of his parish priests who repeatedly molested Byrnes starting at the tender age of eight. As with most abused during adolescence, the actions of such an intimate authority figure scarred and confused Byrnes.
Turning to those that a child is most able to trust at that age – his Father and Mother, Byrnes surprisingly found no solace or sanctuary. When he told his parents about the molestation, neither his Mother nor Father believed him. His Father, subsequently, beat him with a strap for “lying” about the priest.
Realizing that both his parents and the church wouldn’t afford him protection, Byrnes described a long history of addiction and broken relationships in his years as a young adult. He chronicled a suicide attempt centered on the anguish he held over the “spiritual incest” that was perpetrated upon him.
As the room listened to his heartfelt testimony intently, Byrnes told of a lifetime of waking in the middle of the night with one reoccurring thought on his mind, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The room, for his vulnerability and his honesty, was silent.
In a quiet voice that harkened back to the despair he must have felt as a child – when even his parents didn’t believe him, Byrnes quietly said, “That’s all I’ve got, John.” He was applauded by the audience in deference to his truth.
It is important to understand that not all in the priesthood have abdicated their vows to spiritually shepherd the people in their congregations. In fact, those who commit these physical and mental abuses – those who have, at their cores, turned their back on their own spiritual commitment to God – are very few in number.
That said, it is the offender’s violation of the sanctity of their station – the fact they have transgressed the vows they have offered up to the Alpha and Omega to show a path of light to members of their congregations – that make these particular transgressions so egregious.
The molestation of a child by clergy must necessarily be considered one of the most abhorrent acts that can be committed and surely as heinous as when a physician exploits his station to take sexual liberties with a patient. Both are crimes against people at their most vulnerable and, in the case of the molestation of a child by clergy, also a transgression against God.
But, and this is not to diminish the seriousness of the acts, the crimes committed by the ethically compromised in the clergy against their victims are crimes committed by individuals – both those who have committed the acts and those who have facilitated any cover-up of the acts – not the institutions themselves.
Catholic churches, as well as any other house of worship serving any of the other major religions, are buildings that symbolize the spiritual belief system of Catholics. The building that is the church is not Jesus Christ, rather it is a building, tended to by the frailty of men – complete with all the fallibilities of the flesh, that represents the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is up to those tenders to embrace their devotion to the task and to rise to the awesome responsibilities for which they have signed on.
It is for this reason that we must not fall to the disingenuous rhetoric of both the mainstream media in their coverage of these truly grievous acts or religion’s detractors when they blank the blame across the whole of spiritual institutions, in this case, the Catholic Church. This generalized and all-encompassing rhetoric, it can be argued, is meant to demonize the whole of spirituality in a quest to replace the actual Alpha and Omega with the pagan god of government.
I truly feel for Mr. Byrnes and I stand with him in the fact that acts like the ones he had to suffer should never be allowed to happen. When they do they should be seen as crimes involving special victims for the trust that has been violated.
But I have to disagree with his closing statement at the Georgetown University event. “You told us we were liars,” Byrnes said of the church’s response to the crisis. “And maybe, given that, I’m not sure you should survive as an institution.”
We cannot burn Rome down for the Romans, just as we cannot continue to see institutions and buildings as the Deity. We must see the forest for the trees and in this instance, that means having to be honest enough to realize it is not the spiritual institution that is to blame, but those few corrupted and damaged men within the Earthly created organizational apparati who should and need to be held accountable.
That said, it’s important to remember that a “church” doesn’t necessarily have to be a building or even an organizational structure. A church – and in this case the Catholic Church, is representative of the teachings, the love, and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for all of humanity. Those same teachings, that same love and sacrifice, are at the core of the strength Mr. Byrnes has used to see him through the failings of men.