The Survivors Movement has come upon difficult times. Public awareness of clergy sexual abuse peaked several years ago after the most recent Boston scandals and has long since been captured by other concerns. The Roman Catholic Church’s reassuring pronouncements are more glib and polished than ever. Yet, the prospect of real reform remains hopelessly mired. Scandals dribble on and on repetitively. The Movement as a whole seems divided, uncertain, and facing exhaustion.
Perhaps a new approach would help.
This proposal for a survivor-run celebration of World Catholic Abuse Survivors Day (WCASD) embodies one such approach. It is based on an entirely new model of engagement with the Roman Catholic Church.
The basic idea is utterly straightforward: we do not play the Church’s game anymore.
How that is to be accomplished, of course, is the real trick. But if applied successfully, the tactics outlined below could fundamentally change our dialog with the Church. It might even force the ecclesiastical leadership to take us more seriously. WCASD could re-energize the Movement, gain us new respect and unprecedented coverage in the media, and even provide participants with much-needed healing and connections with other survivors.
What we propose is quite simple:
At noon on November 5,
victims, survivors, supporters, and friends
assemble in front of Roman Catholic chancery offices
to demonstrate our presence,
show our pride, and celebrate our survival!
That’s it. But behind this deceptively simple idea is a thoughtful critique of the major factors that have adversely affected our demonstrations before. By systematically changing these, WCASD intends to positively alter the playing field in our favor.
Previous public efforts have faced major challenges. In both preparation and execution of our protests, survivors have done their best with very little and achieved much. The courage and determination of all participants is to be praised. It is not due to them if their hard and honest efforts have not met with greater success. Any letdowns have been due solely to circumstances.
Circumstances, however, that we can master. Here, then, are seven serious problems and the ways in which WCASD would confront them. Please note that the strategy behind this proposed occasion is the crucial element, not WCASD itself. This plan could work with any number of scenarios. It is the new approach that is the key, not the details.
Naturally, most of our protests have been angry, even somewhat self-righteous affairs. After all, great evil was done to us and even greater evil committed in concealing those crimes. Justice is still woefully lacking, and adequate safeguards for future generations as well. These are real issues, not to be taken lightly.
However, here in the twenty-first century, there are many outraged people hurt by horrible atrocities. There’s only so long the public is willing to listen to any litany of grief before getting bored and ultimately even hostile. We may have already used up much of their patience.
Besides, nobody wants to hang out with a bunch of victims. It’s depressing, and the victim label is, at the end of the day, one of shame.
So for this event, we change our attitude. We turn from mourning our losses to celebrating our survival. We pay tribute to our overcoming great obstacles and honor our personal freedom. We transform our protest into a party. We declare victory just by being alive; we dress up, dance, and laugh at the face of the Church that failed to protect us.
Fun is much more attractive than glum. People naturally prefer to side with those who ridicule than with the object of their scorn. We become appealing rather than repulsive.
Petulant blame, after all, has not succeeded very well in arousing the Church’s guilt. So we unleash an even more potent weapon mockery and make them feel shame.
This sends an unambiguous message to the Church and the world. We are present, unafraid, proud and we will be watching them.
Most importantly, we put our shame right back where it really belongs on them.
Let’s face it: picketing a church just looks bad. It makes us appear to be protesting against God! This confuses and antagonizes the laity, who thus resent us and feel sorry instead for the clergy. And it provides the clergy a perfect photo opportunity to hide behind them in their vestments and look persecuted.
Protesting at bishop’s conferences and the like is much better because of the business-like atmosphere. But in those situations, the prelates still can huddle together for morale, safely retire to the calm depths of the hotel bar, and never have to confront or even acknowledge us.
WCASD would level the field by treating the Roman Church like any other multinational corporation, no different than Exxon or McDonald’s. We don’t buy into their religious theater. So we avoid gathering at church, or on a Sunday, or a feast. We do not bother the people at their worship with our complaints at this time.
Our goal is to badger the corporation’s regional managers and senior executives that is, the bishops and cardinals at work. So we show up at the dioceses’ business offices where they are individually isolated at their jobs. Or in some places, perhaps at their palaces.
This aids us in another important way. Most survivors are not rich. Long distance travel on a whim is something few of us can afford. Targeting nearby chanceries offers nearly everyone a well-known and accessible objective within reach.
However, it would probably be best to try to concentrate efforts to some degree and not aim for protestors at each chancery everywhere. The most effective approach might be to single out the metropolitan offices, the biggest dioceses, and those with the most notorious problems and the most people watching.
Timing is everything. Yet, for the most part, since our protests have been linked to Church events, we’ve been at the mercy of their schedules to dictate our actions.
So, we choose a time and season of our own, one not on the Church’s calendar. But when?
There are many dates we could pick from history that mark significant events in the struggle against priestly corruption. October 31, Halloween, for instance, is Reformation Day to the Lutherans, marking the day in 1517 when Luther first challenged the Church. So it would be appropriate, but it’s already taken. And this is not the Lutherans’ fight, but ours, (although sticking our indictments on the doors of Catholic churches might not be a bad idea, where legal).
Besides Halloween has certain other confusing and even negative associations for our purpose.
Not long after, however, comes a day that might be much better suited. In Britain and its former colonies, November 5 is Guy Fawkes Day. It commemorates the occasion in 1605 when the pro-Catholic terrorist, Guido Fawkes, was apprehended minutes before he could light the fuse to blow up the entire British government. The British observe the holiday with fireworks, hanging Guy and the Pope in effigy, and bonfires to mark their freedom from religious tyranny and the need for continual alertness.
This could be an ideally symbolic occasion for us as well. Plus it’s still close enough to Halloween to allow us to use costumes and masks for fun or anonymity.
Scheduling the protest for local noon on a business day also makes it simple to coordinate. Such an event is more likely to draw in and involve the curious. And holding it at midday greatly increases the chances of garnering coverage in both noon and evening news reports.
Again, virtually all of our protests have been in association with some Church-related event. This has made it easier to confront the Catholic leadership and people and get free media coverage.
However, it also means the Church controls our activities, too. We dare not interrupt their proceedings too much, and to seem balanced, the news media is obliged to match every second of attention they pay us with a pro-Church message.
By appearing at, but not on, the Church’s turf on our own terms and timing, we retain control. We dictate and dominate the conversation. They could only reply.
Since survivors own and set up the agenda, we also have greater control on what happens on our side as well. Other interests will be less likely to hijack, grandstand, or disrupt our message.
Our protests, whether focused against a specific perpetrator or more generally, have usually involved only survivors and our most ardent supporters. This makes it easy to dismiss us as isolated troublemakers, rather than as early symptoms of a much larger discontent.
We should therefore seek to become as inclusive as the Catholic Church has become exclusive. The Church has abused reformers, radical nuns, former priests, gays, divorcees, women who’ve had abortions and a host of others, too, just in different ways than we were. There is a silent multitude of disgruntled and former Catholics out there with just as many real complaints with the leadership as we have. Why should we go it alone?
All who have been excluded or estranged from the Church are our natural allies. By inviting them to share in our festivities, we make common cause, fatten our turnout, and prove that we are not alone. The more the merrier!
Many good Catholics and even loyal Church employees are sympathetic to us but are wary of showing support. Targeting the leadership and not the faith would help reassure them. And this could provide an ideal opportunity for victim-friendly groups like Voices of the Faithful (VOTF) to really show support.
Encouraging participation safely disguised in costumes and masks if desired could help draw these silent supporters out. And the spectacle of protestors hiding their identities because of fear of retribution would be a powerful visual indictment of its own.
Protests, even those at national Church events, often have had pitifully few numbers. This severely limits coverage, which is kept local and easily ignored.
WCASD reaches beyond these confines with local action and a global message.
Our limited numbers can be multiplied by numerous locations. If many dioceses, or even the most important, were covered with even a few protestors at the same time, the effect would be cumulative. A clear message would be sent that the problem is widespread and victims are everywhere. The Church would be less able to pretend that incidents of abuse are merely isolated local problems and not systemic.
The Internet could make a mass event like this happen as never before. Now it’s possible to inspire, mobilize, and coordinate happenings on a worldwide scale far more easily, quickly, and cheaply than could have been imagined just a few years ago. There is technically no reason that protests in the United States and Canada could not be held in conjunction with demonstrations in Ireland, Britain, Europe, Australia and New Zealand and elsewhere.
This could become a shared experience on a planetary stage like nothing ever attempted before: a universal protest against a universal church. A global event makes global news. Even two protestors showing up in front of a chancery in Alaska would be part of the same happening as the big mob in Boston. And the coverage of one would feed the coverage of all the others.
The news media have generally been kind to our cause. However, they are afraid of offending the Church due to the enormous economic pressure it wields.
Moreover, as victims, we have been reluctant to appear as extremists. Our efforts have consistently been to appear as injured parties; respectable, moderate, but deserving of help. Visually and dramatically, then, our marches have been remarkably tame and even dull. They have certainly not provided the spectacle that television craves. Even the clergy in their vestments are more visually interesting.
An event like WCASD would demand attention, local, national, and global. Costumes, dramatic flourishes, and street theater would be encouraged the bolder the better. The idea would be to get creative and playful for the cameras. Cardinals and bishops, for example, hung in effigy, would be visually arresting, unmistakable in meaning, and difficult to argue with.
World Catholic Abuse Survivors Day or something like it could provide an unparalleled opportunity to get our message out. But it can happen only if victims and survivors are willing to reach out and join together as never before.
Any endeavor with a potential payoff this big is a gamble. Many practical problems will have to be worked out; from establishing a committee to run the event, through enlisting a wide range of support, to helping local leaders obtain permits and media coverage if necessary.
Violence and over-reaction is also a potential threat. Few things could be so damaging to our cause as a riot. Events everywhere must be run to minimize any potential for disruption among hostile groups both on our side as well as with any possible counter-protestors.
By far the greatest hazard, however, would be low attendance. If the call goes out and few people show up, or leadership is poor or muddled, then that sends a clear signal to the Church, too. It notifies the hierarchy that we cannot get it together. They can go back to business as normal or worse.
And we all know what that means.
This proposal, therefore, is being sent out with the greatest seriousness to the leaders of the most prominent survivor advocacy groups first and later to the community in general. And ultimately to supporters and reformers as well.
Self-appointed volunteers, no matter how enthusiastic, probably could not run this large an event successfully. The active sponsorship of at least one national organization in the United States with the credibility, widespread presence and structure and dedicated activists on call is required. Hence this plea.
Nowadays, probably the only survivor group equal to this role is the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP). But as many others would have to come together also under our tent, here and abroad, a more general Steering Committee is proposed, consisting of leaders assigned from sponsoring organizations plus other volunteers.
World Catholic Abuse Survivors Day would require much committed effort by many people. But that one single day could accomplish more than we have been able to achieve in a decade of protests and consciousness-raising. This could mark the moment when we truly change from victims to survivors.
For years, there has been wistful talk about some future memorial day in our honor. One that would dutifully recognize the anguish and damage that clergy sexual abuse causes, honor the heroism of those who broke the silence, assign guilt properly, and pledge vigilance against its reoccurrence.
If we wait for someone else to do this for us, it will likely never happen. Even worse, the Catholic Church may take up a similar idea, such as a proposed "Day of Penance". This kind of memorial would be the gravestone for the Survivors Movement. The occasion would be used to wash the bishops’ hands of blame, as sometimes Healing Masses have already. If nothing else is achieved, our declaration of our day by and for ourselves will help prevent the Church from perverting our suffering to their ends as it is already attempting.
Yes, it will take courage. And the willingness to try something publicly that could be embarrassing. That’s why this appeal is addressed to survivors such as you. You have already done something much more courageous by having spoken out in the first place. Only because of your bravery could this even be contemplated.
But this time, it would be different. This time, you won’t be standing alone but with uncountable friends. This time, it’s not just therapeutic: it could even be fun!
So please, join us. Discuss this with other victims and survivors, your friends and supporters, and spread the word around. Visit, vote, and tell us what you think.
Even if World Catholic Abuse Survivors Day turns out to be a pipe dream, it is sincerely hoped that future protest leaders will take advantage of the novel tactics proposed here.
The way to successfully confront the Church is to deny it those special privileges that have been used to victimize us in the past. The means to really change things is to claim our survivorship.
We have nothing to lose but our shame.
Together, we can do this. Shall we meet at the Chancery on some November 5?
It's taken awhile, but it appears that the basic idea is spreading. A group called Survivors Voice Europe is planning the Second Annual Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse Day, to be held on October 29, 2011, in Rome. And it's being billed as a celebration. Good work!