Father Thomas Berg
Father Thomas Berg
Father Thomas Berg, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York who serves as a professor of moral theology and vice-rector at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, is the author of Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics,published in 2016 by Our Sunday Visitor Publishing.

In the book, Father Berg writes: “…It is possible, in Christ and with the grace flowing from his Heart, to discover all of our hurts as a wellspring of graced living, and as a source of holiness and wholeness.”

And the priest also notes, “Protecting children must truly be at the heart of our mission as well as protecting, nurturing, ministering and providing assistance to victims… We can become that Church if we open up wide to the power flowing from the wounded heart of Christ, who tenderly loves and accompanies everyone who hurts in his Church.”

In an interview with the Catholic Standard,Father Berg reflected on how Catholics – including abuse survivors, the overall Catholic community and faithful priests carrying out their ministries – can find healing in the wake of the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

Asked about his personal reaction to the abuse crisis in the Church, he said like most Catholics, he has felt very strong emotions, including “rage, disgust and utter determination on how this (the Archbishop McCarrick situation) happened.” He said his friendship with survivors of sexual abuse fuels his “rage, anger and resolution (that) we absolutely must fix this.” He feels “heartbroken” with “compassion for victims who suffered through this.”

Asked how abuse survivors can find healing, he said Catholics should avoid the mentality of regarding survivors as “the other”: “A lot of that depends on all of us. The thing all of us need to do for survivors – bishops, priests, religious, lay Catholics – the first thing we need to do is remember survivors are not ‘them.’ Because of the awfulness of a priest abusing a child, psychologically we keep that at arms’ length. Historically when victims came forward, bishops and dioceses treated them as a litigant or enemy. We forget they are us, they are part of us. They were altar boys who worked in the sacristy… Victims are us, not them. Understand these are brothers and sisters who have been deeply hurt.”

He said that bishops “meeting with and listening to survivors and their stories brings survivors halfway down the road to healing. Listening to their story is incredibly important in the healing process.”

Father Berg said it is also important to pray for survivors regularly. “One thing parishes can do, I think every parish in the country could start sponsoring a support group for victims of abuse or exploitation… Every parish in the country could be offering that support – a safe place where a group can meet. Know that in the parish community, there are survivors of sexual abuse. Reach out to them. They need to know parishes are safe places (for them).”

“The danger for bishops,” he said, “is still the mentality, ‘Haven’t we done enough now?’ This is the new normal. A regular part of any bishop’s ministry should be ongoing presence, ongoing listening, ongoing reaching out (to abuse survivors). Bishops play such an enormously important role in the healing of victims… Victims are still very much looking to bishops to fix this. The first way for bishops to fix this is by being present to survivors in their diocese. That is paramount.”

Asked about how people in the pews can find healing in the wake of the abuse crisis, he said:

“I have to encourage my brother priests, we have to jump in the breach. We have to hold listening sessions, town hall meetings in parishes. We have to give parishioners a venue to cry if they need to, to vent their rage, to ask very difficult questions. A town hall approach to that can be very helpful. The idea of priests jumping into the breach (means they) have to be very present, talk about it from the pulpit.”

“The best thing any parish can do right now is Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (or hold) prayer services… When we incorporate prayer, hopefully we’re taking advantage (of that experience) to remember Jesus Christ is Lord, He has already triumphed over any evil, awful thing in any grand jury report. He is Lord of our Church. In prayer, we’re placing ourselves in the presence of the Lord. He’s the source of all healing. We can’t heal ourselves. This is a moment in our Church when we need to go to Him… and implore His healing in our communities and protect our faith.”

In his book, he includes the story of an individual who says, “I am not going to allow what happened to me destroy my faith in the Church.”

Father Berg added, “We are about to embark on years of grand jury reports. We have to take that stance now. Ask God for grace, (to) not allow that to touch the nucleus of my faith in the Lord and in His Church.”

Asked about his advice for how priests can find healing, he said, “I encourage priests to be vulnerable at the pulpit. You’ve got to show your people you are heartbroken. Our lay brothers and sisters need to see that the response to that is to support our priests, show your priests any way you can that you love and support them.”

He also said, “We need to exercise priestly fraternity more than ever.” He’s afraid that in reaction to the crisis, some priests might withdraw or experience burnout.

“Priests really do suffer this in an unique way,” he said.  “If I’m hurting and I know my brother priests are hurting, we need to acknowledge that and reach out to each other… We’re in this together, and with God’s grace, we’ll get through it.”

When asked if he has hope for the future of the Church, Father Berg said,“I look forward to a very purified Church. The best way I can understand this moment in Church history (is that) this is a moment (of purification) we’re embarking on. I look forward to more robust vocations to the priesthood and religious life. We’re about to embark on a fundamental transformation in how we experience and live the Church.”

This will mean the way bishops carry out their ministry has to be transformed, he said. “We are aware of how clericalism has hurt the Church, how sexually active priests have hurt the Church. There’s a lot of transformation coming… a transformation of parish life, what it means to be a Catholic community, (a transformation) at every level – priests, bishops, laity and religious. What I think you’ll see emerge here are new ecclesial movements, new religious orders. I think when the Church is immersed in a crisis, you see the Holy Spirit working overtime. We have the ingredients for making saints and martyrs.”