Abuse & Trauma in the Church: DMU Responds


“Kresta In the Afternoon” host Al Kresta interviews Fr. Charles Sikorsky, President of Divine Mercy University, concerning the abuse scandal in the Church. Live from the Authentic Catholic Reform Conference: https://rn189-f69d0b.pages.infusionsoft.net/

Al Kresta: Hi! Good afternoon! I’m Al Kresta here in Washington, D.C., at the Conference on Authentic Catholic Reform, sponsored by the Napa Institute. With me right now, Father Charles Sikorsky, who is president of Divine Mercy University, and you can learn by going to divinemercy.edu. Great to see you again!

Fr. Sikorsky: Nice to see you, Al!

Al Kresta:  We usually run into each other in California at the Napa Institute.

Fr. Sikorsky: Normally California, yes.

Al Kresta: I think we’ve run into each other at other conferences too.

Fr. Sikorsky: We have!

Al Kresta: But it’s good to be with you here. Let me just ask: Divine Mercy University…when a crisis like this comes about, that seems to touch Catholics everywhere–institutions, individuals–what does Divine Mercy University offer to help us in the midst of a crisis like this?

Fr. Sikorsky: Yes. So, we are a graduate-level university; we have have two masters programs and a doctoral program that are focused on psychology and professional counseling, based on a Catholic understanding of the human person, and what a Catholic view of flourishing is, which is fundamental to doing psychology well, it’s fundamental to doing therapy well and counseling well. One of the areas is we also have a center for trauma and resiliency studies.

So our students are trained in a way where not only do they appreciate what the human nature really is, but also how trauma plays into that. Or, excuse me, how much trauma is out there.

So they’re trained very well to be able to treat victims of abuse; to understand the causes, to help others understand how to deal with victims of abuse, all kinds of abuse and trauma. So that’s one area where we’re really able to help.

Al Kresta: And this is a unique type of trauma, too, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not only the psychological dimension of this but, for a victim who’s been abused by clergy, they’ve been abused in that area of their whole idea of the sacred. You know what I’m saying? It’s not just “some authority figure who abused me”, it’s “somebody who stood in the place of Christ abused me”.    

Fr. Sikorsky: It’s aggravated trauma, you could call it, because of that. I mean, it’s bad enough as it is, but when you also throw in that spiritual element–that betrayal of such a sacred nature–it just really destroys a person.

Right now, we have about 325 students. Virtually all of them are really solid Catholics who understand the importance of faith, the importance of spirituality, and I think that helps them and gives them a better, different perspective on this, and a different ability to help people heal. And a whole sense of the healing would be not only psychological, but also emotionally, spiritually, and so forth.

Al Kresta: Do you have any clergy that you teach?

Fr. Sikorsky: We do. We have, I’d say, probably between 5-10 percent of our enrollment is our priests in the different programs. We also have several consecrated women of different orders and so forth who are there. But by and large, though, we form laypeople. We have a Master’s in Counseling that’s online, we have another Master’s in Online Psych, and we have a doctoral program which is in our campus here in the Washington area.        

Al Kresta: At this time, you’re a priest: what are you going through amidst a crisis like this? I mean, it’s gotta be…if you wear a collar, right? You have to be thinking that some people are not going to think well of you.

Fr. Sikorsky: Right.

Al Kresta: How to you deal with that?

Fr. Sikorsky: Well, I think, first of all, we probably experience probably what most of the rest of the church experiences at first, right? There’s anger at how this could happen.

Al Kresta: Right.

Fr. Sikorsky: There are a lot of good questions that people have. Maybe in a way there’s an additional…you know, going around, walking around with a collar, you really can’t hide. But I think that we have one or two responses. We could either allow this to somehow draw us closer to God or into despair, and I really think there isn’t any middle ground. I think it’s a challenge for all of us.

It’s kind of when St. Paul talks about the thorn in the flesh, and how the whole point of that was that God wanted Paul to rely on Him, and to be humble, and to really cling to our Lord. And he says (it’s in 2nd Corinthians, 12), before he goes into that story, “So as not to be too elated, God gave me a thorn in the flesh”.

Al Kresta: Isn’t that an interesting phrase?

Fr. Sikorsky: I think that’s one of the most important verses in the Bible, personally. It’s helped me so much to think about that and to say “God allows humiliations, He gives us crosses that we can’t run from for a reason”. That reason is to draw closer to Him, to realize that, apart from Him, we can do nothing. And I think, as a priest, that’s what’s helped me throughout this. I also think that in Romans 8:28, there’s a verse we can’t forget:

“That all things work together for good for those who love God”      

We just can’t forget that. I think God wants us to go there and really live that out, and realize that, on the other side of every cross, there will be a resurrection. If we open our hearts–if we accept this and embrace our Lord–go to Him first and realize that it’s Christ’s Church. He’s the one. It’s not about a hierarchy, although we need one. It’s really Him, and that’s where we gotta go. If we get too focused on other things, I think it does lead to unhealthy anger.

There’s righteous anger; there’s unhealthy anger that leads to despair, that leads to so many things that we really don’t want

Al Kresta: Just a little personal story here: at one point, the news was bad. It just coming and I was shaking my head thinking, “what the heck am I gonna do with this?” I mean, I’ve had the opportunity to help many people come into full communion with the Church, and they want to know what to do.

Fr. Sikorsky: ‘You’ve trapt me’. (laughing)

Al Kresta: (laughing) Right! And then what I did was fell out of the web of all those concerns. And I just asked the question: did Jesus rise from the dead or not?        

Fr. Sikorsky: Mm hmmm.

Al Kresta: He did! And knowing that changes everything. Because then you come back to “ok, He’s alive, He’s at work. Is this His Body, His Church?” The answer as a Catholic is: yes, absolutely. Knowing that, everything else comes into focus, and you can deal with it. For me, that’s what I’ve felt. I just go back to basics.

I’m sure you must know priests that have had faculty suspended, or whatever they’ve done. Why? Why do you think this happens?

Fr. Sikorsky: I think one of the things we need to remember is sometimes priests get so busy.  I think there’s a real crisis in the spiritual life of many priests, and one thing is to fall in a moment of weakness. Another thing is to habitually be doing and to not even seem to be care about it and cover it up and just go along. And you wonder how could they have a real spiritual life, and I think there’s a real crisis of that: in prayer life, in Eucharistic life and really putting their heart into their Breviary. One of the  things I think about is: God gives us so many means to be holy, so many means to connect with Him.

Sometimes when you connect and read the Breviary, sometimes it can be “oh my gosh, I need to get this all done today”, but then you see how beautiful it is, how renewing it is. Maybe my morning prayer or my mental prayer didn’t go as well as I thought, but then you pray the Breviary and you think “wow, this is God is speaking to me here”.

So I think that’s where the biggest crisis because if we’re not men of the spirit, if we’re not men of prayer, we’re gonna go wrong one way or the other. And some of them, for whatever reason or whatever their own personal background is, they may be more susceptible for falling into sexual sins–same-sex attraction, these kinds of things.

I think that’s the most important thing. I once knew a priest psychologist who told me he worked with many perpetrators. Over 100, I think he said. And what he told me was that there were two common things with all of them. One of them was that none of them had been to confession in more than a year. And the second was that virtually none of them had been to spiritual direction since they were in seminary.

Al Kresta: Isn’t that something?                   

Fr. Sikorsky: And so I think that’s a big part of all this. And then, of course, the governance issues are a different thing, but this is at the heart of why priests have fallen into this.  

Al Kresta: Sure. How big of a problem is careerism among Catholic clergy?  

Fr. Sikorsky: In my role, I don’t see it alot. I’m not close to it. You do hear things when you talk to priests. I think it’s definitely a significant issue with how widespread. We’re all human, and priests are still human and sometimes there’s ambition or wanting to do things for the right reasons. But on the other hand, who would want to be a bishop today?  

Al Kresta: (laughs) That’s partly what I’m thinking: what’s the attraction?

Fr. Sikorsky: I know your friend if you remember, Fr. Benedict Groeschel C.F.R.,

Al Kresta:  Oh yes! Yeah, yeah.

Fr. Sikorsky: I once heard him giving a talk and someone said “what’s the definition of a bishop?” And he said, “It’s a priest with bad luck”. But, power attracts people and, again, it’s the same thing. If you’re not really in it to follow our Lord, to bring people to His love and bring people to the faith, then you’re gonna fall into human goals and ambitions.

Al Kresta: Right. You have graduate students, so they’re doing some research, and you got doctoral students doing some original research. Are they working in this area of clergy and sexual abuse?

Fr. Sikorsky: We have several who have done dissertations related to priestly formation and priestly life. We’ve had many graduates doing dissertations, so they research this and have focused on different aspects of the Church. Right now, I don’t how many we have doing abuse, but it’s something that’s definitely right up their alley.

Like I said, we see many students looking for more training in trauma and to help people with trauma. There’s a great opportunity to do that, and what I say is we have real academic freedom and many things you can study at Divine Mercy University that you would not be allowed to do in other universities in that regard.

There are many opportunities for us to help in some way with that, and I’ve talked with a few bishops recently to try and ask if there’s anything we can do along those lines that could help the conference, that could help the different bishops have a better understanding in those areas.

Al Kresta: Are they responsive?

Fr. Sikorsky:  In general, yes!

Al Kresta: Glad to hear it. How do people get a hold of you?

Fr. Sikorsky: Well, our website: divinemercy.edu. We’ll be happy to answer any questions or help whoever wants to contact us.

Learn more about Divine Mercy University and all of our programs at enroll.divinemercy.edu.