Listen, acknowledge, inform regarding abuse


By Father Thom Hennen
Question Box Column
Q. How do you respond to someone who starts railing against the Church about all the new charges of clergy sexual abuse in the news?

Fr. Hennen

A. With the recent release of the Illinois Attorney General’s report, this has once again come up in a big way, especially for those of us on the eastern side of the diocese bordering Illi­nois. You might also recall the release of the Iowa Attorney General’s report in 2021 and before that the Pennsylvania Grand Jury’s report in 2018. This issue just will not go away, and it should not. I mean this in the sense that as a Church we can never turn our back on this or say, “Can’t we just move on?” There is nothing so basic to the Gospel as treating the most vulnerable with the dignity and compassion they are due as God’s beloved children.

As to your question, my first piece of advice would simply be to listen. Those who may be “railing against the Church” are understandably angry. Let them be angry. Giving them the impression that they should not feel this way is a non-starter for sure. Now, if someone seems obsessed with this and is always fanning the flames of their anger, that is another matter but not likely one that you can help them with.

Second, acknowledge the reality. That doesn’t mean we “pile on” and launch into our own diatribe, but that we acknowledge the truth of the matter. This is the right thing to do and very often has a defusing effect. When someone screams, “This is wrong!” It’s hard for that person to respond negatively to someone who calmly replies, “You’re right.” Once the initial anger is vented, a deeper conversation might be possible.


Third, try to inform. Without being defensive or dismissive, it may be helpful to dispel some common myths. For example, many assume that clergy sexual abuse is higher among Catholic clergy as compared to clergy of other faiths or denominations or even as compared to other professions or the general population. This is not the case and good sources are out there to back this up. People may also think because it always seems to be in the news that new abuse is happening all the time. However, most of these reports are summarizing decades-old abuse. This does not excuse what happened in the past, but the Church today has many more measures in place to prevent abuse (and has largely done so in recent decades) and so should not be “painted with the same brush.” I found a good summary of these myths on the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City website (

Lastly, give reason for your hope. Our Church is bigger than any one priest or even 10,000 priests. We are also greater than the amalgam of our past sins. I am not Catholic because every Catholic who ever lived was perfect, but because I believe the claims of Catholicism and that God continues to work in and through this Church, despite its past failings or faulty human structures. To put it another way, I stand with Jesus (and with Peter) despite Judas. While even one case of clergy sexual abuse is one too many, we do not abandon the mission entrusted to us.

I was in seminary in 2002 when the story broke about the scope and depth of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Archdiocese of Boston, which in turn caused a chain reaction of revelations in dioceses across the country, including Davenport. When the seminarians would discuss this among ourselves or when we were asked to do an interview, the question would often come up, “Does this shake your faith in the Catholic Church or make you not want to be a priest?” To a man, the answer was always a resounding “no.” If anything, it only strengthened our resolve to strive to be holy priests, conformed more perfectly to Christ the Good Shepherd and agents of his healing love. Throughout the Church’s history, when we have faced crises from within or without, saints have stepped up not out, and so must we!

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and Vicar General for the Diocese of Davenport. Send questions to

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