FREEPORT – A Jesuit is pope.
I am Jesuit-educated.
I am a graduate of Cheverus High School (1968) and Fairfield University (1972).
Yet I do not find myself swept up in the excitement that Jesuit priests and Jesuit alumni are expressing, now that “one of our own” is the first ever Jesuit to be elected pope.
The word “Jesuit” is often synonymous with social justice and a deep concern for the poor and vulnerable. My Jesuit teachers taught me that the “service of my faith must include the promotion of justice.”
In a 2000 speech at Santa Clara University, the Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, then head of the Jesuit Order, urged students to “let the gritty reality of this world into their lives, so they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering, and engage it constructively.”
The Rev. Kolvenbach noted that “solidarity with our less fortunate brothers and sisters … is learned through ‘contact’ rather than through ‘concepts.’ When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change. Personal involvement with innocent suffering, with the degradation and injustice others suffer is the catalyst for solidarity, which then gives rise to intellectual inquiry, reflection and action.”
However, when the rubber hit the road and the worldwide Jesuits were confronted with allegations of child sexual abuse, they chose almost instinctively to hide behind their lawyers, to deny responsibility, to avoid accountability, to manipulate the truth — and, above all else, the Jesuits failed to embrace those who were abused with love, compassion, care and understanding.
Instead, the victims became the enemy. The victims were rejected and ostracized.
At my Jesuit alma mater Cheverus High School, the former Cheverus students who were sexually abused by former teacher and coach Charles Malia continue to be denied fair and just amends and reparations for the harms and injuries inflicted upon them as a result of their abuse and the failure of Cheverus officials to protect them.
At my Jesuit alma mater Fairfield University, officials continue to ignore pleas to help 22 former students of Project Pierre Toussaint in Cap Haitien, Haiti, who were sexually abused by the school’s director, Fairfield University alumnus Douglas Perlitz.
For 10-plus years, the Fairfield University Campus Ministry operation devoted itself to Project Pierre Toussaint. However, five years ago, when the first cries of rape emerged from the mouths of these poor and homeless Haitian street kids, Jesuit officials ran as far away as they could from the hurting and wounded victims.
The Haitian child sex abuse victims were forced back into the streets with nothing to eat. These kids sleep on rooftops, they have no one to tuck them in at night, no one to tell them they are loved, no one to tell them that the horrible and disgusting things that were done to their bodies is not their fault.
And here at home, when the very same kids who piled into the family car each Sunday to attend Mass with their families find the courage, years later, to report that they were sexually abused by their parish priest, a nun or a church employee, they are met with hostility and anger.
Perhaps the new Jesuit pope will stand in solidarity — in communion, that is — with those who were abused and pointedly remind this clerical and harshly dogmatic church that the abuse victims and their long-suffering families are, indeed, among the “poor” who we must care for with all our might.
I, for one, will judge the Jesuit pope’s commitment to the poor, his caring for the least of us, by the manner in which he responds to victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
The day must come quickly when the new Jesuit pope has assured himself that, among other things:
• Bullying and manipulating hardball legal tactics against abuse victims have ceased.
• Professional, long-term medical and mental health treatment is available to all victims at no cost.
• Databases are published in every diocese in which the names, photos and other information about priests and church workers who abused children are listed.
• Church documents detailing trails of abuse and cover-up are made public.
• Measurable reparations and amends are made to compensate victims for their harms and injuries.
• Priests, bishops and other church leaders who cover up or conceal child sexual abuse will immediately be removed from office; i.e., they will be fired.
Then, and only then, will I begin to make some sense of what a Jesuit education really means.
Paul Kendrick is a resident of Freeport.