In Western Washington, much of the decades-long past surrounding abusers and those who covered up their crimes remains under lock and key inside the Seattle Archdiocese in what has been called the “secret files.” Maybe a better name could be the “Sacred files.” As Canon Law states, “Only the bishop is to have the key to the secret archive.”
Based on recent letters he’s written to area priests and parishioners in an effort to discount the Heal Our Church movement, Archbishop Paul Etienne would have us believe that much of the reason he wants to withhold the files from examination by an independent, lay-appointed commission is “to protect the privacy (of victims).” He says this “is at the heart of the issue.”
Privacy is not the heart of the issue. Survivors are the heart. Survivors want to know the how and the why behind the tragic events in their lives. I was 73 years old, in 2013, when the dioceses of Los Angeles released its secret files. My name was redacted and so were the names of all survivors. For the first time in my life — 62 years after the abuse — I knew I was not alone.
As a founding committee member of Heal Our Church, I speak for myself and many other victims when I say that having access to the details surrounding the abuse — knowing what bishops and pastors did, and did not do to protect us — helped us put the pieces of our lives back together.
Keeping these stories and the truth of clergy sex predators under lock and key simply keeps survivors prisoners and church communities barred from the truth needed to create a new and safer future for our children, and reconciliation a possibility.
The Catholic Church is still living within a culture of hierarchical power. There is slow, sure death for the church in the U.S. if it cannot tell the truth about the past crimes of clergy sex abuse and cover up. Truth telling is its only hope and salvation.
I believe the Seattle Archdiocese has not released all its records, or all the names of the accused because telling the whole truth to the Catholic community about the how and why this scandal happened is not about protecting children but rather protecting itself, its reputation, its assets and power.
Releasing the records is a significant piece of telling the truth and a steppingstone to healing. Catholics are ready for truth and healing. Victims are ready for truth and healing. Victims have walked in darkness far too long. We want and deserve to know the whole story behind the trauma we have endured. We don’t need privacy, secrets and shame. We need the truth. We need healing.
Mary Dispenza is a former Catholic nun, educator and National Distinguished Principal. She is the Northwest regional director for Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.