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Parents: Help teens, young adults cling to faith during crisis

Priests answer questions about how to talk to teens about sexual abuse crisis

Published: September 21, 2018   
Crystal Kirk /
How can you help your teen or young adult get through a crisis of faith triggered by sex abuse scandals in the Church?

ROGERS — On many parents’ minds is how to openly address the topic of sexual abuse among clergy with their teens and young adults. The disclosure of 12 names of priests who ministered in Arkansas and have credible allegations against them has cast a light on a subject that is uncomfortable but must be addressed.

For some, these scandals are triggering a crisis of faith. As evidenced by meetings held at St. Stephen Church in Bentonville Sept. 11, conversations are emotionally charged and demanding action.

So how do we talk to our teens and young adults, or anyone for that matter, about this topic and encourage them not to lose faith? There are no easy answers. But the most important first step, according to Msgr. Jack Harris, a trained crisis counselor, when moderating the town hall meeting, is to be having these conversations and listening.

What has happened is indefensible and difficult to understand, but giving young people a safe place to voice their concerns and fears is a part of the healing process.

Father Jason Sharbaugh, associate pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish on the campus of the University of Arkansas, and Father Martin Siebold, associate pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers, answer a few of these questions.


What would you say to teens or young adults who are critical of the Church and see leaving as a way to voice their distrust?

Father Sharbaugh: First of all, it’s understandable. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that we need a certain anger against evil just as Jesus had when vulnerable people were harmed. Also, God is not bound by his own Church. He is everywhere. He is the revealed nature to people even outside of the Church. Yet, the Church is where we find him most intimately and find his salvation. ...

We have to remember, we cannot base our decisions on the moral goodness of other people. Only Jesus is Jesus and no one else walks on water. But we are now called to be a part of the answer and not to leave those behind that have suffered. In this rebuilding of the Church, answers will come forward and, I believe, the Church will emerge better for it. I believe what British author Hilaire Belloc said, “The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine, but for unbelievers, a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”

Father Siebold: I refer back to what the bishop said in his letter read at all the Masses in the diocese a few weeks ago. We must not put our faith in any one bishop, priest or even pope. Our faith should be in Jesus Christ who suffered and died for us. Ultimately, we priests, bishops and popes, who are ordained to minister in the person of Christ, should lead people to a closer relationship with him, but sometimes we fail, like Judas. ... Human sinfulness should not cause us to despair in matters of faith and in Jesus’ promise. That does not mean that we cast these matters aside, but that in dealing with these issues to prevent further atrocities we place our faith in Christ, not in any fallible being.


Many may be experiencing a “crisis of faith.” But what can Catholics cling to in their faith at this time?

Father Siebold: We cling to Jesus and his promise in Matthew 16 that the Church would not be overcome by evil and sin, even among the clergy. That is what gives us the confidence and strength to hold our bishops and priests accountable to work together towards healing. The pope in his response to this crisis invited all of us to seek out prayer and fasting as a way to renew our faith in Christ Jesus. ... We must cling to those things in our faith that last. We should refocus our faith on Christ. He is the one who sees us through the storm. He fights the evil in our Church. He stands victorious in the face of death and the cross. We too are called to do our part, to look towards Christ to overcome this crisis and place our trust in him.


How do we begin to move forward once it is time for the healing?

Father Sharbaugh: To begin with, the Church is all of us and we all need to be honest about it and communicate with one another. People are understandably upset and we have to answer their questions. When there has been criminal mismanagement of people in charge, we simply have failed people. But this is time for clarity and not divisiveness. Our job is to be present to people — that’s part of the Gospel. In the paths of spiritual life, we are to understand there are three stages: purgation, illumination and unification. This stage we are in is a “purgative” stage of sin and cowardice. Next, is God’s grace and that will illuminate the way to unification with God’s love for us all. The Holy Spirit has a plan. God knows this and we have to interact with that.

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