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The Catholic Church and Sexual Abuse: a Q&A with Sister Christina Chavez

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This year, the Diocese of Austin identified 22 priests complicit in sexual abuse. 

By Sabrina LeBoeuf

In August 2018, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation uncovered more than 1,000 victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Pennsylvania. This was not the first time the church has been linked to a sexual-abuse scandal; victims of sexual abuse by priests have been coming forward since the mid-1990s. While this scandal scarred parishes predominantly throughout the Northeast, the Catholic Diocese of Austin was not untouched. In January, the diocese released a list of 22 priests who “have been credibly accused of committing sexual abuse against a minor.”

Austin Woman sat down with Sister Christina Chavez to discuss the effects of rampant abuse within the church, how to move forward and her recent World Youth Day trip with the pope.

Sister Christina Chavez

Austin WomanWhat led you to become a nun?

Christina Chavez: I thought maybe I was called to religious life. I didn’t know anything about it, but when it started popping up in my head as an idea or a thought…I was like, “Nobody does that; that’s weird. I’m not going to be a nun.” But also, I was like, “Why would I be a nun?” like I’m not good enough, because I didn’t want to be seen as a hypocrite. It took a lot [for] me to get over that for myself, which is why I’m so adamant for other people to be kind and merciful to themselves and to each other. That’s really what we’re called to do anyway and not expect perfection. We’re always striving for it, but if it were required to be perfect, the church really would be empty. And that’s true of everyone, as a sister, as a priest, as everyone.

AWWhat are your thoughts about the church’s sexual-abuse scandals in Pennsylvania?

CC: It’s super terrible. … I recognize how terrible it is. Put it this way: When we have Catholicism that’s going through the motions and [Catholics] not necessarily knowing why we’re doing what we’re doing, it leads to a point of having these views of the people in the ministry…for priests, like how perfect they have to be. So, I’ve had to deepen my understanding and be like, “You know, as much as I’m sinful, I guess priests are sinful too, right?” and reconciling that.

AWHow are you moving forward from these scandals?

CC: For me, it’s more about helping people…not [putting] other people on pedestals, no matter what their role is, because I think that’s one really hard thing that we’re going to have to grow from and not do anymore because that helps perpetuate roles of power or secrecy. My other feeling was just like, “OK, now this has come to light and I still have to minister to souls and help people deal with it themselves.” I always have to stand on that foundation that we come in here because we’re sinners, and that’s why I still need the church because it was given to us by Jesus, not necessarily the people inside of it.

AWHow do you reconcile the humanity and criminality of abusive priests?

CC: I think it’s important to recognize that it is sinful and criminal what happened, and, as a minister or even as a Catholic, it’s important for me to always point out that everyone needs mercy and is in need of redemption and [is]capable of redemption. But it’s God’s work. It’s not something that we can do necessarily humanly. … It was wrong. I don’t condone anything criminal, of course, but I also know as a human person with a soul, they’re in need of redemption. And if God grants it, that’s God.

AWHow is the church responding to this sexual-abuse scandal in the United States?

CC: Every diocese in the U.S. [has] protocols and training. We definitely push that everyone has this training, and this training is how to recognize signs of people who have been abused. Understanding that is so crucial, I think, because it’s so easy to believe that a bad person is going to look like a bad person. Yet, historically, scientifically, across the board, we know that’s not always the case. … They’re definitely pushing, especially if you serve with children, to be trained.

AWWhat was your training experience like?

CC: Some people shared their own experience of abuse, and it’s heartbreaking to hear them share it. They share it in order to explain, because of these views of power, how that scared them into silence. So, certain protocols are put in place now about how [many]  people can be in the room. We have windows on our doors, kind of stuff like that to comply and make the environment an ethical environment.

AWDo you think people realize the church is responding to these scandals?

CC: I think in the U.S., we’re very go, go, go. We also have a very short history. Our country is not that old. So, we want things to move a lot faster, but the church is a lot slower. I think to secular standards, the church is moving slow, but the thing is the church is responding. … This is an institution that deals with more than just one country. It’s going to take time, but I’m hopeful that the Holy Spirit is with us and guides everything. It’s going to improve because the people of God want it to, and we’re going to make sure it does.

AWWhat advice do you have for Catholics struggling to come to terms with this scandal?

CC: I’m always about the free will, so they can do what they want. I would recommend rather than staying away from the church to go into the church and try to talk to someone about it. That’s not going to be easy, but if they’re angry, we can pray angry with God. That’s OK.

AWWhat does the Catholic church need to do in order to move forward?

CC: We will only move forward when we are honest with ourselves and others. What I mean by that is not putting on a mask, like, “This is my perfect me that comes into the church because I’m good and can come in this church,” because our real self is what needs God in our heart. … For Catholics, I think being honest with ourselves and not thinking, “I only have to present my most perfect self,” is going to help everyone across the board, especially those of us in ministry.

AW: What was your experience attending World Youth Day?

CC: To see that all these people were there gathered for the same reason, which was just to hear the pope’s message and to worship at mass, it kind of just felt like the Catholic world is so big but also so small at the same time. … It’s so big when you realize these people are from everywhere and countries that you don’t hear about even sometimes. Then, at the same time, it’s small because we were all doing the same thing because we were participating in the same liturgy. It was kind of like a paradox, just being there, among there. It was cool.

AWWhat was it like seeing more than 600,000 pilgrims at World Youth Day? Did it give you hope?

CC: I just think it’s more reassuring and reaffirming. … I knew there’s no way that the church is going to…diminish so much that we won’t have enough people in it. I just knew that in my heart because of my experience in entering religious life, but seeing it is like the proof. I feel like, yeah, people can think it’s going down, and in certain areas of the world it is, but in a lot of the world, it’s not at all. It’s definitely very vibrant.

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