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No Matter How High the Hedge Grows

Clergy Sexual Abuse and the Healing Process


Last April, the Solidarity Project, a memorial for clergy abuse survivors on the grounds of Mission Santa Barbara, was willfully vandalized by a person employed by the Franciscans. An essential part of the memorial is the stones, messages, candles, and items of remembrance placed by survivors and others; these were swept up and discarded like so much trash, including the specially designed clay pot that contained numerous exchange stones and the sign that reminded visitors of the sacredness of this place. This was the second time in less than a year that the memorial had not only been destroyed, but destroyed by the same person.

Paul Fericano

What makes this story particularly disturbing is not just the fact that the person responsible was a mission supervisor, or that he denied destroying the memorial both times despite the presence of several witnesses, or even that he attempted to blame a survivor for the memorial’s desecration. The real issue was that he was never held accountable for his actions by the Franciscans. In fact, not only is he still employed at the mission but he’s been assigned even greater supervisory duties.

After 11 months, and despite letters to the Franciscan provincial minister in Oakland (and his superiors in Rome) protesting the vandalism and calling for an investigation and the removal of the friars who oversee operations at the mission, absolutely nothing has been done. Their silence and refusal to respond has forced me and others to conclude that the mission guardian, vicar guardian, administrator, and the provincial himself have closed their eyes to this vandalism.

If all this sounds eerily familiar, it should: Something bad happens on Franciscan property, it’s reported to the friars, and when they fail to acknowledge any wrongdoing, they accuse the injured and reward the offender. Then, to top it off, they complain about clergy abuse survivors who can’t “move on.” In the immortal words of that esteemed Catholic theologian Yogi Berra: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

I’ve witnessed my share of Franciscans who misuse power and initiate a slow disintegration of Franciscan values. If the friars currently in charge could have their way, Mission Santa Barbara would become a monastery-like fortress serving only themselves and the dead. A sign could very well hang on the gate that reads, “Peace and all good-bye.” This is not just about the vandalism of a memorial on Franciscan property, an apt icon for everything gone wrong at Mission Santa Barbara. It’s about the creeping disconnection of a tiny group of men who place their own self-importance above the needs of community.

Saint Francis is surely turning over in his sandals.

Although it’s supposed to be a “secret,” word has now leaked out that the popular Mission Renewal Center, a welcoming retreat in the Franciscan tradition, is to be closed in December. It was the guardian himself who drove the first nail in its coffin last year when, in an act of retaliation, he forced out the center’s experienced and much-loved director, a sister in the Order of St. Francis, after she dared to challenge his authority. But the current administration can hardly afford to isolate itself entirely. They’ll still tolerate the ordinary guy’s presence in some crucial areas, like keeping the mission gift shop and museum up and running. These are cash cows for the friars. It was the guardian, after all, who once revealed in a staff meeting his desire to see the mission run like McDonald’s.

The decision to close the renewal center is emblematic of yet another Franciscan bungle in freefall. They may say it’s because they’re losing money. But that would be less than candid. Over the last five years successful retreats have fattened the mission’s coffers. In fact, more people would be flocking to this beautiful center if the friars had spent a little more time and resources promoting the living and a lot less time trying to convince people to give them tens of thousands of dollars to bury their dead in their prohibitively expensive columbarium. It’s not just about having your prerogatives out of whack. It’s about losing your way.

The clergy abuse crisis has painfully taught us that ignoring problems, denying they exist, and cloaking decisions in secrecy and mystery only force us to examine the past and uncover the truth. The friars who are running Mission Santa Barbara don’t understand this, and it appears they never will. These are men who’ve made it clear they don’t want anyone around who isn’t wearing brown. This preference would be understandable, even acceptable, if your religious order was based on strict monastic rule. But it’s not. The Order of Friars Minor is a worldwide Franciscan sect that is openly devoted to serving others in their communities, especially the poor and marginalized, so that the gospel can be fully lived. This is what that crazy little beggar saint had in mind.

Is it any wonder, then, how a distorted view of Franciscan charity might easily induce someone to vandalize a sacred space not once, but twice? My organization, SafeNet, once had an office on the mission grounds. Over the years I took some meals in the mission dining room and watched certain friars hold court as if they were late-night talk-show hosts. I heard insensitive remarks by men so self-absorbed they might as well have been standing in front of their own bathroom mirrors. Leading by poor example has helped perpetuate a misguided and mean-spirited loyalty among those who may not know any better, but should.

It’s difficult for anyone to guess what these friars are thinking. But it’s a serious mistake to underestimate their ineptitude. Men who have demonstrated time and again their uncanny ability to make and stand by bad decisions are the kind of Franciscans who are dragging down the rest of their order and causing needless suffering. It’s one thing to believe you are always right and quite another to believe that everyone else is wrong but you. The chain of command that binds friars to one another through their vows is poorly delineated. I’ve spoken to other Franciscans in the province about what’s happening at Mission Santa Barbara. Their response is either total silence or, as some earnest ones will admit, they really don’t understand what’s going on there. And I believe them. Honest communication, which requires the free flow of information in both directions, is an alien concept to those who currently control the mission.

As for the Solidarity Project memorial, it was restored both times by survivors and their supporters, and it will continue to be restored again and again should it continue to be vandalized — even if a friar dares to dismantle it himself. To be clear: this simple but eloquent monument was designed and approved not just by survivors, but by members of the community and three respected Franciscans, including a previous mission guardian and a pastor. One would think the friars would be proud of this. Instead, the current guardian has chosen to ring the perimeter of the area (where the memorial bench and plaque rest) with more than 60 privet shrubs — a fast-growing hedge plant that is both poisonous and invasive. This action will eventually hide the memorial from the common road that divides the mission and St. Anthony’s Seminary next door where hundreds of boys were abused. It doesn’t take a psychologist to explain the symbolism or the irony at work here.

Consider visiting the Solidarity Project memorial when you’re in Santa Barbara.* Sitting on the handmade bench that seminarians sat on more than 60 years ago can be a powerful and emotional experience. It’s one of the few peaceful spots that speaks to both the great joy and terrible sorrow that is an integral part of our mutual healing; a place that should never be forgotten no matter how high the hedge grows.

* The Solidarity Memorial is located on the property behind Mission Santa Barbara and adjacent to St. Anthony’s Seminary. It can be reached on foot by walking up the shared road/driveway at 2300 Garden Street (Garden and Pueblo). The memorial bench and rock are approximately halfway up the road and to your right shaded by palm trees. Those traveling by car can park on Garden Street.

A Room with a Pew reflects the experiences, observations, and opinions of a survivor of clergy abuse who attended St. Anthony’s Seminary in the 1960s. Author Paul Fericano helped cofound SafeNet in 2003 and returned to Santa Barbara that year to assist the community in recovery. As a poet, writer, and activist engaged in the healing process, the author often challenges survivors (and others) to look for humor in the shadows.

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