Introduction by Sr. Christine Schenk:
Tonight it is my honor to present the award for Young Catholic leaders to Doris Wagner Reisinger. This award is given to a Roman Catholic whose research, writing, advocacy, or ministry exhibits outstanding leadership in promoting justice in the church and whose efforts will inspire and foster a new generation of reformers and activists.
I will focus on Doris’s outstanding leadership and advocacy on behalf of nuns abused by priests, and their abuse by female enablers within a dysfunctional clerical system.
The story of this horrific reality first broke in 2001 when the National Catholic Reporter published a detailed account of the sexual abuse of sisters in 23 countries including the US. I well remember how impossible it was at the time to find anyone willing to speak on the record. Even though official reports had been sent to Rome by international leaders of religious communities nothing happened.
With the rise of the #Metoo movement, that would finally change. But accountability remained elusive.
Doris’s courageous and successful pursuit of accountability began within darkness and pain. As a young nun she was raped and sexually assaulted by two different priest-members of her religious order. She kept quiet about the rape fearing that no one would believe her. But in 2009 she was again traumatized—this time in the confessional—by Fr. Hermann Geissler who solicited her for sex.
Doris soon left her order. In 2014, with the help of a canon lawyer. she reported Geissler to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. They responded by telling her that Geissler had “admitted his fault, asked pardon, and was admonished.” But nothing changed. Instead Geissler went on to become the head of the doctrinal section at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Fast forward to November 2018. With two other women Doris recounted her traumatic experiences at a public Voices of Faith event in Rome. Now a respected theologian, author, activist not to mention a wife and a mother, Doris had long since put her abuse behind her. But she wanted to speak on behalf of others, so that “any victim who decides to speak up, you will know that you are not alone -- we all stand with you.” And she especially wanted those frightened sisters who mistakenly believe obedience requires them to suffer to know that, “Christ has died for us not to make us suffer, but he has died for us to make us free.”
That same month--November 2018—undoubtedly prompted by the VOF and by contemporaneous reports of egregious abuse of sisters by priests and even bishops in Chile and India, the UISG representing more than 500,000 sisters issued a statement “condemning those who support the culture of silence and secrecy, often under the guise of “protection” of an institution’s reputation or naming it “part of one’s culture”. We advocate for transparent civil and criminal reporting of abuse whether within religious congregations, at the parish or diocesan levels, or in any public arena.”
While Doris didn’t publicly name Geissler at the VOF event, enterprising journalists soon figured it out.
On January 21, 2019, The National Catholic Reporter reported that Fr. Hermann Geissler was still working at the CDF. Just days after he was publicly identified Geissler stepped down.
Also in January, 2019 Pope Francis asked the Vatican’s highest court, the Apostolic Signatura to investigate the Geissler case. [In Church law propositioning someone in the confessional is an extremely serious crime. Canon law prescribes that the priest be severely punished and in grave cases dismissed from the priesthood.]
In February 2019, the Vatican publication, Woman Church World denounced the sexual abuse of nuns by priests. That same February, Pope Francis said publicly that the church must do more about this issue.
As a lifelong student of what it takes to leverage significant systemic change, I must tell you that exposing how an unjust system is failing to observe its own laws and values, constitutes huge progress.
Unfortunately, in May 2019 the Signatura acquitted Hermann Geissler without ever hearing Doris’s testimony in person. This despite the fact Geissler had admitted his guilt according to the written 2014 communique Doris had received from the Vatican. A renowned professor of canon law, Thomas Schuller of Munster University in Germany called the Signatura ruling a “scandalous verdict.”
Despite this mendacious and self-serving ruling from the Vatican high court, significant systemic change seems to be under way—at least in India.
On August 29, amidst long standing reports of priests and bishops raping and sexually exploiting Indian sisters, Pope Francis suddenly transferred India’s apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Gimbattista Diquattro. Catholic lay organizations in India expressed profound relief since Diquattro had failed to act against corrupt bishops—one of whom is currently on trial in civil court for raping a sister-superior multiple times.
I believe Doris Wagner Reisinger’s uncommon courage and perseverance has succeeded in leveraging significant accountability in the clerical system.
Her persistent advocacy via canonical and media truth-telling has brought about substantive change.
For this reason and for so many others that we don’t have time to tell, it is my great pleasure to present FutureChurch’s award for Young Catholic Leaders to my sister in the struggle---Doris Wagner Reisinger.
Transcript of Dr. Doris Wagner Reeisinger's Remarks - Making Sense of 2020
In March this year Phyllis Zagano caught the sentiment of the moment when she said, it was just like in the 14th century: Two popes and a plague. And she is right: who of us would have expected that having “two popes and a plague” was a likely scenario for the 21st century? There is actually a lot more we might add to that list of things that – only some years ago – we would not have expected to experience in our life time.
Many of us may feel as if we suddenly awoke in a completely crazy reality and still struggle to understand how we got here. Some have lost loved ones to strange conspiracy ideologies. Many witness a kind of political instability they have never known before, and that is true whether you are living in the United States right now or in the United Kingdom, or in Nigeria, Lebanon, Thailand or many other countries around the world. And, all of us who are Catholic of course we wonder what happened to our Church.
We awoke in an ugly reality when for the first time we saw headlines of Catholic priests abusing children and learned that those headlines were actually true. We are still in that ugly reality right now. We have become used not only to those headlines but also to the fact that we cannot trust our bishops and our Pope to deal with those horrendous crimes in a reasonable way. Just pause a moment and ask yourself: How could something so shocking ever become normal? Because it is not normal and we should never accept it as normal. But there is more: We are in a situation in which - probably for the first time since the middle ages - a considerable number of Catholic clergy, including bishops and cardinals, openly defy and attack a sitting Pope. We live in a time in which fellow Catholics and even some of our bishops, openly align themselves with and support some of the worst political leaders of our times. And even at the core and center of our Christian lives, we have become used to a deep and far-reaching division: In many local Churches the celebration of the Eucharist does no longer unite us, but separates us, depending on the rite we follow or on whether or not we follow somebody who calls himself Kiko or any other self-declared spiritual founder of an elitist Catholic movement who deem others less worthy than themselves… - And, you know, we could go on like this, listing indicators and developments in our world and in our Church that are truly frightful. But there are also indicators of hope and signs of solidarity and truly impressive achievements by inspiring persons. There are signs of hope that cannot, and must not, be overlooked.
Yet, despite these signs of hope, what remains difficult for us, is to understand where we are, what has happened to our Church and to find the road we need to take in order to get solid ground under our feet again.
Obviously, I do not have a solution I could offer you. But let me offer you what I have, let me tell you how I found a key to make sense of my own experience of abuse.
The perplexity, the shock we collectively experience during this crisis, is actually very similar to the shock experienced by a victim of sexual abuse. It
is the shock of somebody who witnesses something that is simply and entirely unthinkable. That is one of the worst aspects of abuse : that it comes to you as a complete shock and remains entirely incomprehensible for a very long time.
I had never heard of spiritual abuse in the Catholic Church, let alone of priests who sexually abuse and rape nuns, nor had my fellow sisters or my parents or anybody I knew. That such a thing was even possible had never ever come to my mind. So, when it happened to me, I could not decode it at first and when I began to understand what had happened - my brain stopped.
Had I been naïve? Probably, but I think there is more and I want to frame it differently: What I had been taught and what I believed about the world, the Church and my place in it, did not match up with my experience. And that made me suffer like I had never suffered before, because it made my life seem failed and senseless and it left me without a clue.
The key for me was to understand that my whole life had been based upon two premises which were ultimately incompatible:
On the one hand I believed that God has created every human being with an unviolable dignity, with an intimate depth of feelings and thoughts, which in Gaudium et Spes is called the “most secret core and sanctuary”, where we are alone with our Creator, who alone knows each and everyone of us to our core. And that therefore any kind of manipulation, coercion or force in matters of faith is out of place. In short: An act of faith is a free act – or it is not an act of faith at all.
On the other hand I believed that we must not trust our own judgment in matters of faith but need stewards of our faith : priests and bishops who tell us how to pray and think and feel right about God. And that whenever we feel some kind of reluctance to trust them that reluctance is most likely caused by some kind of sinfulness and temptation. So, we better do as we are told and do not follow our own inner voice, that might lead us astray. In short: An act of faith is in line with Church doctrine – or it is not an act of faith at all.
Whichever way you look at it: These two premises are in evident contradiction to one another.
It was one thing for me to come to an understanding of two principles that were incompatible in my life – and to understand that it was the second premise that made me vulnerable to abuse. - It was another thing to look at this as a theologian and analytical philosopher and to realize that these two principles which are logically opposed are at the same time perfectly in line with Catholic doctrine, both of them.
Our Church relies, in fact, on two lines of Catholic tradition that are ultimately incompatible. Both of them traverse the Bible, the Catechism, Canon Law and the teachings of the magisterium. Often you find one right next to the other and probably there is no place where you find both lines so closely linked as in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states, that a person “must not be forced to act contrary to her conscience. Nor must she be prevented from acting according to her conscience, especially in religious matters.’” (1782) And directly after this it states that: “the education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.” (1783) – So? How do we make sense of this?
I believe that this strange logical contradiction is actually the key to decode the crisis we are going through. – And not only in our Church. – As a Church and as a society we have never properly sorted out our premises and made a clear and consistent decision, which ones to follow. We might have done that individually, but not collectively, so that while some of us pretended our Church – and our societies – were following the premise of equality and dignity – right next to us there are actually many people who view it differently. They believe honestly and seriously that we are not equal, that God has given to some people more dignity and that they are entitled to dominate and control the rest of us. There are people who honestly and seriously believe, that faith is not a free choice but an obligation and that some people are entitled by virtue of their office or by virtue of their personal enlightenment to coerce others into it and that whoever opposes himself or herself to them rightly deserves to be punished.
But, here is the thing: That premise of entitlement and control is extremely dangerous. If anything, the abuse crisis should have taught us that lesson.
Just as the suffering of so many people at the hands of others in the history of our respective societies should have taught us that lesson : Wherever people are victimized, abused, exploited or killed it is because somebody believed to have the right or even the legal or moral obligation to abuse, exploit and kill them.
And what they failed to see is : They are mistaken. It is as simple as this: Nobody has the moral right to put himself or herself above others, not on the grounds of wealth or office or skin color or gender or ideological or religious background, not on any grounds. Not in our Church, not in our families, not in society.
If our Christian faith is to have any logical and ethical substance at all it consists precisely in this message : That we are all equal before God and possess an inviolable dignity from which derive equally inviolable rights, among them the right to follow our own conscience in matters of faith.
So, to conclude, even if it is difficult to figure out what we must do in this situation, I will try and propose three things in particular:
1) We need to get a correct analysis of the situation we are in and in order to achieve this we need to change the official narrative: Stop pretending – and stop our leaders from pretending – there was no theologically and morally illegitimate domination and control in our Church and our societies, because there clearly is. Make it visible and help people to tell their stories of abuse – not only sexual abuse but also spiritual abuse, violence and exploitation – and their stories of liberation and empowerment.
2) Challenge our leaders with regard to the logical incoherence of supposed equality and obvious domination. And make sure to let yourself not be gaslighted by them. Because that is what they normally do.
3) Fight for the change of our Church and our society. Because our constitutions, political and ecclesiastical, still have many rules, that allow for the domination, exploitation and abuse of our fellow human beings. We must address that issue, everyone of us in his or her own way.
I am not sure, how far we can get. I want to be honest: I am not exactly optimistic that a meaningful reform of our Church is even possible – but at the same time I know that it would be terribly wrong not even to try.
Because, if faith is about anything at all, it is about hope that despite all the efforts of self-righteous rulers, darkness will not prevail and that every man and woman and child who to this day are controlled and abused shall be free at last.
Dr. Doris Reisinger