by Christine Lawless, MD and Gordon Nary
Christine: Fr Gavin, tell us a little about your background: where you grew up, your family, your education, and initial career path,
Father Gavin: I grew up outside of San Marcos, TX. I am the oldest of 7 children. We moved into San Marcos in 1976. I graduated San Marcos High, and then did a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Texas. I worked for Eastman Chemical Company, then part of Kodak, in East Texas for 4 years. I became very involved in the parish and the Knights of Columbus. I taught 8th grade Sunday school for 4 years.
Christine: When did you become a priest, and why? Where has your vocation taken you?
Father Gavin: I have a brother who entered seminary after college. Through him I met the vocation director of the Austin Diocese. Surprisingly in fall of 1984, I was moved to consider going to the seminary. I entered the seminary in August 1985, 2 days after I left my engineering job. Surprisingly I never missed my job…not even on payday. I did Pre Theology in Dallas and then an MDiv and MA in Houston. In 1987 they formed the new diocese of Tyler. Having lived in East Texas, I discerned with my formators a call to serve the new diocese. I was ordained for the Diocese of Tyler in 1990.
I was almost immediately named Moderator for the Council of Catholic Women. In 1992 I was named Chancellor and began the Canon Law program at CUA. I have served in many roles in faith formation and liturgy, as Defender of the Bond in the Tribunal, and for almost 16 years as Promoter of Justice (in charge of our Safe Environment program and Victim Assistance). Throughout most of the years I was also pastor of a parish with a school.
Christine: What is your parish, role and responsibilities?
Father Gavin: Currently I am pastor of a small town parish, serve as Defender of the Bond in the Tribunal, and am working on developing an outreach program for couples not authentically married in the Church.
Christine: What ministries have you been involved in?
Father Gavin: I have done a lot with adult faith formation. My MA in Theology was focused toward Christian Initiation as was my thesis for my JCL. I dealt with several cases of clergy misconduct prior to the Charter, and led the development and implementation of our Ethics and Integrity program from 2002-2018.
Christine: We see you are one of the founders of the Maria Goretti Network.
Father Gavin: Yes. I met Miguel Prats back in 2003. He was volunteering for SNAP and was visiting every diocese in Texas to encourage more outreach to victims. He attended one of the first trainings I did for the Ethics and Integrity program and liked it. We took the approach that everyone should be treated with respect and dignity. Protecting not just minors and preventing not just sex abuse.
A few months latter he set up a dinner meeting with Bishop Corrada and myself and presented his idea for a peer support group with an emphasis on forgiveness inspired by the example of St. Maria Goretti. Bishop Corrada liked the idea and asked me to help Miguel get it started.
It is a lay apostolate, not run by the Church, but cooperating with the local Church.
Christine: Can you tell us what this ministry is, and why you thought it was necessary?
Father Gavin: I was impressed with the opportunity for the Church to be reaching out to anyone affected by abuse. Miguel’s inspiration was for a peer support group that would be open to anyone who was hurting from abuse. Not just victims of clerical sexual abuse. It doesn’t matter who the perpetrator was, the person who has been abused often is seeking healing. The group often helps people to begin opening up to the spiritual help of Jesus Christ.
Christine: What is your role with the Maria Goretti Network??
Father Gavin: I am Vice President. I help to keep relationships positive with the local Church. I go out and meet with people who are considering starting chapters. I am in frequent contact with Miguel and several of the other leaders. I frequently attend meetings of the local chapter.
Christine: . How many chapters are there? How many people have taken advantage of this network?
Father Gavin: I think 7 Chapters right now. We have a couple places working toward a Chapter and a couple more considering.
Christine: How does the Maria Goretti Network function, and how does participating in the Maria Goretti Network aid survivors of abuse? Can you describe a typical meeting?
Father Gavin: The meeting is somewhat similar to other peer support groups. A bit like AA. The Chapter meeting provides some anonymity, no one has to speak if they prefer not to and no one is allowed to discuss what someone else has shared.
At the start of the meeting, everyone goes around the room and has a chance to give their first name and a brief statement of how they are doing. It’s a type of checking in. Then there is prayer and the men and women break into two groups. Each group then has 30-45 minutes to share and process things in more detail. This gives both men and woman a chance to share openly in a safe place where no one will try to fix you, or judge you. When that is finished the men return to the room and everyone joins in a discussion about forgiveness. The meeting closes with a prayer, generally between and hour and an hour and a half.
Gordon: What are some of the other challenges to forgiveness in addition to sex abuse?
Father Gavin: Many victims of abuse also struggle with the pain of having not been believed or being ignored. Sadly, often responsible adults did not help the person when they tried to get help. Particularly children often feel they were shut down or ignored or, perhaps worse, told they were wrong. These failures can lead to resentments that are often hard to put to rest.
Not infrequently, victims of abuse find that they acted out either in unhealthy behaviors or with chemicals. This too is a wound that needs healing.
Christine: How do you envision the future of the organization?
Father Gavin: Hopefully the number of Chapters will continue to increase and people that are hurting will know there is a place they can go for help in healing.
Gordon: Please comment on the role of forgiveness in Roman Catholicism.
Father Gavin: Jesus Christ is clear that we are to be people of reconciliation. In the Lord’s Prayer he teaches us to pray “forgive us as we forgive others”. In the Church we have the healing help of the Sacrament of Confession. Being a victim, of course, is not a sin.
Gordon: What are the psychological benefits of forgiveness?
Father Gavin: Resentment and unforgiveness consume a lot of energy. As do self-medicating actions like alcohol or drug abuse. Many times the abuser conditioned the victim to believe that they were at fault. Regaining respect for oneself is an essential part of healing.
Gordon: What are the spiritual benefits of forgiveness?
Father Gavin: Jesus says “the measure you measure with will be measured back to you.
Gordon: How does the Maria Goretti Network help us learn to forgive?
Father Gavin: I think that having to consciously think about forgiveness is helpful to people, particularly to those seeking healing. In the meetings we generally use a 3 page list of statements about forgiveness. It is interesting to see where month after month, and year after year, people find themselves thinking about different aspects of forgiveness and different ways it impacts their life.
Gordon: Healing from abuse require both spiritual and psychological healing. Please provide an overview on how we can begin
healing spiritually from clerical abuse.
Father Gavin: The wounds to a person who suffers from having been abused by a cleric is a very deep wound. Often times this has been made worse by the failure of church leaders to believe the victim and to respond appropriately. My heart goes out to every victim and those that love them, particularly those hurt by priests.
God’s love and mercy invites us to draw near to Him. Spiritually we need God’s help. We need the help of Jesus Christ. In my experience, it can be helpful to take away some of the power the abusers had. To recognize that an abusive cleric is a criminal and an sinner, he is not ‘the Church”. Evil seeks to isolate us from God and from one another. Recognizing that some clerics dishonor Jesus, like Judas did when he betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Those clerics who abuse exploit a persons trust and love of God intentionally spiritually binding them away from the healing mercy of God. This is not only a crime and a sin, it is evil. God offers us the love of Jesus Christ that we may be freed from evil and live in the light of his mercy and love.
Being willing to accept the love and mercy of Jesus as best we can is a first step. The first step maybe to begin taking a few moments in prayer. Or maybe seeking out some good people for help in drawing closer to God. Often focusing on the fact that we are the Church, not the evil clerics and not those who ignored them or protected them. St. Paul says we though many members are the body of Christ.
The presence of Jesus Christ in the Sacraments can be a tremendous source of strength. Often the return to the sacraments can take a long time for someone affected by abuse. Sometimes attending a weekday Mass that has only a few other people and is generally shorter than Sunday Mass. Maybe one can find a priest who ‘gets it’ and who properly respects boundaries while actually caring about someone besides themselves.
Thankfully God is patient with us all. We do well to be patient with ourselves.
Christine and Gordon: Thank you for an insightful interview and your leadership and commitment to those who have suffered sexual abuse.