Michael Vanderburgh is a lot of things. He is a husband, and a father. He’s a college graduate, and a former cop. He is the executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Dayton, Ohio. He is also a survivor of clerical sexual abuse when he was a child.
Like a lot of survivors of abuse, Michael never told anyone what he went through at the hands of a priest and family friend. He first came forward in the aftermath of the Spotlight scandals which rocked the Church in the early 2000s.
Coming forward meant that Michael, like a lot of victim-survivors, had to come to terms with what he’d been through all over again.
Michael thought the process of coming forward ended with his home Archdiocese of Cincinnati offering him $21,000 in compensation, while acknowledging that “no amount of money can sufficiently compensate a victim of abuse.”
Except things didn’t end there.
Two years later, Michael took a job as a major fundraiser for the archdiocese, bringing in more than $165 million for a capital campaign that ran through the middle of a decade of abuse scandals for the Church.
Along the way, he met Fr. Frank Massarella, who had been sentenced by the Church to a life of prayer and penance for crimes of abuse. Michael ended up spending time with Frank, trying to understand him, his crimes, and what repentance means for a priest like that.
When Frank died, Michael helped plan his funeral.
So, how does someone come through an experience like that, and keep practicing the faith? Or work professionally in and around the Church?
Michael’s story was recounted by the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2017. And The Pillar’s Charlie Camosy sat down with Michael to find out.
When you see a headline like, “Abused by a priest, now a champion of the Church,” well, you take notice.
Can you give us the outlines of your story?
I was sexually abused as a pre-adolescent by a priest who was a family friend. My story was pretty typical of a young victim — not the best home life, and seeking a father figure to replace my alcoholic dad — but atypical in that my mother was a steady rock throughout my childhood, and resiliently clung to her marriage and faith. Both of those enduring testimonies put me on a path to claim my faith and defend it.
What an astonishing example of faithfulness and love in the midst of horror.
But your response becomes even more dramatic--and nearly unbelievable--when one hears about "Father Frank." Can you tell us about your relationship with him?
Over the years I’ve worked pretty closely with more than 200 priests. Sadly, fewer than a third of them demonstrated to me any personal sense of vulnerability and humility, both of which are essential for a priestly vocation.
Frank was always very vulnerable and humble with me. He was very forthright in answering every question that I had, and he taught me a lot about the personal suffering that free will can choose. Though I don’t believe that he was able to comprehend the severity of his crimes, he sought to be the best he could be for God.
He was very serious about his Vatican sentence to “a life of prayer and penance” for his sexual crimes against young girls. Every time I saw him awake he was engaged in praying the Liturgy of the Hours or some other prayer resource. He privately celebrated Mass every day and kept a long list of prayer intentions.
My short relationship with Frank underscored the necessity of mercy in my Christian journey.
I know you speak about "redemptive suffering" a lot, particularly in the context of the institutional Church.
Are we getting there yet? If not, how do we get there?
There’s a Biblical narrative that says the Israelites had to wander in the desert for forty years because the ones who knew Egypt had to “die off” before they could enter the Promised Land. In the case of the institutional Church, a lot more people need to die off!
We have enduring small “t” traditions of clericalism rooted in the Middle Ages that spawn the “little monsters” of some clergy that Pope Francis named as such; that culture is perpetuated by laity and clergy alike.
There is another cultural issue that I don’t hear anyone talk about: the sacrament of confession and reconciliation as a temptation for wayward priests to exploit vulnerabilities that exacerbate the already vast power differential between them and their flock.
We need to more carefully define the proper roles of clergy and laity in terms that simultaneously embrace our shared humanity, and in terms that don’t encourage superior or inferior treatment of anyone.
Just because a religious or clerical “state of life” is deemed superior by our faith (e.g. “virginity for the sake of the kingdom,” and “elevating to the rank of [insert clergy title here]” doesn’t mean we should treat them with any greater dignity than anyone else.
When we embrace the truth that every person deserves the same basic honor and respect as a child of God, then we are getting somewhere. That’s not a “culture war” dog whistle, by the way.
Honor and respect doesn’t mean agreement, but it does mean awe at the very sight of our brothers and sisters, and tender care for them as God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
You've managed not just to successfully raise money for the Church, but you led a historic "One Faith, One Hope, One Love" campaign which raised over $165 million in pledges.
And in the midst of the sex abuse crisis! How did you pull this off?
People often express their values with their money, particularly when they’re counting on others to animate those values. One of the lessons of the abuse crisis is that faith endures. One of the practicalities of our faith is mercy, even in the face of continuing incompetence.
Jesus teaches us that relationships matter. Authentic loving relationships are formed one person at a time, and mutual trust endures when a shared vulnerability is fostered. We were authentic, transparent, and challenging with our ambitions for well-funded ministries, and our faithful collaborators responded. It was a lot of shoe leather and late night meetings over several years. Those four years probably took ten years off my life, but I’m honored to be part of that success.
I know that you get frustrated with those who use mere words without putting their faith in action, especially in one's local community.
Can you tell us about how you live out the Gospel in serving your local community around Dayton?
These days I have a wonderful challenge leading what I call “faith in action” and the “corporal works of mercy” part of the Church with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SSVP).
The Dayton District of SSVP operates regional shelters for the homeless, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, and neighborhood ministries that serve residents at risk of homelessness.
We have 150 employees and hundreds more volunteers who accompany individuals in need, with Christian purpose, focusing on clothing, food, and shelter. In our post-Christian secularized culture, organizations like mine are reaffirming their faith expressions, and that has been a wonderful renaissance for us!
Today we shelter over 400 men, women, and children, with a capacity for many more if necessary. Our slogans are “You are loved” and “Love lives here,” which are simple expressions to remind guests and staff alike that God continually calls us to action in his image, however far away we may have strayed, or were taken away.