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Sex abuse scandal in the Church: How parishes are responding

Keith Williamson | CC
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Prayer, fasting, listening sessions, and letter writing seek to address wrongs ... but is it enough?

In many ways, Bishop Robert Reed is a man in the middle. It wasn’t all that long ago that he was Father Reed, parish priest. He’s still a pastor in a suburb in New England, so he’s close to “the people.” But he’s also an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Boston, so he might be seen as “one of them.”

“Them” being an amorphous crowd known as “the bishops,” whose reputation has suffered because of revelations about an esteemed American cardinal, a damning grand jury report in Pennsylvania, and a Vatican archbishop’s letter that has been largely seen as reigniting a “culture war” within the Church.

Bishop Reed is well aware of the depth of the controversy and the reach of the scandal’s impact. He hosts a high profile television show on Catholic TV, an archdiocesan network that he heads, which deals with issues in the news. He knows that whatever “fix” the Church comes up with for the current scandal has to go beyond the program of action the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops came up with in 2002, following a national scandal whose epicenter was in his own archdiocese.

But, as he puts it, he’s “not high up on the USCCB totem pole,” so his influence might be limited.

“I know the bishops must act decisively and that the action needs to be thorough, transparent, professional and in cooperation with competent laypeople. But still, I ask the question: what can I do?” he wrote in a letter to his parishioners in Wayland, Massachusetts, this past Sunday. “All I know is that I can pray and do penance. To that end, and as your pastor, I commit myself to a full day and night of public penance.”

He announced that on Monday, September 24, after offering a morning Mass, he will remain in church “in prayer and fasting until the next morning,” when he will celebrate Mass again. He said that the church will remain open overnight, and he invited the faithful to join him in prayer “for a few minutes or for a full hour.”

Bishop Reed believes there also needs to be “some national effort to do penance and to pray, for our own personal sins and the sins of the leadership in the Church.” In fact, many parishes, pastors and parishioners are beginning to do that on their own in response to this summer’s scandals. Some priests are leading their congregations in the Prayer to St. Michael at the end of Masses, while others are holding special holy hours of prayer and reparation.

Even as the internet has become a battleground between those debating the causes of abuse, it has also been a forum for those calling for prayer- and penance-based efforts.

Archbishop William Lori has called the Archdiocese of Baltimore to observe a Day of Reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus on Friday, September 7. “The intention is for healing for victims of sexual abuse and reconciliation for those who have been scandalized, alienated, and disillusioned,” according to an announcement from the archdiocese.

“He understands the hurt out there,” said Fr. Jeffrey Dauses, pastor of St. Andrew by the Bay in Annapolis, Maryland. He recently attended a session Archbishop Lori held with priests, which took place soon after Fr. Dauses held “listening sessions” at his own parish and encouraged parishioners to keep writing to and calling Church leaders about the scandals.

In general, Fr. Dauses said in an interview, people are angry about the “culture of enabling and secrecy and hypocrisy and evil.”

“We’ve had a few people who emailed me or contacted me who said ‘I’m done, I’m walking out of the Church, and I’m not coming back.’ … It wasn’t a huge amount. But I learned at the listening session that there are people who are still struggling with that decision,” he said.

He described the dilemma of a mother of four young children who come to St. Andrew’s every week. “She’s a lawyer who works with child abuse victims,” the pastor said. “She said ‘I went to Mass on vacation the weekend after this came out, and not a word was spoken. And I was deciding to not come back.’” Then she heard about the listening session and decided to “give it one last shot,” he said. “She was really on the fence about this. I’m not sure I can be part of a Church like this when my whole life’s work is fighting this.”

To reassure Catholics like this mother, Fr. Dauses said, a body outside the bishops’ control has to step in.

“If this is going to have any credibility it has to come from an independent … I don’t know how that can wash out. It can’t be the bishops policing themselves. They at this point have no credibility,” he said. It needs to be “someone who’s not a stakeholder, who can say to the people in the pews, ‘Yes, they’re doing what they say they’re doing. Because just to hear them say that, at this point, means absolutely nothing.

“And I said at our listening session that one of the things we’re lacking in the Church is women in leadership,” the pastor continued. “And I’m not talking about ordination. … That door is closed. But ordination should not be about power; it should be about service. So why can’t we have women … at the table, helping with the decisions? Because women bring a whole different insight. If women had been in charge, this would never have happened. Women would never allow children to [be put in danger like that.]”

One Arizona-based Catholic women’s organization, Blessed Is She, has already issued a clarion call to followers in that spirit. “Sisters, we are beloved daughters of the King, baptized children of God,” it said on its website. “We’re baptized in the name of Christ as priest, prophet, and king. Now, more than ever, we need to defend the Church we love. We need to rise as members of the laity to protect and guide our Church in one of her greatest hours of need. We need to bring our unique feminine genius to the forefront when so many have failed in their vocations and calls.”

In an interview, Bishop Reed acknowledged that the national bishops conference are aware of the urgency and said a plan may well emerge before the conference’s national meeting in November.

This week, the head of the Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, issued a statement saying: “On August 1st, I promised that USCCB would exercise the full extent of its authority, and would advocate before those with greater authority, to pursue the many questions surrounding Archbishop [Theodore] McCarrick. On August 16th, I called for an Apostolic Visitation, working in concert with a national lay commission granted independent authority, to seek the truth. Yesterday, I convened our Executive Committee once again, and it reaffirmed the call for a prompt and thorough examination into how the grave moral failings of a brother bishop could have been tolerated for so long and proven no impediment to his advancement.”

“We need to know the whole ‘what, where and when’ of some of these accusations against bishops, first of all, and priests, so that if people have covered up things or they have not been as transparent as possible when it comes to the abuse of children in particular, but also the abuse of adults, for example, seminarians, I think we need to get to the bottom of that, there has to be a process,” Bishop Reed said. The bishops know “it has to be in some way an independent, lay-led investigation, if you will.”

He also spoke of the need for reform of seminaries and the way the Church prepares men for the priesthood.

“I feel very fortunate that when I studied in Rome, I thought it was a very appropriately open atmosphere,” he said. Because he and other seminarians from the United States lived at the North American College but went to a nearby university for studies, “and because we studied at the university with people from around the world, with lay men and women, with religious men and women, it was very healthy. It had an openness about it that I found to be very good for me in my preparation for the priesthood.”

He told Aleteia that a number of pastors in his area are planning hold listening sessions, and that he plans to as well. He said that one thing he will be able to discuss at his parish listening session is the study being undertaken at the archdiocese’s St. John’s Seminary, where accusations have been made about sexual abuse and immoral behavior. At the end of the semester, the group studying the situation will produce a report and submit in to Cardinal Seán O’Malley, who will take action on it at that time, Bishop Reed said.

“I believe a summary of that report will be made public,” he said.

Dr. Gregory Bottaro, founder of the CatholicPsych Institute, has another suggestion for the bishops.

“If the bishop is the bridegroom and the Church is the bride, well, here are some things I’ve learned as a husband that you might not have learned along the way,” said Bottaro, author of The Mindful Catholic. “The first is that when you cause a rupture in trust with your spouse, you don’t get to make the rules on how the trust will be rebuilt. You have to humble yourself, and your spouse will let you know what she needs from you, and you have to be willing to do what she asks. I see that in my marital work, with affairs, when men cheat on their wives and think they’re going to make everything okay by sort of dictating what they’re going to do to make themselves better, and never even asking their wife what she wants. I see that happening right now with the Church.”

In the midst of the current scandals, Bottaro said he has needed to pay more attention to patients, many of whom have been abuse victims in the past.

“I would say that 75% of my patients are affected by this,” he said in an interview. “Most of my patients are Catholic. I see many priests and religious and good faithful Catholic laity. [News about the scandal] is incredibly unsettling and disorienting and disruptive, especially for people who have been traumatized. I’ve had to work a lot harder these past two weeks because of these scandals … It’s bringing up old memories, it’s bringing up new memories, it’s bringing up new realizations.”

People can have a “confirmation bias,” he explained, “that if we are part of something we want to think that it is good. So any evidence to the contrary can be swallowed up by our own justification. Unconsciously we look the other way, especially when things are more subtle. But then even with the more serious things, a lot of times, even victims of abuse can justify the mistakes of their abusers and blame themselves. So a lot of people now, when they see the reality of the horror of what’s actually happened in the Church hierarchy, it’s clarifying those things for them that they looked away from or justified in the past, and now they’re realizing, ‘Hmm, maybe I was right, maybe my gut instinct, my deep feeling of being mistreated was actually authentic and accurate. Maybe I shouldn’t have just swallowed my feeling or let it go out of shame or a false sense of charity.’

“So yes, it’s stirring up a lot for a lot of people,” he said.

In addition, Bottaro has been writing a lot online and engaging in social media discussions about the scandal.

“My wife said to me a couple of days ago, ‘I think you’re getting kind of burned out from all this. It needs to be done, but maybe you need a little break,'” he confided. He realized that she was right and decided to set some limits on his online activity, not only for himself, but as a way to offer his “fasting from social media” as a sacrifice for the Church, as well. He said he’s never given up social media for lent, as some Catholics have done in recent years, “but for some reason it just clicked for me this time, that this would make a really good fast, and just offer it up in union with the suffering of Christ for his Church.

The next morning, he created a meme that said “Social Media Fast, Wednesdays and Saturdays.” Those days are significant: traditionally for Catholics, Wednesdays are dedicated to St. Joseph, and Saturdays to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“I think we really need to return to devotion to the Church and specifically trusting in the Holy Family [Jesus, Mary and Joseph] and bringing about a renewed or maybe new devotion to St. Joseph,” he said.

Bottaro soon realized that some people who follow the CatholicPsych Institute on social media were emulating his example.

“I’m going to develop this more, to flesh out what Catholic reformation is, returning to the Church a personal devotion, moving away from ‘we just do this stuff we’re told to do—it’s boring but we go anyway.’ I just really think that’s the renewal that’s going to happen. It’s going to happen through intense independent personal devotion and little communities that form around them. But we need to have more personal investment.”

 

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