By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator  

Contrition through confession and recognition by leaders of the Catholic Church might be considered the first step of healing for a congregation being forced to grapple with another clergy abuse scandal, according to one diocesan clergy member.  

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Bishop Lawrence T. Persico of Erie, Pennsylvania, speaks with Jim VanSickle of Pittsburgh, who told a Pennsylvania grand jury he was molested by a priest when he was a teenager in Bradford, Pennsylvania. VanSickle and the bishop spoke during an Aug. 21 news conference held in front of the Diocese of Erie’s headquarters by members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.  Photo provided by CNS 

 

Perhaps in what is the most alarming scandal to date, a report recently released by a Pennsylvania grand jury named more than 300 priests who allegedly abused minors and identified more than 1,000 victims. Catholics worldwide have voiced confusion, disappointment and even anger.  

“People in the church are going to fail but (the faithful) want to know their church is working for them,” said Father Ryan Hallford, parochial vicar at St. Jude the Apostle Church in Baton Rouge. “They want to know their church is going to learn from their mistakes, that they are going to put policies in place to make sure children stay safe.”  

Father Hallford, who was ordained in 2017, said one of the crucial components of the healing process is to rebuild trust in the institution of the church. He said this can be accomplished through church leaders showing humility, being able to acknowledge mistakes of the past, showing an earnest and real effort to show how past mistakes have led to changes and to inform the public about the implementation of those changes.  

“As part of the healing, if people could believe and could trust that things are going to get better, that there will be accountability and transparency, then people would have a lot better time to rebuild that trust,” Father Hallford said. “As long as you are willing to be held accountable there will always be an opportunity to rebuild trust.”  

Father Hallford said a realistic understanding of the humanity of the church is also needed.  

“This is at the heart of clericalism,” he said, adding that there is often a perception that bishops and priests through ordination are automatically holier. 

“We can just presume they are doing everything spiritually,” Father Hallford said. “But it’s not impossible they could be cheating the system or not being forthright or giving into their own temptations.”  

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Pope Francis prays as he leads a Lenten penance service in early March in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. “No effort must be spared” to prevent future cases of clerical sexual abuse and “to prevent the possibility of their being covered up,” Pope Francis said in an Aug. 20 letter addressed “to the people of God.”  >Photo provided by CNS  

 

He said that could lead to clergy members becoming less capable of living out their own calling.  

“I think people are saddened, angry and a little discouraged by what’s happening,” said Dina Dow, director of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis for the Diocese of Baton Rouge. “Instead of being discouraged, it’s time to dig in our heels and really face the reality of what has happened, move forward and be fortified with our faith in Jesus Christ and being centered on Christ.”  

Father Hallford said that procedurally, “there are things we need to do better. Nobody is going to go without making mistakes. The question is do we acknowledge our mistakes?”  

Father Hallford said people must understand their own weakness so they can build structures of accountability.

“This is also true of the church as a whole,” he said. “We need to know where those weaknesses are. We need structures of accountability so that we are truly doing our best.”  

Referring to Pope Francis’ letter of Aug. 20 where he said no effort must be spared to prevent the possibility of future cover-ups, Father Hallford said the pontiff is acknowledging zero tolerance for perpetrators but also demanding accountability for cover-ups, not only for the protection of children but also for vulnerable adults.  

“If that letter, if those words are all that we get, then the response of the church is a failure,” he added. “But if this response really is a beginning for bringing forth positive changes in the structures of making sure there is real accountability, then it’s the beginning of something good.”  

He said the church must also be transparent by letting people know what procedures are in place and how has a diocese been faithful to those procedures.  

“With the Baton Rouge diocese, and this is something that makes me feel happy to be a part of this diocese, there is a real effort among our leadership (with an independent review board) to look at allegations of priest misconduct,” Father Hallford said, adding the policies in place provide for accountability and transparency. 

When asked about Catholics being angry at the church, he was adamant in his reply when he said, “Yes, of course it’s okay to be angry. Whenever they hear these things being done they should be angry.”  

He noted throughout Scripture followers have become angry with God and their leaders, and that one of the lessons learned through the Psalms is “There are wolves in shepherd’s clothing. There are Judas’ of every age.”  

Dow admitted to brokenness in the church but said the church will always be holy because Jesus is holy. She said the church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.  

“We know our faith is rooted in Jesus,” Dow said. “Sin is rooted in the world. As Jesus was tempted, many people are tempted.”  

She said many people do fall to temptation, that they should be held accountable and that as a community of faithful Catholics are called to protect “our sheep, protect our priests, protect our children, protect our families, protect anyone from sin.”  

She encouraged Catholics to stay firm in their faith and to spread the good news by proclaiming the message Jesus is Lord and savior. Dow added that includes praying, including praying for priests, attending Mass and participating in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.  “We can’t turn our eyes away from God and not do what he is telling us to do and do what the world is telling us to do,” she said. “What the world is promising is not life giving. It’s a temporary fix.  

“He’s calling us to the bread of life. That’s the eternal life.”  

Added Father Hallford, “When we have transparency and we have accountability truly can the church do what her mission is to be a sign to the world of God’s mercy.”