On the Pennsylvania abuse report: a letter from a pastor

The following is being distributed in our bulletin this weekend. It reflects my weak attempt to offer something at least better than silence. It had to be composed hastily and it certainly doesn't feel adequate, but I don't think anything would. I think it's important for parents to know that the number of abuse cases since 2002 seems very few. I almost hate to say that, out of fear that it sounds like minimizing or downplaying what should never be downplayed. But parents need to know the current situation as well as the past. What we've done since 2002 seems to have had a huge impact. In whatever remains to be done, I am anxious to work with anyone who has ideas.

Dear Friends in Christ,

“Grand jurors are just regular people who are randomly selected for service. We don’t get paid much, the hours are bad, and the work can be heartbreaking. What makes it worthwhile is knowing we can do some kind of justice. We spent 24 months dredging up the most depraved behavior, only to find that the laws protect most of its perpetrators, and leaves its victims with nothing.”

That quote is from a 1,400 page grand jury report detailing decades of history of abuse in six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. The patterns are all too reminiscent of the exposure of abuse in Boston in 2002 and here in Belleville in the early 90’s. But even the Boston story was not as detailed and expansive as this. 300 priests and over 1000 victims were identified. The grand jury believes the true number of victims is thousands more.

“We think it’s reasonable to expect one of the world’s great religions, dedicated to the spiritual well-being of over a billion people, to find ways to organize itself so that the shepherds stop preying upon the flock.” The report is fact-centered and reasonably measured, but the anger behind it is palpable. Anger is the right response to this evil. It is also the right response to the failure on the part of bishops and others to protect children.

This week, I’m seeing so many expressions of exasperation that the bishops still don’t get it, that their responses remain woefully inadequate and tone deaf. I can sympathize, but… what would be satisfactory? Ritual suicide is disallowed by Christian morality as an expression of penance. Even in writing this letter, I feel the impossibility of an adequate expression. What term of anger is strong enough? What series of adjectives is proportionate to an evil so great?

Only two criminal cases seem to be forthcoming, the hundreds of others being too long ago to be prosecuted under the current statute of limitations. Positively, that’s a sign that things have gotten better, and reason to hope that the scale of abuse is drastically lessened from its peak in the mid-to-late 1900s. Negatively, it means that consequences of past abuse, legally speaking, will be few (abusers should be much more afraid of consequences under a higher Law).

As a Catholic and as a priest, I’m so grateful for the work of the grand jury. I remain grateful for the Boston Globe’s reporting back in 2002. I’m grateful for every journalist who has followed these stories, even those motivated by hatred of the Church I love. They have done better service to the Church than the leaders who tried so hard for so long to hide crimes and protect criminals.

I started seminary in 2002 under the full shadow of this scandal. I’ve never been abused, and I’ve never abused anyone, but I know what it’s like to get on an elevator and watch a father instinctively pull his child to his other side away from me. And to feel, not angry or mistreated, but understanding: how can I blame him? I don’t expect to outlive this shadow. Boston, Pennsylvania, a smattering of others; how many to go? There are a lot more cities.

I believe with all my heart that you and I belong to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church that is guided by the Holy Spirit. And it’s not in spite of that, but because of that, that I believe you and I are living in a time of chastisement. God will not tolerate this evil, this filth in His Church. Part of our response should be to seek the truth: no more secrecy, no more spin control. Another part of our response should be seeking ever better procedural measures to keep children safe. But another, spiritual part, should be offering penance and prayer and fasting. Some sins are so dark that they bring us face to face with Satan himself. Policies are critically important, but we need the redemption and power of Jesus Christ.

To anyone reading who has suffered abuse: it’s not your fault. No part of it is your fault. If your abuser was a priest or another leader in the Church, and if you can find the courage to come forward, you will not be hurting the Church by telling the truth. Your abuser did that when he hurt you. You will be helping the Church, which needs so desperately to uproot this evil and rip it out. You have the right to speak to whomever you wish about it, but if a crime is involved, please speak to the police. If anyone tries to buy your silence in exchange for money, please don’t let them. If you aren’t able to tell your story right now, perhaps one day you will… no one has the right to judge you either way.

Finally, to all my brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s rededicate ourselves to following Him in holiness. Times like this make it so clear that the world and the Church need more from us than lukewarm mediocrity. Is this not a time of wrath, of chastisement? We may not bear personal responsibility for the crimes, but we are part of the wounded Body. Jesus offered Himself in reparation for things He wasn’t responsible for… that’s kind of His whole mission, isn’t it? As His disciples, we join Him in that. The more clearly we see the face of evil, the more determined we become. It is a necessity, and an urgent one. We must be holy. This wounded Church needs Saints now more than ever. I believe in the power of Jesus Christ to shine even through the greatest darkness. He is calling you and I to be part of the light.

Yours in Christ,
Fr. Steven


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