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Chaplain's Corner

God needs you... now more than ever!

Published: Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Updated: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 09:09

These are just some of the headlines from various print and electronic media that have caught my attention over the last three weeks:

"Vatican to publish report on scientific aspects of clergy sexual abuse" "N.Y. priest found dead after meeting on claim" "Parish priest placed on leave" "Two alleged victims seek to meet church aides" "Scandal a factor in Springfield bishop's resignation" "Arlington priest cited in abuse suit" "Bishop guilty in fatal hit and run" "Victim of clergy sex abuse found dead"

Clearly, this is not the finest hour for the Roman Catholic Church. And it may grow worse. Today, a review board established by the nation's Roman Catholic Bishops is scheduled to release a comprehensive report on the nature, scope and causes of the recent clerical sexual abuse of minors. A draft study of that report, leaked to CNN earlier this month, stated that 4,450 of the 110,000 priests who served in the US between 1950 and 2002 (4 percent) were accused of sexually abusing 11,000 minors during that time period. The draft indicated that of these 11,000 accusations, 6,700 were substantiated and 1,000 were unsubstantiated. The rest were not investigated because the accused had died. (The Diocese of Worcester recently released its own audit on the topic and reported 112 allegations against priests who served here between 1950 and 2003.)

How should we respond to the content of this national report when it is released? With righteous anger, I hope, and with the grace of perspective, I pray. One substantiated claim of sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric is one substantiated claim too many. Likewise, one false claim of abuse made against a cleric is one false claim too many. Numbers are raw data. For every figure and statistic, there is a story. Are we willing to listen to the stories?

When the scandal first broke onto the headlines two years ago, I was serving as the Executive Director of Nativity Prep, the Jesuit middle school in Boston. Speaking bluntly, I spent my days with adolescent boys. I would wake up every morning listening to the latest reports of the scandal, and then I would head off to school to be with my boys. I remember the day I was cleaning a bathroom with one of the boys as part of our assigned weekly chores. The door closed behind us, and I nearly panicked. I was alone with a teenage boy in a bathroom. "Oh my God," I thought. "Get that door opened quickly! How do I know what he may claim to remember twenty years from now?" Then there was the day that I stopped at the bank. As I walked through the lobby, a woman gasped, "Arghh, a priest!" She then clutched her daughter close to her, presumably so that I could not snatch the child from her grip, flee to the parking lot and commit wicked acts with the kid. A guard at the bank, reading a tabloid newspaper, made sure to wave the banner headline in my direction: "Cardinal Sins!" On another occasion, having just performed a baptism at a local church, I stopped at a gas station to fill up my tank. As I stood vulnerable between the pump and the car, a man came at me from across the parking lot shouting, "You, you're one of those pedophiles, aren't you?"

Well, no sir, I am not. And for the record, not all priests are pedophiles, in the same way that not all Arabs are terrorists, not all women are bad drivers, not all teenagers are lazy, not all FYPpers are geeks and not all football players are dumb jocks. Let's be righteously angry with the shocking contents of the Bishops' report, but let's be angry with perspective.

I have no magic roadmap to direct us out of this scandalous crisis. But I do believe that the following insights must be a part of any healthy solution:

1) Clerical culture must learn from the insights of the laity. I don't have all the answers just because I am a priest. By virtue of my ordination, the Holy Spirit has a unique, but not exclusive, contract with me. I need to remember that the Holy Spirit belongs to all of us. When I was first named as Executive Director of Nativity Prep, a friend gave me the following advice: consult! The biggest mistakes I made in my five years as president of that school were when I arrogantly thought I didn't need to consult. I need to be willing to hear your voice.

2) The laity must not abnegate their responsibility as faithful members of the flock. Your voice must be spoken for me to hear it. Condemn the status quo of scandal and offer an alternative vision of reform. Criticize and energize. That's the two-fold requirement of the prophetic voice. Don't only complain about the problem; be willing to work for a solution. Continue to stand within the tradition as pray-ers who are willing speak out with loving critique.

3) Our focus must remain on Jesus and how Jesus is the full revelation of God. The four evangelists are clear. If we want to know what God is like, then we must know what Jesus is like because, as John argues most directly, the Father and Son are One. "I am the way, the truth and the life," says Jesus. "No one comes to the Father except through me." Full-stop! Either we believe this claim about Jesus or we don't. And if we believe it, then the reality of that claim must find a home in our own lives. Full-stop!

Sunday mass attendance among Holy Cross students has plummeted recently. On any given Sunday, more than 70 percent are absent from our community worship. When I cite that figure, I am often asked if the abuse scandal has taken its toll with our students. In other words, are the students voting with their feet? Perhaps, but I'm not sure what they are voting for or against. If the scandal keeps students away from Sunday worship (and I include here the Protestant service on campus, which is similarly sparsely attended), then I would hope to find signs of spiritual life springing forth elsewhere. Criticize and energize, remember? However, I don't see the energy that the prophetic voice requires. I worry that Holy Cross students have given up not just on the Church but on God.

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