HOLLIDAYSBURG, Pa. (CNS) — Reminding people that God’s everlasting mercy “will always be greater than any sin,” Bishop Mark L. Bartchak of Altoona-Johnstown called upon parishioners to find peace in God as the diocese deals with the fallout of a grand jury report detailing hundreds of incidents of clergy sexual abuse.
“God has not abandoned us, nor will God forget any of us at this time or at any time,” he said in a letter to the diocese that was read at Masses the weekend of March 5-6.
The letter recalled the story of the prodigal son, the Gospel reading for weekend, in urging parishioners to remain faithful and not to abandon the church.
“No matter how much God experiences the heartache of a father, God our heavenly father keeps watching out for his children, even those who are separated from him and his church,” the letter said.
Bishop Bartchak said he had heard from people who felt betrayed and were considering leaving the Catholic Church in the days after the grand jury report was released March 1 by Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane. He stressed, however, that embracing mercy is the call of God as Pope Francis teaches.
The report said at least 50 priests or religious leaders were involved in the abuse and diocesan leaders systematically concealed the abuse to protect the church’s image.
The grand jury report commended Bishop Bartchak for cooperating with the state’s investigation and offered recommendations for the diocese to consider in its handling of abuse allegations, including keeping the needs of abuse victims foremost.
“If you are in the church today and hear this message, I urge you not to run away,” the bishop wrote in his letter to the diocese. “What I mean is don’t run from God who is to be found in the sacred Scriptures and in the sacraments.
“And don’t run from God who is found in the person sitting beside you or behind you in church. We are all members of the body of Christ. We need one another,” the letter continued.
Bishop Bartchak urged parents whose children may be confused by the situation to “continue to teach them about right and wrong.”
“If you are angry or upset because you have tried to remain faithful to the church, and now you feel betrayed, remember the elder son in the Gospel story who was so upset. His father went to him in the way of mercy,” he said.
The bishop cited Pope Francis in opening the Year of Mercy in December and invited the faithful to “open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognize that we are compelled to heed their cry for help.”
The bishop also said the pope offers words of encouragement in respond to people who feel abandoned and hurt “so they can feel the warmth of our presence, our friendship and our fraternity. May their cry become our own, and together may we break down the barriers of indifference that too often reign supreme and mask our hypocrisy and egoism.”
Bishop Bartchak said he was praying that God will grant the church in central Pennsylvania courage, strength and mercy as it responds to the shocking grand jury report.
“There is no mistaking that what has been made public this past week is filled with the darkness of sin,” the bishop said. “We will pass through this darkness.”