Parishioners across the Archdiocese respond to clergy sexual abuse, the grand jury report and recent archdiocesan initiatives

CS&T staff report

“Cry out full-throated and unsparingly,” says the first reading from Isaiah (58:1) in the lectionary for March 11 – the date set for a Lenten prayer service at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul (see story at left). That same day’s responsorial psalm gives voice to “a heart contrite and humbled” that will not be spurned by God (Ps. 52:19).

The two Scriptural passages describe the range of sentiments Catholics in the pews have expressed in the wake of the Feb. 10 release of the Philadelphia grand jury report alleging sexual abuse by clergy and personnel in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

In the weeks since the report’s release, the Archdiocese has announced new measures and initiatives, and many priests have addressed their parishioners’ concerns from the pulpit and in private.

Writers for the Catholic Standard & Times interviewed parishioners at parishes scattered throughout the Archdiocese after Masses Feb. 27. The responses reflect a mix of emotions concerning the abuse crisis itself and the archdiocesan response.

Some parishioners were unwilling to comment, while others, as at Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr, wept instead of commenting. {{more}}

John Grady of St. Bridget Parish in Philadelphia’s East Falls section and a member of the parish finance council spoke of the exasperation and frustrations felt by some in the pews.

“I have little confidence in the Archdiocese’s ability to manage this scandal and address the needs of victims,” he said. “After the first grand jury report, they hired a nationally recognized expert and rejected her recommendations. The response this time was more legalese. These crimes should be immediately referred to civil authorities. The Archdiocese should not be investigating itself other than as an internal matter.”

(All allegations of sexual abuse, according to archdiocesan policy, are reported immediately to the county district attorney.)

Other Catholics were even more blunt.

“Let the Archdiocese deal with it,” said Mary Ann Schrader, a parishioner of Our Mother of Good Counsel in Bryn Mawr. “They might do a lousy job, but it’s their job.”

Anna, a parishioner of Our Lady of Consolation in Philadelphia who didn’t want to give her last name, was also succinct in her assessment: “They waited so many years. It’s too long.”

David Alonso, from St. Agatha-St. James Parish in the University City area of West Philadelphia, said, “It’s a real shame. The people who have suffered, it is really horrible what has happened. … I don’t think there’s been a strong enough response, overall, from the Church; that yes, we made mistakes but from now on we will make sure that they don’t happen.

“It just makes it seem to other people that (Church leaders) don’t think it’s that big of a deal. That’s the impression it provides, I think,” Alonso said. “What I would like to hear is that from now on we will handle these cases differently. I don’t think that case has been made strongly enough.”

A parishioner of St. Rose of Lima in North Wales (Montgomery County) who wished to remain anonymous, was critical of the Archdiocese’s outreach to people in the pews: “I feel like Cardinal Rigali’s letter left (the issue) open-ended; it didn’t help me at all with this personally.”

But others say there is reason to believe in the measures being implemented.

“I of course have faith that things will get better,” said Michael Chovanes, a campus minister at St. Agatha-St. James. “The Church has certainly been in much worse situations in the past. In the very early Church, we were very heavily persecuted. … We managed to come through those with our strength intact. I have faith that things will get better.

“I’m happy that they published (the grand jury report) and that they had the parish priests talk at Mass about it,” Chovanes added. “It was a display of transparency that the Church desperately needs right now.”

“I would say that I am guardedly optimistic regarding the latest steps taken by the Archdiocese to address this grave sin which continues to plague our Church,” said Jim Hayes, a parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo in Drexel Hill. “These steps must demonstrate that now more than ever, the Archdiocese is truly committed to facing this evil head-on. We must continue to pray for the victims as well as our bishops and priests.”

Concern for priests was frequently expressed in the comments of the faithful.

“I feel badly for all the good priests dedicated to their calling,” Grady of St. Bridget’s said. “They have been ill served and their credibility undermined by their superiors.”

Stephanie Erdman, a member of St. Leo Parish in Philadelphia, echoed his concerns. “I’m afraid all of our priests are being painted with a brush that applies to a few of them. They are humans; they can make mistakes. The higher ups also made mistakes in handling all of this,” she said. “I pray for all of those good priests who are doing a good job and are being hurt by this.”

For Brenda Hannah of St. Joseph Parish in Downingtown, the concern wears a familiar face: the pastor of her parish, Msgr. William Lynn, was indicted with the release of the grand jury report. It alleges that through inaction or insufficient action while he was vicar for clergy, children were put in harm’s way.

“Msgr. Lynn was honest about the possibility of this happening when he first came to our parish,” Hannah said. “As we came to know him, and he was very pastoral to us, we hoped that it would not become reality.

“We pray for his welfare,” she added, “as well as those of the victims, that somehow, God may bring peace to all who were caught up in these terrible events.”

“I support the Church and 99.9 percent of the wonderful priests we have,” said Jesse O’Shea, a police officer of the 9th Precinct in Center City and member of St. Bridget Parish.

“There is always a bad apple,” said Samuel French, a parishioner of Our Lady of Consolation in Philadelphia, “but it’s only a small percentage of priests and it doesn’t take my faith away.”

Eileen O’Hagen, of St. Rose of Lima Parish in North Wales, is interested in seeing that the alleged abusers receive treatment. “These priests need to be helped, because it is a disease,” she said. “(The Church) should treat the priest like a regular person, with the same consequences as a regular person; no special dispensations just because (he is) a priest.”

O’Hagen also expressed concern that the Church do right by the victims. “(The Church) should pay for the counseling of the kids affected by all this,” she said.

Maryellen Nerz-Stormes of Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in Strafford, Chester County, also remembered the victims of sexual abuse in her remarks. “We are the Church and these victims are the Church,” she said.

Though not a singularly Catholic concern, sexual abuse must be confronted by Catholics, said one parishioner.

“The Church needs to open the doors. Jesus died for the truth, and so we must speak the truth, no matter how painful,” said Patricia Byrne, a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel in Bryn Mawr. “While I know that abuse is not an issue only in the Church, it is the Church that matters to me.”

Judging by parishioners’ comments, the clergy sexual abuse crisis isn’t a crisis of faith for most of the Catholics in the pews.

“The reason many of us are still Catholic is because of Jesus in the Eucharist, not for the priests,” said another anonymous member of St. Rose of Lima Parish. “We come because Jesus chose us to be here, and nothing a priest does or doesn’t do can change that.”

“We’re here to carry Christ’s work to the world,” Alonso said. “I do believe in the Catholic Church and I believe in the good that it does in the world.”

Contributing to this report were Lou Baldwin, Marimah Branch, Christie Chicoine, Bill Donaghy, Michelle Francl-Donnay, John Gillespie and George Gregory.