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Church in Crisis

Parishioners make their voices heard


As U.S. Catholic bishops prepared for their June meeting in Dallas, lay Catholics on both coasts met to discuss the continuing scandal of clergy sex abuse and hierarchical cover-ups.

In North Carolina, a local chapter of the Catholic group Call to Action held a discussion about reforms needed in light of the scandal, while parishioners in California produced a statement that was given to their regional bishop, “hoping it will be useful” for the Dallas meeting.

Noting that the victims of abuse and their families “have had to sue the church in order to have their say,” the statement by members of Our Lady of Grace Church in Encino, Calif., asked, “How did we get to the point where Christian leaders feel it is their right and duty to treat others in such an unchristian way, and to show such an appalling lack of care? The church too closely resembles a dysfunctional family, where the victims are blamed and honest discussion and expression is avoided at all cost.”

The Encino statement grew out of five parish meetings of several hundred parishioners. “What resonated at those meetings was the extent of the outrage,” said pastor Fr. Austin Doran, who called the meetings. “First of all the horror of the priests betraying their trust and the depth of that tragedy and the consequences of that on the victims,” he said. To keep the discussion focused, he said, a person who had been abused by a priest or by someone else was present at each meeting.

The greater measure of outrage, he said, was “reserved for the response of the hierarchy in handling it. Especially the whole area of cover-up. The outrage at the arrogance -- and continuing arrogance -- of a hierarchy that does not seem to be embracing their responsibility and opening up to the people.”

The statement demanded that any accusations of abuse of minors by a priest be reported to the police, and that proven allegations result in permanent removal from ministry. Terms of civil settlements should be fully disclosed, it said.

“The unconscionable conduct of the hierarchy over the years in handling these matters has multiplied the number of abuse victims and demoralized good priests, religious and people of faith,” the parishioners said.

“Even now, the behavior of some of the hierarchy shows them to be out of touch and lacking in compassion. Church leaders have not yet clearly admitted their fault: They continue their misguided efforts to protect the reputation of the church, but are only making matters worse by protecting the guilty at the expense of the innocent.”

The parishioners added, “Recent statements suggest that the Vatican is seriously out of touch with American Catholics.”

They called for “renewed spiritual leadership, operating out in the open and accountable to the people of God. We look forward with hope to the day when a healing process for our church can truly begin, which will require truth, honesty and participation of the laity in decision-making.”

The statement was provided to Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Wilkerson before the U.S. bishops’ June meeting.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, about 150 people gathered in a suburban Raleigh parish June 9 in hopes that the current crisis will push the envelope on other points of contention.

“It’s not just the pedophile issue,” said Mary Andrews, who attended the discussion titled “Laity and Clergy Together: Reclaiming Our Church.” “Maybe that will open a door to, ‘Come on, let’s take a look, and let’s get healthier together.’ ”

The event was held at St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church, a new parish in Apex, N.C., and was sponsored by Call To Action of North Carolina, the state affiliate of the national Catholic peace and justice group, which supports women’s ordination among other controversial positions.

Andrews, a member of the Newman Catholic Student Center, a parish connected to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said she and many other Catholic women want “full discipleship” in the church. “I still surely don’t feel like I have a voice,” Andrews said. “It’s a good old boys club. That’s not healthy for anybody.”

Among the three priests at the forum -- host pastor Fr. Donald Staib, Franciscan Fr. David McBriar of Durham’s Immaculate Conception Church, and Fr. J. Paul Byron, who, at age 81, still serves as sacramental minister at a rural church -- there was also support for major reforms and more inclusiveness.

“I feel that the heart of the problem is not going to be addressed until we address the openness of the ministry to other than celibate priests,” Byron said. “My solution is a simple one, that we make the first item of our agenda the urging of bishops to ordain married deacons.”

Byron said he is “heartily in favor of the ordination of women,” but said it is more likely to happen if incremental steps are taken. “I wasn’t even saying ordination open to all married men -- start with the availables. They’re already deacons. … Get one thing clarified and active then maybe we can move to the next.”

McBriar said that the church’s clericalism “substitutes power for service,” he said. “It relies on the belief that priests are a special class of people whose decisions and authority should not be opposed because they are based upon a divinely conferred office.”

He said that clericalism “pays token obedience” to teachings of the Second Vatican Council that emphasize the role of the people of God “by inviting laymen and laywomen into the liturgical life of the church as eucharistic ministers, or, in a few dioceses, by giving them some part in the governance of the diocese by appointing them chancellor. One might well question to what extent they are really part of the governance of the diocese.”

Clericalism also fosters abuse of power, McBriar said, and to combat that, “the church should look to ordaining prophets. Where do we find them? Aren’t prophets rare in any age? No. They can be found in every walk of life. Search them out. They often may be over 50 years old, seasoned by experience and the gospel. Some may be grandparents. The church should not fear ordaining such people. They have served the community of faith for years, and have a rich experience of ministry.”

Andrews, who calls herself “a product of democracy,” said her church “is not a democratic church. I’m looking for hope. I’m looking for inspiration. I’m looking for energy. I want to believe that we all can reclaim the church.”

Others were less hopeful as the meeting ended. Ann Powers, another member of the Newman Center community, said, “I feel more depressed than I did before, because I think for the first time I realize how formidable is the task before the church now.”

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com. Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.

National Catholic Reporter, June 21, 2002