From the front lines, parish priests reflect on how to keep the faith in the wake of the abuse scandals
Sep 3, 2018
This summer, Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington have suffered the heart-rending news of abuse and sexual misconduct allegations against former Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, then the horrific details of clergy sexual abuse in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, and the resulting firestorm of criticism against Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl from his earlier service as bishop of Pittsburgh.
Cardinal Wuerl has expressed sorrow for the victims of child sexual abuse and has defended his record in Pittsburgh of reaching out to survivors, removing abusive priests and establishing child protection measures there. (See related stories on the Catholic Standard website and in this week’s print edition.)
The parish priests in the archdiocese have been on the front lines dealing with the fallout of these scandals and controversies, and this past week the Catholic Standard interviewed five of them about how Catholics can find hope and healing and help the Church move forward.
Msgr. Michael Mellone, whom Cardinal Wuerl installed as pastor of Annunciation Parish in Washington on Sept. 2, said his first thought when the abuse scandals unfolded was “didn’t we deal with this already? And now I know we haven’t. There are more victims, more pain and suffering, more shame, more betrayal.”
The veteran priest, who served as Secretary for Clergy and Priest Personnel Director with both archbishops, said his main message to parishioners “has been to focus on the victims of the abuse. Pray for them, sacrifice for them, and lift them up. So many of them have suffered for years. We must use prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as a means of seeking forgiveness as well. Any and all sin is never private, it always affects others. We lessen the kingdom of God with any sin, and we build up the kingdom with acts of charity, forgiveness and sharing one another’s pain. We are all the Body of Christ, and our actions build up or tear down this sacred body.”
When asked what the Church should do to reach out to survivors of clergy sexual abuse, he said, “As a Church, and by that I mean the people of God, we must not forget the power of prayer. We must sit with them in their suffering. Sometimes words need not be spoken but being present is essential. This will take a long time, for the pain is truly deep. The Church as an institution must make resources available so they may have the means to heal.”
Msgr. Mellone and Father Andrew Wakefield, Annunciation Parish’s parochial vicar, have made time to listen and speak with parishioners about the scandals. Acknowledging the pain which Catholics have felt over these scandals, the pastor said, “The Catholic community must show itself to be caring and reach out even while they are suffering as well. I truly understand their anger and resentment. I am willing to bear their burdens at this time. I yoke myself to them so that we may work together to restore the beauty of Christ’s Kingdom.”
The Church’s faithful priests, too, have suffered in the aftermath, Msgr. Mellone said, adding, “When I was Priest Personnel Director I saw myself as a pastor to priests, striving to assist the archbishop but speaking up for these fine men who have dedicated their lives to the Lord and His people. I have cried for them and the deep sense of suffering they are experiencing. They are the ones who are on the front lines, and they are the face of the institutional Church. I pray that their hearts may not be hardened and they see the face of Christ in the people and in their brother priests.”
Asked how Catholics can find hope and healing, and keep the faith in the aftermath of this summer’s revelations, Msgr. Mellone said, “As Catholics we must keep our eyes focused on Christ. He is our Savior. He is our Redeemer. The institutional Church is just an instrument for bringing the Good News. It can and has taken many shapes in the past and will do so in the future to meet the needs of the people, but Christ must always be front and center.”
On Sunday Aug. 26, St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring held a listening session seeking healing as a parish in light of the recent Church scandals. The gathering drew about 150 people and began and ended with Eucharistic Adoration.
“I didn’t say much,” said Father Dan Leary, St. Andrew’s pastor. “I let them speak, share their pain, their deep love for the Church, and their great sadness about what’s going on. Many spoke of their love for the Church and the priesthood but their lack of understanding of what has happened.”
Surrounding the evening in prayer “made all the difference in the world,” the priest said, noting he led participants in praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and they offered prayers for “all those abused inside and outside the Church, that God’s mercy will heal them.”
The pastor added, “I prayed for family members who are mourning the pain of loved ones who’ve been hurt.”
The evening closed with one-half hour of Adoration, and nearly everyone stayed, he said.
During Wednesdays and Fridays in September, St. Andrew’s parishioners have been encouraged to unite in fasting for the healing of the Catholic Church.
“This is a great opportunity for us to rise up and pray and fast for the sins of the Church and for the sins of the world, and for our brothers and sisters who’ve been hurt,” said Father Leary.
“The truth is, we need priests to be holy. We need priests to be saints,” he said. “This is a great moment for priests and laypeople to unite and pray for the Church, to pray for healing.”
St. Andrew’s pastor said he shares his parishioners’ sadness over the scandals. “I’m deeply disappointed, too.” The response, he added, “always has to be charity, love and sacrifice.”
He noted that “the Church has a long tradition of the healing of the sacraments, drawing more deeply on the Eucharist, and embracing Our Lady who will bring us through this pain in the Church.”
Father Leary said that previous Sunday’s Gospel reading from St. John offered insight into the situations now faced by Catholics. In that passage, some disciples had turned away from Jesus, who asked the Apostles if they too, would leave.
“They (today’s Catholics) can’t turn away,” the priest said, quoting Simon Peter’s response to Jesus: “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
The priest added, “There’s nowhere (else) to go. You have to stay close to the sacraments.”
Like many parish priests, Msgr. Michael Wilson, the pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish in Solomons, has spoken frankly with his parishioners about the scandals.
“I start off by sharing my own feelings,” he said. “I’m really disgusted by the actions of priests that did this terrible stuff, and disappointed and angry with bishops who didn’t address it… There has to be justice for the people who did this.”
Our Lady Star of the Sea’s pastor said, “People appreciate honesty and openness.”
Msgr. Wilson has encouraged parishioners to come to Adoration on Tuesdays and pray for healing in the Church, and to ask the Blessed Mother, their patroness, for her intercession, and to show they are united in their faith, by coming together for activities like their upcoming parish picnic.
Msgr. Wilson has reminded his parishioners that their faith is ultimately in Jesus Christ, and they are called to be his witnesses in how they live. “Now’s not the time to leave the Church. We all have to stand up and bear witness to the truth,” he added.
He said it makes him angry to hear the heart-wrenching stories of how people have been hurt by abuse and the impact that has had on their lives, and he hopes they will find healing in Christ.
Noting his parishioners’ reaction to the scandals, the pastor said, “People love the Church, and they love their priests... The Church is being hurt. They’re angry about that. They feel betrayed. I do too.”
He believes that good can come from this, if people turn to Christ and reflect his love to others. “It comes down to prayer,” Msgr. Wilson said. “I’ve got to deepen my relationship with Jesus Christ.” Then, he said, people can “be for each other what God wants us to be.”
In the aftermath of this summer’s abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, Father William Byrne, the pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Potomac, said he has been telling his parishioners “that I walk with them in sadness, in pain and in anger.”
“But I also recognize the Lord is the Lord of the Resurrection, and he took the ugly moment of the cross and turned it into the Resurrection,” the priest said. “He can take this ugly moment and transform it.”
For that to happen, Father Byrne believes that Christ “wants to use us as the agents of Resurrection, of purifying, of healing. It begins with our own personal desire for holiness.”
That holiness, where one’s heart meets the Lord, can unfold in one’s own family and neighborhood, he said.
When asked what the Church’s response should be to abuse survivors, to help them find healing, Our Lady of Mercy’s pastor said, “We need complete transparency. Healing comes when people are honest and apologize.”
Father Byrne added that “the people in the pews, they are the victims of this whole process also. We have to acknowledge that. We have to be humble in our recognition that our people are hurting. We have to reach out to them with humble and contrite hearts.”
The priest said he hoped that his parish’s listening sessions would provide “an opportunity to walk with them in their grief,” as they prayed together to their patroness, Our Lady of Mercy, whom he noted “held the crucified Christ in her arms. We’re going to ask her to hold us in her arms also.”
He said he knows his brother priests to be good holy men and men of prayer, who are grieving and sad but who also can see “the hand of the Lord bringing hope to this tragic time.”
Father Kevin Regan, the new pastor of St. John Neumann Parish in Gaithersburg, noted that he entered the seminary in 2003, the year after the Boston abuse scandal shook the nation’s Catholics.
“I entered knowing the goodness of priests in my life… answering the call of Jesus,” he said.
His reaction to this summer’s abuse scandal is “one of shock… It hurts a lot,” he said. Father Regan said he feels that pain as a priest, and so do the people whom he serves, as a result of what he called “these horrific actions, and their hiddenness from the lives of people.”
He has tried to offer his parishioners “the message of hope that only Christ can bring us, and within that hope, the need for healing in the Church, and the need for reparation for the sins of some in the Church.”
About 150 people had gathered the previous evening for a listening session at St. John Neumann Church. After that morning’s Mass, people had prayed at the parish’s 24-hour Adoration chapel during a day of healing and reparation. That evening, about one-half of the group remained praying in the church, while the rest gathered for listening sessions in English and Spanish in the parish center.
Father Regan said those who remained in the church prayed for those who are hurting and for healing in the Church. The people praying and at the listening sessions at St. John Neumann reflected the diversity of its parishioners, who come from across the country and from around the world. After about an hour, the evening concluded with a bilingual rosary and a benediction.
“It did bring me to tears to see their desiring to unite themselves with the hurting body of Christ and to express their faithfulness in the power of Christ’s cross,” Father Regan said.
Some of the participants, he said, were themselves survivors of different types of abuse. His parish, he added, is beginning to discuss how to reach out to people affected by abuse, who have been hurt and isolated.
“We see true healing is offered through the sacraments that bring us Christ the healer,” the priest said.
Father Regan noted that “many great saints accompanied people at times like these, inviting people to remain true to Christ and his truth.” He said saints like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Ignatius of Loyola helped restore the faith in challenging times.
His advice for how people can find hope and healing, and keep the faith, is to “continue to speak to each other, share their thoughts with their pastors, pray for greater compassion, be aware of the stages of grief, and cling to the Lord. Cling to Christ.”
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