Monday, February 17, 2014

Reflecting Ongoing Changes

Our diocesan newspaper ran a story this past Sunday about four parish situations in which "change is in the air."   One has three parishes served by one pastor and one parochial vicar, in the Brookline neighborhood of the city of Pittsburgh.  Father Jim Bachner is pastor and Father Gary Oehmler is parochial vicar.  One has two priests voluntarily sharing a rectory in Washington County.  Father Mike Zavage is pastor of two parishes and chaplain to the large campus of California University of Pennsylvania.  Father Ed Yuhas is pastor of two parishes.  One has one pastor in one parish, Father Steve Kresak, but only after several parish mergers and church closings over the past twenty years in the city of McKeesport.

And one of those is our own situation in New Castle.  Three priests serve four parishes in the city of New Castle.  We live under one roof together, yet we serve in four parishes.  I am canonically pastor of all four communities.

If you had told me when I was ordained 35 years ago that there would be situations where a pastor was in charge of two parishes, three parishes, four parishes, I would have said you were nuts--or asked what you were smoking.  Maybe, maybe, I might have allowed that such situations happened in "mission areas" of the world (Peru, Bolivia, Nigeria, the Pacific Islands) or of our country (Texas, Alaska, Wyoming).  But no, not in western Pennsylvania.

Yet I have been there, done that:  pastor of one parish with one church; of one parish with two churches; of one parish with three churches; of one parish with four churches; of two parishes (twice); of three parishes; of four parishes.  And many of my brothers in our diocese have been and are doing the same.  There was a moment in the 2002 when three of my classmates and I were each pastor with four church buildings.  That's right--four parishes,  four pastors; 16 church buildings.  

Check out the story in the February 14, 2014, edition of the Pittsburgh Catholic by Chuck Moody, "Shared concerns:  Parish changes in retrospect." 


Monday, February 10, 2014

Looking Back Sadly, Looking Forward with Hope

Twelve years after the firestorm of public criticism of the Catholic Church's handling of priests who harmed children, as revealed by the Boston Globe, we are still getting hammered.  The news around the world is that Catholic bishops in most other countries did no better than U.S. bishops--prior to about 1993.  

I am proud of the current efforts to prevent child abuse in our nation's Catholic parishes and schools, either by clergy or laity.  Our hard work goes almost unnoticed, but it's necessary.  Our past mistakes are also there, for all the world to see.  Some have not learned from them.   (I'm referring to the Penn State football case and Jerry Sandusky.)  Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis are on top of the issue.

I've often thought, "if we knew then what we know now," how different the past might have been.  Saying that out loud, however, sounds defensive and insensitive to the feelings of victims and victims's families.

In the February 9, 2014 edition of Our Sunday Visitor, the associate publisher, Msgr. Owen F. Campion, expressed well my feelings today.  I'm reprinting his column here.  I don't like the title, but I do like his column:  "A different perspective:  Today's seminarians are brought face to face with sexuality--and that's a good thing."  (From his photograph I'm guessing that Msgr. Campion was ordained in the early 1970s.)

I cannot forget my first Sunday as a priest.  I learned a lot in one hour.  Following Sunday Masses in my first parish, my new pastor invited me to lunch, where we talked about some of the routines of the parish and about what would be my duties.  It was pleasant.

Then, we returned to the rectory.  "Come into my study," the pastor said, "you need to know what you have walked into."  In his study, he removed a file from the desk drawer, handed it to me, and began to detail its contents.  My predecessor had sexually abused boys.  I was shocked.  No seminary lecture had ever discussed sexual abuse.  I never knew an abusive priest.  No one had ever talked to me about it.

As my time in the parish moved along, I met victims and their families and learned the toll taken by this priest's abuse of them.  Also in the file was a photocopy of a letter that the psychiatrist treating the priest sent to the bishop.  I knew the doctor.  He held a doctor of medicine degree from a highly respected medical school, had completed psychiatric residency in a world-renowned mental health facility and was board certified in psychiatry.

His letter assured the bishop that the priest should be fine--if he followed advice, guarded against tempting situations, got his rest, organized his life and saw the psychiatrist as directed.  The doctor urged the bishop to reappoint the priest.  The bishop, now long dead, followed this recommendation.  When bad things happened again, the bishop withdrew the priest from active ministry.  (Only the Vatican could remove him from the priesthood, and such action under such circumstances then was very rare.)

Fast forward 20 years.  Another priest, whom I knew, admitted sexually abusing boys.  The then bishop sent this priest to a distinguished psychiatric hospital.  After some months of treatment, the priest's attending doctor advised that he be reinstated.  This bishop was skeptical.  He assigned the priest to a desk job in the chancery and ordered he have nothing to do with boys.  The priest, however, found boys.  The bishop learned of a suspicious situation.  No accusations had been made, and apparently no physical contact had happened.  Nevertheless, the bishop himself told me that he did not care what any psychiatrist or psychologist said, he was forbidding the priest to act in priestly ministry.

Fast forward again.  A psychiatrist and his wife invited me to dinner.  The doctor, by then in practice for about 30 years, told me that when he was in training, and for years later, no mental health professional looked upon sexual abuse of youths with the same alarm that later came to be associated with the problem.

It will be charged that here I make excuses and try to relieve Church authorities of responsibility in managing sex abuse cases in the past, but at some time mention should be made of how the attitude about such matters has changed in professional circles.  For example, science once assumed pedophilia could be treated or managed, and no incident, if treated, necessarily meant that more trouble would occur in the future.  Understanding pedophilia has scientifically evolved.  The injury of being sexually assaulted as a youth simply was not always realized.

Today, seminary students are brought bluntly face to face with sexuality in all respects, healthy or unhealthy.  The abuse issue awakened Church leaders, but so did departures from the priesthood because of celibacy.  Seminarians undergo psychiatric evaluations, but no mental health professional presently can predict pedophilia in a given case.  Science still has things to learn.

This rigid seminary practice consoles me.  I am convinced that rare will be problems in years to come.  Thank God.

By Msgr Owen F. Campion, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Place, Huntington, IN  46750.  Subscriptions $40.95 per year.  1-800-348-2440.

My own experience was no different.  I never heard about sexual abuse, much less by a cleric, in the seminary.  Yet in my first pastorate I had to confront a visiting priest (from another country) who got several teens drunk in my parish.  I reported him to the clergy office, and his faculties as a priest were removed.  He subsequently went home.

I have been blessed with several seminarian interns over the years.  I talk about this subject with them, so that they are not blindsided like I was.

When the U.S. Catholic bishops met in Dallas in April 2002, they approved the Charter for the Protection for Children and Young People.  The key provision was that even one acknowledged incident of abuse of a minor by a priest or deacon would mean permanent removal from active ministry.  The Vatican subsequently gave its "recognitio" to this document as local law.  At the time, I was not sure that the penalty fit the crime.  Many voices, some of them priests, said this was too harsh, and more room for other less severe repercussions should be allowed at the discretion of the local bishop or religious superior.  Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., the noted theologian, said at the time that the Charter would drive a wedge between the priests and their bishops.

Over time I have come to see that, as harsh and definitive as it was, "one act and you're out" was correct and is correct.  The people of God have the right to know that we in ministry--clergy and laity--do not harm children.  (The one lacuna in the Charter is that there is not the same penalty for bishops accused and acknowledged of harming minors.  Penalties for a bishop can only come from the Holy See.)  Back in 2002 the bishops basically said, we don't trust ourselves to do the right thing.  Let us hold all of us to the same public high standard.  The years have proven the truth of the statement. The years since have also shown that a very few bishops still don't get it or follow the Charter.

As Msgr. Campion's doctor friend admitted, for years the psychiatric community could not or would not admit the grave offense that is sexual abuse.  Neither did the Catholic Church.  We all have to do better.  Constant vigilance is the necessary price we have to pay for our past sins.