Pastor Column: Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 26, 2018

Pastor Column: Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 26, 2018

Msgr. Joseph Tracy, St. Stanislaus Parish

Dear friends / Estimados amigos,

I love my Church. While not always appreciating it in my younger years, I have come to a great fondness and admiration for its liturgies, its well-thought teachings, its traditions, its magnificent places of worship, its intellectual insights and its amazing saints, and ordinary people.  My Church shaped who I am. As a young person, I lived in a sort of “Catholic ghetto,” with only two houses on my block who were not Catholic; they were the only ones who did not attend my Church. We kids shared a common experience at school, and we received a solid education from women religious who did not torture us (a common, but inaccurate, misperception), but who were on fire for learning and for Christ. Five of my eight teachers in grade school were Sisters and they fostered my love of being Catholic.

My Church experiences were a strong factor in a decision I made in 1986 to spend my full-time life within it as a priest of Jesus Christ. That’s when I made application to the Seminary with no one knowing it but me. There were many other alternatives, but the clearest path to happiness I could see was to use my gifts for the benefit of others in my Church. I wanted children and adults to know the joys that I did growing up therein: of sitting in a darkened “downstairs” Church on Christmas Eve, waiting for the quicker “overflow” Mass to open up when the upstairs Church was full; of experiencing the support of a community when my parents died; of having many magical “ah-ha” moments when you really understood something that made sense across a variety of disciplines; of getting excited as the biggest day of 2nd grade approached – the day we all celebrated First Communions. It’s funny how the smallest things can make the biggest impressions.

This past week has challenged some of my perceptions of the Church I know. Many others have felt the same. Even some of our parishioners have expressed to me their grave concerns – even suffering – around the fallout of the sexual abuse scandal. To quote a famous Yogi Berra-ism: it’s like déjà vu all over again. Indeed, “here we go again!” was my first thought when the PA Grand Jury Report covering-three quarters of the dioceses in the state was released. But it was not just the news of allegations of over a thousand instances of juvenile abuse that disgusted me, it was the additional reports of credible accusations leveled at a Prince of the Church, allegations of inappropriate interaction among seminarians at our own St. Charles Borromeo, news of abuse cases in Chile and Argentina. This thing has gone global, and it must stop.

Prohibitions, punishments and policies were developed for regular priests and deacons after Boston and Philadelphia, but apparently they did not cover bishops and others at the top of the ecclesial hierarchy. Were they or were they not cooperators in abuse? Certainly not in a formal sense (i.e., intending an immoral act to occur), but what about cooperation that is mediate and proximate (i.e. contributing to an action that leads to the commission of an immoral act)? It seems to me that any bishop who knew a priest to be an abuser and re-assigned him to other parishes where he continued to abuse bears a heavy responsibility for the current état des affiars, not to mention for the indignities suffered by victims. Sadly, that kind of accountability is not covered in the USCCB’s revised Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. In Article 5, however, it is clear that penalties are (rightly) to be imposed on priests and deacons: “… any priest or deacon subject to his {bishop’s} governance who has committed even one act of sexual abuse of a minor as described below shall not continue in ministry.”

It used to bother me that I had to make apologies for what had occurred. After all, I reasoned, it wasn’t me who did it . . . why should I take the cuff and apologize? But a few years after 2002 when Boston broke and after our Archdiocese’s 1st Grand Jury Report, my view changed. I am the face of the Church for the people in the pews, and it is my duty to admit wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness for the actions of those who act in the Church’s name. Please remember, though, that there are “good apples” in the barrel. The actions of a few have tarnished the standing of many other good men. To me an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion clearly exists in our society now when it comes to clergy. Some would say we deserve it, but I disagree.

So where do we go from here? The Charter provides a clear answer: “The whole Church, especially the laity, at both the diocesan and national levels, needs to be engaged in maintaining safe environments in the Church for children and young people” (Article 10). Thankfully we have moved with alacrity in response to that mandate: training, background-checking, educating youth about inappropriate contact and touch, and establishing protocols and procedures to ensure police reporting of alleged abuse. The harder challenge will be to repair the damage to the Church’s credibility, influence, and most importantly, to the People of God. Decisive action in response to clear evidence of crimes against minors or the re-assignment of credibly judged abusive clergy to other places must be strengthened and enforced. Whatever actions are taken must apply to all societal institutions and groups that are responsible for children, not only the Catholic Church. Non-retroactive extensions of the statute of limitations should be in place for everyone charged with the care/education/supervision/placement of youth. Revisions to the statutes of limitations should go forward, not backward.

When you love someone, you stick by them and help them to change. You try to be the example that may have been previously lacking. You help them heal. When you love a Church you do the same. That is why I will stick by and continue to devote my energies in service to the Church. I will pray for those who have been traumatized and even for those who were the traumatizers. Yes, I will apologize earnestly because I mean it. After all, 300 alleged abusers in a State Grand Jury report do not constitute the Church that I know, and I won’t allow them – or the way information is reported – to change my allegiance.