Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Field Report From Holy Name Cathedral

Yesterday, I attended one of the forums sponsored by the Catholic Lawyers Guild of Chicago. The forums were held throughout the Archdiocese of Chicago in order to give the laity and others an opportunity to have their voice heard with respect to Archdiocese policies regarding clerical misconduct and sexual abuse. The forums were also meant to be a vehicle for providing Cardinal George input on people's expectations and hopes for the upcoming Bishops conference in June.

This post will be somewhat lengthy. I don't intend to provide a transcript of the session I attended or cover every issue raised. My hope is to provide those who were not able to attend a more thorough look at what happened than they are likely to get in the morning newspaper or on the local news. Also, please no emails about heterodox comments. I want people to get the full picture of what was discussed and I hope to do it with limited commentary.

Background. I attended the session at Holy Name Cathedral. It lasted about three and a half hours. About 75 people were in attendance, with a good dozen reports during the first hour. (Some comical moments as every reporter chased down each speaker to get the correct spelling of their names and follow-up quotes.) As the moderators explained during the evening, these sessions were not meant to be presentations to the faithful or opportunities to answer the faithful's questions. Instead, their function was to provide the faithful an opportunity to be heard on the issue and to record their comments so they can be presented to the Cardinal. Cardinal George specifically requested that the Guild hold these sessions. Probably the unsung hero of the evening was the court reporter who was present at the Guild's request, transcribing every word that was said. Around 45 people spoke. As one member of the Guild said, "the Cardinal will be presented with a book of everyone's comments". If the other 30 some forums were as talkative as this one, that is going to be some mighty big book.

Overall Impression. Those who chose to speak came from many different backgrounds. Laity and Clergy. Blue Collar to Professionals. Ordinary Catholics to leaders of activist organizations. And those who I will politely describe as eccentric. (Hey, an open microphone does that.) To be certain, there were a number of people who came with agendas. The various gay and lesbian organizations were out in force to make certain no one left without hearing multiple times that "there is no evidence to link homosexuality and pedophilia". Representatives from Call To Action and other dissenting organizations were also present (sadly the priest who spoke was one of this group) and used the opportunity to soft-sell their desires for a non-hierarchical Church. Nonetheless, one left the evening with an overwhelming reassurance of the rationality of the ordinary Catholic. People had differing views on what was the cause of the problem and some of the possible solutions, but everyone presented their opinions respectfully and for the most part were in agreement on some basic principles: address problems when they are reported; help the victims; don't put children at risk by transferring abusers; give accused priests a fair hearing; guilty priests should face criminal charges; the leadership of the Church must act with honesty and integrity; everyone needs to pray.

The People's Comments. So many topics and issues were touched on that a complete summary of them would go on for pages. Instead, below I offer a high-level summary of what people said.

On The Cause. Varied opinions were expressed about what is the root cause of this scandal. Some emphasized homosexuality, while others focused on dissenting teachings. One lady suggested that the reason for the high number of boys as victims might be a matter of opportunity and access as priests are more likely to interact with boys than girls. (Which, she mentioned, might be different in the future with female altar servers.) Several people felt the problem also involved the minor seminary system, where adolescent boys entered training for the priesthood at too young of an age. They felt that some as a result never matured in a healthy manner and others were too young to know how to deal with and confront abuses by older priests they encountered.

About The Victims. Everyone who spoke said the Church needs to make helping the victims its first priority. A number of doctors and health care professionals spoke about the effects abuse can have on a child's life, setting them on a destructive path that may dominate their lives for decades. But it was the stories of the victims that were most telling. Many were in different stages of dealing with their suffering, one acknowledging publicly his abuse for the first time last night. Their stories emphasized several things. First, most reported the abuse to the Church first (for they loved the Church), but the Church never dealt with the case, sometimes not even telling them the results of the investigation. They emphasized the need for counseling and support, the need for clear record-keeping about abusers and keeping them out of ministries where they can do harm, and that this is a global problem and not just for Catholicism. But most of all, they emphasized the need for spiritual reconnection. For one victim the recent words of the Pope were of great help. (And, as he commented, he hasn't been a fan of JPII.) None of the men who spoke wanted their abuse to destroy their faith and they struggle to move past it and reconnect with Jesus Christ. They echoed what other said too, the support of the victims is the task of the whole Church, including the laity.

About Anger. Yes, people were certainly angry and upset. And they made those comments quite clear for the record. But most everyone recognized that we cannot let our anger get the better of us. The victims spoke to this most eloquently. One told us that the pain all Catholics are feeling because of this scandal is part of what the victims have been dealing with for years, and that we, as the Church, are all victims of this. And as the first victim to speak made clear, anger and rage isn't the solution: "The amount of comfort I have gotten from anger and condemnation has been zero." A psychiatrist echoed their words by emphasizing that in her work with victims of abuse she tries to help them see it as a moment for transformation and the need not to let the abuse dictate the path of their lives. All of the victims called on priests (and everyone for that matter) to focus on the one high priest of Jesus Christ. Only in Him will we find what we are ultimately looking for.

On Priests. People had mixed feelings about the call for a zero tolerance policy. Everyone recognized that priests should be removed from public ministries during an investigation. Some emphasized that there is no job description in the archdiocese requiring pedophilia so it should be one strike and you are out. Others reminded people of false accusations that have been made in the past and the need to give the accused a fair hearing. People offered various solutions. The Call To Action representative suggested that if a priest is found guilty by the courts (or in the judgment of a lay review board if the case isn't prosecuted) of a felony, he should be banned from ministry and laicized. If guilty of a misdemeanor, he should only return to ministry after serving time and if the review board approves. Others asked what would constitute a "substantial" accusation and when, if a case couldn't be proved, would you then restore a priest to ministry. Even some of the victims emphasized forgiveness and seemed hesitant about a zero tolerance policy, wanting instead justice and proper handling of cases when they arise.

On Bishops. In the case of Bishops, everyone agreed with one man's call: zero tolerance for cover-ups. The resounding theme was that the Bishops don't get it. They seem to be (and many gave examples) behaving like an old boys network, protecting priests not the people. Most had a favorable opinion of Cardinal George and how he is handling things. Some called for Cardinals Law, Egan and Mahoney to resign. Mainly, though, people could not fathom why the church leadership failed to handle these cases properly or why guilty priests were given new assignments that put children under their care. Many said the Bishops better wake up and address their own behavior at this Dallas meeting (not just that of the abusers), or there will be hell to pay.

Solutions. Like everything else, the solutions offered at the forum varied. A number plugged the idea of allowing married priests and the ordination of women. Others called for the creation of a zero tolerance policy or variations on it. A number of the activist organizations called for the creation of independent lay review boards appointed by the lay diocesan council and the granting of more power (their word, not mine) to the laity. One woman called on the Bishops also to establish a policy for getting rid of corrupt Bishops and Cardinals. Several people who work in fields that are required by law to report abuse incidents said that the system works, is appropriately discreet, and that the Church should participate in it. Others called for better screening of seminarian candidates. And of course all emphasized that the Church needs to focus on the needs of the victims. Another man told a story of how his father took it upon himself to inform the parish to which a guilty priest had been transferred of the priest's past abuses when the Church leadership refused.

But the main emphasis was summarized by one woman's focus on "how do the problems get dealt with". When an incident is reported, does the Church leadership deal with it honestly, openly and willingly? In the end, you were left with the sense that what the people crave is real leadership. Men of principle who stand ready to deal with issues head on and with integrity.

And prayer. We need to pray. One man suggested that people make a novena to St. Joseph, protector of the universal Church, during the days leading up to and through the Bishops conference in Dallas. Not a bad idea.

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