Program #0211 for Friday, January 6, 2012: Reflections on 10th anniversary of the sexual abuse crisis

January 6, 2012

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Today’s host(s): Scot Landry and Fr. Mark O’Connell

Today’s guest(s): Cardinal Seán O’Malley, OFM Cap., Archbishop of Boston, and Fr. John Currie, Pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Holbrook

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Today’s topics: Reflections on 10th anniversary of the sexual abuse crisis

Summary of today’s show: Today, the feast of the Epiphany, marks the 10th anniversary of the the first major new stories of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in Boston that started a process of coming to terms, of seeking forgiveness, and of rebuilding trust. Scot Landry sits down with Cardinal Seán O’Malley to discuss the somber anniversary and reflect on the past and future. The Scot talks with Fr. Mark O’Connell and Fr. John Currie their thoughts on the Cardinal’s remarks, their own reflections on the anniversary, how the crisis has affected them as priests over the past decade, how it has affected other Catholics, and the path forward for the Church and society.

1st segment: Scot and Fr. Mark discussed that January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany, although we celebrate it liturgically on Sunday. Scot welcomed Fr. John Currie. Scot today marks the 10th anniversary of the breaking of the clergy sex-abuse crisis in Boston when the Globe published the first accounts of predatory priests who had been moved around after accusations. Cardinal Sean has marked this anniversary by re-committing the Church to providing a safe environment for in the Church. He has done many media interviews. He also sat down with Scot for a pre-recorded interview which we will hear now.

2nd segment: Scot welcomed Cardinal Sean O’Malley to the show. Ten years ago the sexual abuse scandal became the dominant topic in the Church and society for 2002. He marked it with a letter to the community. Cardinal Seán said it was important to remember these events so we don’t ever go back in the future. We need to express contrition and sorrow, and assure people that going forward we will do everything we can to make our churches and schools as safe as possible for children.

Scot said one of the messages was to survivors. Cardinal Seán said if it had not been for the victims who’d been willing to come forward and tell the stories and the media that publicized it so much, we might still have been in a state of denial. Their courage was an important part of the change that was initiated. We are grateful to them and hope they have found some healing and reconciliation.

Scot noted the Cardinal came to Boston in 2003 and prioritized our resources for protection of children. Since then 300,000 children have received safe environment training and because of that, 575 children came forward to trusted persons to disclose abuse by someone in their life. the Church has tried to respond in a way not only that we are doing everything possible, but that there is a good that people now know the signs of abuse and come forward. The Cardinal said an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The archdiocese does 60,000 background checks per year which also contributes to a safer environment. But this wouldn’t be possible without the support and work and volunteered time of thousands of people who have helped put these policies in place.

In his letters this week, Cardinal Sean acknowledged the difficulties faced by priests and one of the reasons we have such safe environments now is because of the leadership of priests. Cardinal Sean added that parishioners have also been leaders too.

In his reflections document, he noted that the media helped us to deal with this problem, but going forward he asked media and other institutions to help contextualize the abuse. The John Jay Report noted that most of the abuse took place decades ago, where the media coverage often presented it as new allegations from the present or that it was a particularly Catholic problem. Cardinal Seán said he does believe that clerical sexual abuse is worse than other kids of abuse, because of the spiritual wound it inflicts beyond the psychological or emotional damage that is done. In society, most sexual abuse happens within families. We’ve always said we stand ready to work with other organizations and institutions to make our society in general a safer place because sexual abuse is rampant in our society. There’s a certain amount of denial because it’s so unpleasant but unless we do talk about we won’t be able to overcome it.

He finished his reflections by saying that we can never conclude that the crisis is solved. Our commitment is to continue the screening and education and every year we bring in outside auditors who study what we’re doing and tell us how well we’re doing in implementing our policies of child protection. It’s important to continue to monitor how we’re doing so we don’t become complacent. He wants to assure those most affected that we want to help them to find their way home for those who have been alienated by these horrible mistakes of the past. We renew our prayers for healing and renew our commitment to work with all people of good will to make society safe for everyone, especially our children.

3rd segment: Back in the studio, Scot asked Fr. Mark his reaction to the interview. Fr. Mark said ever since Cardinal Seán has come to Boston, we’ve been on a path of healing. He remembers in Cardinal Sean’s installation homily in which he said the victims of abuse are the wounds in the side of Christ. Fr. Currie said he wanted to begin speaking on behalf of priests and bishops to say he’s sorry for the abuse they suffered. His intention is to join our God in making all things new for everyone. The Spirit has brought us to a new moment in the life of the Church. Referencing the wounds in the body of Christ, he’s been talking with people recently about the last 10 years and they characterize it as a time of opening old wounds. But they’re not old wounds; they’re still new wounds. But we can heal them with hope. What he has seen in many ways over the last 10 years, soon after the revelations and the undeniable truth of children by priests was evident, he began meeting victims and survivors and family members. The horror they were discussing and reading about was incarnate before him. It motivated him at the time to reach out to the newly created office that serves victims to volunteer. He continues to work with them. He wanted to be the face of the Church to people, to sit and listen.

Scot said some people have wondered whether it’s appropriate to mark this anniversary the way Cardinal Seán has, by sitting down with the media to talk about the way forward. Some think it’s just reopening old wounds. Fr. John said that for some it’s so painful. Many people lived a lifetime never believing the Church would cross this boundary and to admit it to themselves, it really rattled their faith, what they were taught and led to believe. At 50, 60, 70 years old, it’s hard to comprehend and it’s quite natural for them not to want to talk about it any more. But for others, we need to continue pondering and contemplating what happened and how it happened. This is the point we’re at now in the crisis. The Church should be commended for policies and procedures, but we are moving into a new period of contemplation.

Scot said in his conversations with people, there’s a recognition of how difficult it is to talk about. He believes this will be with us the rest of our lives. But there has been some good that has come out of this, like he mentioned in the interview with Cardinal Seán.

Fr. Mark said another quote that helped him came from Bishop Irwin who said, “This is not the darkest hour. The darkest hour was when these things were hidden. Now is a better day. It’s still horrible, but it’s better.” Fr. Mark was working in the chancery during those days as a canon lawyer and for 10 years has been working to clean up the mess and fix the problems. A time like this makes you reflect on the wider issues. He’s been working so hard on the problem that he hadn’t had time to pause and think about the long term.

Scot said the compelling argument for marking this anniversary is to make sure the awareness of this is still high. Anyone who read the papers over the past couple of months know that this is a problem in many places. His prayer for the next decade is that the program we developed in the Church get better and get implemented in dioceses around the world and in all sectors of society. So many Catholics have said the media was out to get the Church, but the media was out to expose hypocrisy and mismanagement in order to protect the children. The fight was that we would walk to the talk as a Church.

Fr. John said he liked the way the Cardinal characterized the spiritual dimension of the sexual abuse of children by priests. HE doesn’t think that most people understand the depth of the pain of the survivors and their families. The priest violated the one thing they were supposed to respect, nurture, and cherish: the soul’s relationship with God. Many nights he’s sat up thinking about it, crying. Most priests are committed to correcting this egregious wrong. The spiritual hurts and pains violated that innocence and purity. Fr. Mark said every priest has the experience of an altar server or child approaching him and there’s so much trust, and you think to yourself that some sick priest violated this. It’s horrifying. Maybe doctors or other professions experience the same thing. Families trust the priest and the kids look up to them and to violate that is a disgusting thing.

Scot said the Cardinal in his letter did speak to priests. A large part of the healing has been by faithful priests, who themselves are struggling to make sense of it. Besides survivors and their families, the next most affected group was the priests. Fr. John said 10 years later, the experience particularly though meeting many victims and families, have stripped away from his thoughts a lot of hindrances to faithful priesthood. The whole culture of clericalism was rampant. It was such an enabling factor. Many abusers knew how to manipulate it. The Church took refuge in it. But it was one of the most damaging contributive factors. So 10 years later, after praying and wrestling with it, it’s one thing he hopes and prays that he’s not contributing to, but instead lifting up a faithful, humble, kind, Christ-like priesthood, rooted in the Eucharist and the command of Jesus when he washed the feet of his disciples. He hopes that’s what he’s demonstrating.

Scot said many priests have responded by trying to be the holiest, most caring, most generous priest they can be. That’s the only response they can make. You can’t take away the pain or memories of the survivors. He said it’s been tough for all Catholics, but the response has been to just be the best Catholic you can be and that’s the only way you can deal with it. Fr. Mark said every priest and layperson dealt with it in their own way. Many priest felt they were tainted unfairly. But sharing in the priesthood of Christ means your brother did this to a child. However, he is not someone who won’t wear his clerical collar. If someone expresses their anger and pain, he takes it the best he can.

Scot quoted Cardinal Seán’s letter about the Roman collar as a sign of suspicion. Fr. John said he’s felt that suspicion, but he said he always felt that the right thing to do was to always remain present among the people. He’s taken the shouts and anger and even had people spit on him. His response was to offer remorse and love and to beg people to join in healing the Church and most of all those who were most abused. Fr. Mark said he’s also had mockery and screaming.

What also hurts is not just those who were abused, but also the many who left the Church because of it. For some it was just an excuse, others will come back, but for many they lost their faith. It’s the mission of every Catholic to make invitations ask them to come back. To tell them that we’re less without you and better with you.

Fr. John said the number of people even in the worst of time who came up to him to assure him that they trust was touching. It led to many honest conversations with people about what was going on.

Fr. Mark said it surprised him that the Holy Father’s Year of the Priest was so very healing. They needed that.

Scot said Cardinal Seán’s letter ended with acknowledgment of people who walked away from the Church out of disgust. The Church didn’t live up to the standard. Cardinal Seán wrote:

God made us to know, love and serve him and wants us to love and care for each other. As Catholics we do this best when we
are united around the altar for Mass each Sunday. It is our prayer that by seeing the response of the Church, and by viewing the
issue in its proper context, all those who have been away will return to join with us, to make the Church stronger and always a
safe place for all people. This past decade has been difficult for the Church. Yet, we are transformed by the experience and the
mission endures. Please pray for continued healing for all those impacted and join with us as we strive to bring the light of
Christ’s healing, love and hope to the world.

Fr. Mark said he’s trying to clean up many of these cases and working on healing is as much a part of his job as it was 10 years ago. He’s still personally committed as much as he ever was. Fr. John said he hopes the Church continues to do what she has been doing and he will continue to work with Barbara Thorp’s office. He’s learned the lesson of humility in the face of difficulty and challenges and wants to help the Church insert that into healing for the future.

4th segment: Now as we do every week at this time, we will consider the Mass readings for this Sunday, specifically the Gospel reading.

Brothers and sisters:
You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace
that was given to me for your benefit,
namely, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation.
It was not made known to people in other generations
as it has now been revealed
to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
in the days of King Herod,
behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage.”
When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled,
and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea,
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod called the magi secretly
and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
“Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word,
that I too may go and do him homage.”
After their audience with the king they set out.
And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed for their country by another way.

Scot noted that the Magi were not Jews and that this was one way that God signaled that Jesus was coming to save all people. Fr. John said Herod completely missed it. He was threatened in a political sense. Fr. John remembered a Carmelite nun telling him that anyone who meets Jesus with an open heart never leaves unchanged for the better. The Magi went with an open heart, but Herod’s heart was closed and that’s why he was troubled.

Scot said some scholars speculate that it took two years for the Magi to travel to Bethlehem and this is why Herod ordered the massacre of all boys under the age of two. Fr. Mark said the Magi may have had an original plan to go back and tell Herod, but they went home by another way and were perhaps changed in that way.

Fr. Mark commented on the word epiphany, where you think one thing and your mind and life is changed. Scot said it’s not lost on him that the revelations of the Boston Globe started on Epiphany. God brought good out of this bad news by exposing the sickness. Fr. Mark said anyone listening who is in a dark place, the epiphany they should hear is that Christ can change your life. If you approach Christ with an open heart, you can go home by another way.

Scot said while the Magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, our gift is ourselves. Fr. John said God’s gift he gives us the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Scot noted that the stars that guide us today are the tabernacle lamp and the light on top of the confessional box, both of which lead us to healing.

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