Monday, August 27, 2018

A Response to the Recent Scandals - To Whom Shall We Go?

Sermon On the Abuse Scandal 
21st Sunday of Ordinary Time B, August 26th, 2018
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA

Last week, my nephew called me. He's a journalist for an online publication and we're very proud of him. He wanted to talk with me about the latest abuse scandals in the Church: the resignation of Cardinal McCarrick after the revelations that he abused boys and young seminarians, and then the Grand Jury report from the Dioceses in Pennsylvania that documented not only horrific accusations of priests abusing minors but also the cover-up by Bishops and leaders in the Church - over seven decades. In light of that, he asked me how I was doing, if I was dispirited, traumatized, or ashamed?

I told him “no”. Why? Because we priests went through that in 2002 when the Scandal first became nationwide and worldwide, starting in Boston. It was then that we first had to deal with the trauma and shame of the Scandal – that there were predators in the priesthood, and many bishops over many decades covered up for it, shuffled them around, treated the victims shamefully, and generally allowed a culture where this happened. In the 16 years since, I've reached a certain serenity about it, knowing there are some things I cannot change, but changing what I can and being faithful to my calling.

After 2002, the Bishops finally began to address the problem with what was called “the Dallas Charter”, which was basically a “zero tolerance” policy. All throughout the US, including here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, new policies were implemented, including the training and vetting of all priests, leaders, and ministers in the Church. Training about awareness, prevention, and reporting of child abuse by anyone – we are mandated reporters here and I have on occasion had to call civil authorities when abuse in our community has been revealed. Some of you may have even participated in the VIRTUS program which we implement here in the parish.  All of this was to create a "Safe Environment", which I believe we have here in our community.

It also changed the way we priests and the Church at large ministers. Trust is gone, so the days of - camping trips, altar server outings, priests hanging out with families in their home, or kids dropping by the rectory to visit - are over. All offices and classrooms have windows on the doors, confessions are held in an open, visible place, priests won't meet with you privately unless the secretary is in the other room, and certainly not after office hours. Priests have become less a beloved member of the family that you can trust implicitly and more of a professional, with boundaries. That's the state of the Church nowadays, and I accept that.

Since 2002, a large number of priests have been removed for or convicted of past abuse, and in general, the system as it is today protects the vulnerable, especially minors. The Pennsylvania report revealed that 93% of abusive priests were ordained before 1985. It also confirmed something we already knew: that 80% of the victims were teenage boys, meaning it was not “pedophilia” as psychologists define it (which is abuse of prepubescent children), but “ephebophila” or to use an old word, “pederasty”. In other words, the vast majority of abuse came from homosexual priests fixated on youth, namely teenage boys.

So what is different about these new scandals? I really feel that “the other shoe has dropped”, something that really should have happened in 2002. The key thing that the Cardinal McCarrick affair and Pennsylvania report have revealed is this: that many of the bishops and leaders who allowed such horrific things to happen are still in power, some were even promoted and worked their way up in the hierarchy, all the while knowing what they had done, or in the case of McCarrick, were still doing.

So, in the past couple of months, we have heard a lot of statements from our bishops about their sorrow and shame. But, as C.S. Lewis once said, "a long face is not a moral disinfectant." Sorrow needs to be followed by action.

As they say, it's not the crime, it's the cover-up. And when the crime is so horrific, the cover-up is all the more atrocious. That was true in 2002 as it is today. We know that no sector of society is exempt from having abusers their midst (schools, colleges, sports programs, Boy Scouts, Hollywood, even families), and it appears that cover-ups and shuffling of abusers happens in those other sectors as well.

But this is what I shared with Archbishop Gregory a few days ago: “The Church should be the one place where those enablers (of abuse) are held accountable. As a writer in the National Review recently said, "we don't need new polices, we need better men." And if that means some heads need to roll, así sea, so be it.”

My suggestion to Archbishop Gregory was what I like to call the “Alessandro Serenelli” option. He was the young man who in a passion of anger and lust killed St. Maria Goretti. He was convicted and sent to prison and remained a bitter and angry man until she appeared to him in a dream. It changed him. He repented and showed his remorse by his behavior, and after an early release from prison, he spent the rest of his life as a gardener in a monastery.

So my suggestion is simple: those guilty enablers of abuse in the Church need to be punished (civilly, canonically, or simply shamed into resigning) and then serve the rest of their lives as gardeners in a monastery - never to be heard or seen again in the Church. Let God figure out if their "long faces" are sincere.

One of the difficulties the bishops have faced is the question of priest abusers who are now deceased. I do know that here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, when the Archbishop hears of such abuse even after years or decades, he immediately responds to help the victim survivor, sometimes personally. The Archdiocese, within the Office of Child and Youth Protection, has a Victim Assistance Program and a 24-hour hotline (1-888-437-0764). I have personally seen victims who have been treated with respect, compassion, and most importantly, given the assistance they needed to heal from past abuse. But there may be more victims out there, and they need to know that not only will they be heard, they will be helped.

Knowing that, I suggested to the Archbishop this week that we name a deceased priest who has been credibly accused of abuse from decades ago. He agreed in this particular case. From 1975-1981, Fr. J. Douglas Edwards served as pastor here at St. Joseph's in Dalton. He had also previously served at my dad's home parish of OLPH in Carrollton in the early Seventies, where I served as pastor from 2002-2009. Fr. Edwards has been associated with claims of abuse that were brought to the attention of the Archdiocese, some within the last 10 years. I personally know two of the victims who have made those claims, and as I followed Fr. Edwards as pastor by a few decades, I have seen how the damage caused by abuse often takes many years to surface. Though nothing can change what happened, healing, even after many years, is possible. I want to personally assure you that I am here, the Archbishop is here, the Archdiocese of Atlanta is here, to listen to and respond to the needs of anyone who has been harmed by past abuse.

This is difficult, no doubt. Some people have asked me, and I have asked myself, why would I want to be associated with a profession, the priesthood, that has become synonymous with child abuse in the popular culture? One reason and one reason only: the Eucharist. “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” I fell in love with the Lord in the Eucharist, and he called me to be a priest. And when he calls, how could I say no? He makes it clear, as we read last week, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” Despite the failings of many bishops, priests, and leaders in the Church, nothing can take away that great gift. Jesus remains in his Church, often suffering with its members, so that after all the trials and tribulations of this life, he might give us eternal life.