Cardinal gathers with priests, addresses scandals

Priests fill the parish hall of St. Julia, Weston for a meeting with Cardinal O'Malley on the ongoing crises in the Church. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy

WESTON -- Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley gathered with over 300 archdiocesan priests at the parish hall of St. Julia Church on Aug. 28 to address recent scandals and give them an opportunity to voice their concerns.

The meeting came in the wake of accusations of sexual abuse of seminarians by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the publication of a letter sent to Cardinal O'Malley reporting Archbishop McCarrick's behavior, the release of a report by a Pennsylvania grand jury detailing 1,000 cases of sexual abuse committed by 300 priests over a period of 70 years and allegations of misconduct at St. John's Seminary.

On the sidewalk in front of St. Julia's, demonstrators held signs demanding accountability from the cardinal and the Church. Adult survivors of clergy sexual abuse gave papers to the priests as they entered through the side doors, asking them to support victims.

After opening with mid-day prayer and singing hymns, Cardinal O'Malley addressed the assembled priests.

He recalled an experience he had in Europe in 1963, less than two decades after World War II. While studying German in Bavaria, he accompanied some seminarians on a trip to Holland. When the people saw the kind of clothing they wore and heard them speaking German, the people shunned them.

Cardinal O'Malley compared this situation of being blamed and suffering for another's sins to the situation many American Catholics and priests are experiencing now.

He mentioned that in his study of Mark's Gospel, looking at the list of the Apostles, "I often would think, 'Why didn't Jesus pick better people?' ... But I think Jesus wanted us to see that leadership in the Church can make mistakes, be corrupted by the world, be overcome by fear, by sin."

He said, "From the beginning of the sex abuse crisis, it has been a crisis of leadership in the Church. Bishops protected the reputation of the Church and their priests more than they protected innocent children."

Discussing the recent controversy about a letter Father Boniface Ramsay sent to him in 2015 about Archbishop McCarrick's misdeeds, Cardinal O'Malley reiterated that he had no knowledge of the letter until he heard about it in the media.

He added that he has changed the protocols for his office and initiated a review of all past correspondence.

"It was not some big cover-up. It was a bureaucratic snafu," he said.

Cardinal O'Malley said the McCarrick case "was brought to light because of an accusation involving child abuse. Cardinal (Timothy) Dolan followed all the protocols and procedures of Dallas. Unfortunately, there were not clear protocols concerning sexual harassment. We need to extend the Dallas Charter to include bishops and to devise a system that will allow people, with impunity, to be able to register a complaint or an accusation against a bishop."

The cardinal recalled his experience of being in St. Croix for six months after Hurricane Hugo in 1989. He said he saw people exhibit very different reactions to that crisis: some acted for their own interest, looting homes and hoarding food and water; but some looked to the interests of others, sharing what little they had with their neighbors.

Drawing a parallel between that experience and the Church's current situation, the cardinal told the priests, "The present crisis can cause us to turn in ourselves, consider only our own needs. We can become paralyzed by self-pity, overwhelmed by fear."

"Our people need us to be there for them. We must be prophets of hope, not prophets of doom. We have to be like a parent who looks in the face of their child and says, 'This is going to be alright,' even if the parent doesn't know how ... but if you don't say that, it won't be alright. We have to be able to say that to our people," he said.

Cardinal O'Malley expressed hope that some good can come out of the current crisis.

"We believe in a God that is so good, so loving, so powerful, that he can bring good out of evil. Out of all this pain, I hope will emerge a better presbyterate, a better hierarchy, holier, more generous, more fraternal, close to our people and to each other. It's a clarion call to overcome any mediocrity that weighs us down."

The cardinal then called on the priests to set aside personal, ideological and theological differences to support one another during this time of crisis.

"We need all hands on deck and everyone rowing in the same direction. We need to support each other, set aside our personal differences," he said.

Following the cardinal's remarks, Bishop Mark O'Connell updated the priests on the inquiry into allegations of misconduct at St. John's Seminary, which was originally announced Aug. 10.

Bishop O'Connell was part of the original group appointed to conduct the inquiry along with Francesco Cesareo, president of Assumption College and chair of the National Review Board; and Kimberly Jones, CEO of Athena Legal Strategies Group.

Now, according to Bishop O'Connell, Emmanuel College president Sister Janet Eisner has been named head of the investigative committee.

Bishop O'Connell said the scope of the inquiry will be the past five to six years, and its priority will be to ensure protocols are being properly implemented. He invited anyone who knows of any new information to come forward and be interviewed by the committee.

Father Thomas Nestor, pastor of the Collaborative Parishes of Resurrection and St. Paul in Hingham, was also invited to offer the perspective of a parish priest on the current crisis.

He spoke about the emotional impact the events of recent weeks have had on priests, and particularly the difficulty in experiencing a period marked by scandal for the second time in their ministries.

He shared his own anxiety regarding phone calls and news reports, and said current events can trigger emotions they last felt in 2002.

"We're all aware it opens up old wounds, rips them open," Father Nestor said.

Father Nestor spoke of the "slow, sensitive process" of helping people return to the Church after they or a loved one experiences the trauma of abuse. He suggested that the Church should "practice a preferential option for those who were abused, the survivors, those who are hurting the most. ... I hold that up as a principle."

He also spoke about the feeling of being powerless, but said that can help the priests draw closer to the Lord.

"We have no illusions about ourselves or our effectiveness. Instead, completely convinced of our weaknesses, we're completely convinced that the Lord is working through us. It's always happening, but sometimes we think it's ourselves," he said.

And, as Cardinal O'Malley had done earlier, he encouraged unity among the presbyterate.

"It's prime time for supporting one another. One of the outcomes of 2002 is that priests are much more inclined to support one another, to help one another, care for one another," he said.

He also said older priests can share the lessons learned from the crisis of 2002 with those more recently ordained. At the same time, he said, younger priests can help encourage older priests with their "wonderful, clear, understanding vision, reminding us of who we are and what we have for this moment."

The meeting concluded with an opportunity for the priests to address questions or comments to the cardinal directly.

In a listening session format, several priests described their anxieties and dismay at the ongoing revelations, shared their grave concern for their parishioners who are expressing their outrage at the news of failures by the Church's episcopal leadership.

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