“This storm will not pass by.”
Those were the ominous words from Sister Veronica Openibo, superior of her religious order in Nigeria, who spoke last weekend at Pope Francis’ Vatican summit on the subject of clergy abuse. Sentiments like hers are what led Associated Press analyst Nicole Winfield to conclude that while no sweeping conclusions were reached at the summit, something has definitely changed in the way ecclesiastical authorities are handling it.
That feeling is filtering down to local parishes, where priests and lay workers alike are adopting a proactive approach in hopes of persuading their congregations to keep the faith.
Father Brian Flynn of the St. Mary’s/Sacred Heart collaborative in Lynn has a simple request — as well as a fear that gnaws away at him — as he tries to cope with a situation that proves healing is difficult if the wounds won’t close.
“I’ve had people tell me what they think, but that’s not what bothers me,” Fr. Flynn said. “Say anything you want to me. What would concern me more would be if you don’t say anything — if you just stop coming. That’s a bigger fear for me.”
One way to keep that from happening, said Fr. Michael Steele from Star of the Sea parish in Marblehead, is to listen to the people who have been victims, and to those who are teetering toward walking away from the church.
“There comes a time,” Fr. Steele said, “when you have to realize people are tired of listening to the church say it’s sorry. The time comes when you have to keep quiet and just listen.”
The abuse issue first rose to the level of a crisis in 2002, and centered around the Boston archdiocese. In the years that followed, reports of abuse were made in parishes around the world.
Last August, a report commissioned by a Pennsylvania grand jury showed widespread abuses, reigniting the public outcry over the abuse.
Prompted perhaps by claims from U.S. law enforcement officials that the Catholic bishops cannot police themselves, the bishops met in Baltimore in December, vowing to prove they could. However, the Vatican told the bishops to hold off on announcing any corrective measures until the Pope’s summit last weekend.
“This is a very challenging time and we’re the ones who have been chosen to lead (the church) out of it, and to make it better,” Fr. Flynn said.
Fr. Steele stresses the need for transparency.
“A lot of forgiveness has to take place,” he said. “But a lot of truth has to come forth too.”
Tom Colbert, a former religious education teacher in Saugus, also thinks transparency is vital to helping to heal the crisis. He believes the church defrocking Cardinal Theodore McCarrick last week in the wake of the scandal was a good start, but he also added that turning priests who are proven guilty over to authorities “wouldn’t be a bad idea either.”
Colbert, who has gone on to mentor future catechists with the “Protecting God’s Children” program, has an especially personal association. He was approached by a priest when he was 15 and “groomed,” but never fully victimized.
“I went into the seminary,” said Colbert, who is now 76 and a retired educator, “and there was a priest there who, one day, asked me to go to a movie and to dinner.”
Colbert said neither he nor his parents were fazed by the request, and that he met the priest — now deceased — in Boston.
“After that,” said Colbert, “every time I’d see him at the seminary, he’d walk right by me with just a ‘hi’ or something.”
Much later, Colbert was preparing to teach the “Virtus” course, so he could instruct future catechists and volunteers in area churches on “Protecting God’s Children” and realized, when he started learning about recognizable signs of abuse, that he was being groomed by the priest.
“That is the term they used,” he said. “It made an impression me, (like adding) 2 and 2.”
The crisis came back to haunt him years later when he found out his son’s friend — who is now dead — was abused by Fr. John Geoghan.
Still, Colbert — while adamant that transparency is the best way out of this crisis — cannot bring himself to criticize the church.
“It’s not in me to kick the church,” he said. “I may want to criticize members, and even priests — though even that’s hard for me to do.”
But the situation is demoralizing, he said.
“It came to the point,” he said, “where I had to ask why the God of my understanding was allowing this to happen?”
He came to the same conclusion many Catholics have reached: that priests are human beings and human beings are fallible. But, he said, the Gospel and word of God are indelible.
“The apostles,” he said, “weren’t perfect.”
Fr. Flynn agrees.
“It’s a church made up of human beings, and, as such, human beings have failed,” he said. “These are big failures. Yet, we still feel we can be a part of the church that God asks us to be.”
As the Catholic Church prepares to observe Lent, Fr. Steele and his staff have an ambitious program that he believes will help parishioners get swept up in the good the church does. And the staff has geared a lot of the activity toward young people.
“The more involved they are, and the more they see their faith in action, the better they will feel about their church and themselves,” he said. “If you’re not involved, you feel like you’re going down a dark path.”
Fr. Joseph Rossi, formerly of St. Pius V of Lynn, thinks the crisis challenges him to up his game.
“I still love what I do,” Fr. Rossi said. “But I have to dig deeper to offer what I can to people.”
While Fr. Rossi said priests cannot be naive, he has always seen his mission as simple.
“For the most part, I will (preach) in the same way I always have,” he said. “I’m not going to change. The mission is to preach the word of God.
“We have not been afraid to address (the issue). But it’s not enough just to say you’re angry about it. We have to embrace our higher calling.”
Ellen Fitzgerald, a retired director of religious education from Peabody’s St. Anne’s Church who was raised in a large Catholic family, has not lost her faith either.
“The world is made up of the human condition,” she said. “Go anywhere and you will find the very same types of things happening.
“I would never give up my faith. It has very little to do with who is running the show. My faith helps me reconnect with my God.”
Yet, she admits, “I detest what these vulnerable people have gone through. And I am extremely disappointed with how it’s been handled.”
But, she said, “I never felt as if it was my place to judge.”
Fr. Flynn said the church has faced challenges in the past, and that “there were probably moments (its disciples) wanted to leave too.
“But,” he said, “they chose to stay.”
Like Fr. Steele, Fr. Flynn said that the best way for lay Catholics to help heal the church is to become more involved, not walk away.
“I don’t tell people that they need to move on,” he said. “People are dealing with it in their own way. Perhaps they themselves were victims of abuse, or they have a family member. It brings up all sorts of emotions.
“What we have said to our people is that the laity has to have a strong voice in anything the church does. It can’t be just the bishops or clergy. It has to be good, lay men and women who want to help the church They have to be listened to and taken seriously as part of the solution.”