Transparency needed for church’s next 75 years

Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas pointed out a few weeks ago in the Tribune Chronicle that sexual scandals and inappropriate behavior are as old as the Bible.

True, but these days, it’s just the last 70 years on which all eyes are focused. That’s the time frame included in the scathing grand jury report released last month by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on sexual abuse within Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic Church.

The report outlines evidence that bishops and other church leaders covered up child sex abuse by more than 300 priests dating back to 1947. The report states priests not only abused more than 1,000 children, but then church leaders persuaded victims not to report abuse and law enforcement not to investigate it. It’s baffling that this could go on ignored for so long. Bringing to light the dark seediness of these actions has renewed cynicism and mistrust that exists increasingly in society – even in this very institution we’ve been taught from birth is the one place that is good and pure, where we can turn for spiritual cleansing and in time of need.

I have been a practicing Catholic all my life. I was born and baptized into the Altoona-Johnstown, Pa., Catholic Diocese and attended Mass there regularly. My parents still live and attend church there. I studied, received the sacraments and attended CCD each week through the 12th grade at St. Anthony of Padua Church, a tight-knit Italian Catholic church in Windber, Pa., a small coal-mining town just outside of Johnstown. My husband and I were wed at St. Anthony 23 years ago. The public high school I attended was not far from Johnstown’s Bishop McCort High School.

That’s the Catholic school where Brother Stephen Baker taught for years after leaving John F. Kennedy Catholic High School here in Warren. Readers probably remember the sting of reports involving sexual abuse at the hands of Brother Baker at both JFK and Bishop McCort.

Thankfully, I never was exposed to or even aware of abuse involving priests and bishops that Catholics grow up trusting. But I’m not naive enough — at least now — to believe it didn’t exist near me then or even here, in Ohio.

A few Sundays ago, I sat in church listening to my priest read Bishop Murry’s letter promising to bring his recommendations for combatting this crime, heading off potential future abuses and methods to help victims heal to the U.S. bishops conference in November. After reading the letter in its entirety, my priest spoke powerfully, sharing his own obvious disgust and embarrassment being felt by all of us in the congregation.

“I have no problem going to a prison to hear the confession of a priest who committed these crimes,” my priest said, noting that behind bars is where these abusers deserve to be.

In a rare moment in church, the congregation broke into rousing applause. This wasn’t the polite golf clap that occurs when a newly initiated Catholic is introduced, or after the choir performs a particularly moving song on Easter Sunday. This was all-out thunderous support for his words. And it should have sent a message about how Catholics feel about the way this heinous debacle is being handled.

Through the years, I’ve seen church attendance dwindle. I can’t say whether this is due to society’s growing lackadaisical attitude toward commitment, general apathy for God or religion or the anger and disillusionment of Catholics triggered by revelation of these horrors. I suspect it’s a little of each. Now as our Youngstown Catholic Diocese marks its 75th anniversary and prepares for its future, it’s time for the church to, as stated in Deuteronomy, “purge the evil from among (us).”

Drastic changes involving less secrecy and more true openness and transparency are sorely needed. Without this, the church’s next 75 years may be in grave question.

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