Sunday, August 26, 2018

The ‘Why’ of Sexual Abuse in the Church

(Twenty-first Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on August 26, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Joshua 24: 1-18b; Psalm 34; Ephesians 5: 21-32; John 6: 60-69.)

[For the audio link to this homily, click here: Twenty-first Sunday 2018]

It’s always tragic when people walk away from Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

It was tragic when the rich young man did it after our Lord challenged him to give up his possessions and become a disciple.

It was tragic when the people who heard the Bread of Life Discourse walked away, as we were told they did in today’s gospel reading from John 6: “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”

But it’s even more tragic when people walk away from Jesus Christ because of the scandalous and sinful behavior of Christians—especially members of the clergy.  When the rich young man walked away from Jesus he did it because of his materialism; when the people in John 6 walked away from Jesus they did it because their faith was weak.  But when those who’ve been abused by members of the clergy (Catholic or non-Catholic) walk away from Jesus Christ, they do so with a wound that cuts them to the core and undermines the very foundations of their faith.

It’s a wound, unfortunately, that does not easily heal.

Whenever I hear of the immoral and scandalous behavior of bishops, priests, and deacons of the Church (which has been quite often in recent weeks), I thank God for the blessings he gave me in my youth in protecting me from such things.  My mother was the secretary at my home parish—Holy Angels in Barrington.  I did maintenance work at the church as teenager; I was an altar boy; I was involved in CYO and youth ministry; I even taught CCD.  Consequently, I was around a lot of priests a lot of the time during my adolescent and young adult years.  Some of those priests you probably know: Fr. Giudice; Fr. Pat Rotondi (the pastor of Holy Angels at the time); Fr. Bob Evans (now Bishop Evans); Fr. Jim Verdelotti; Fr. Bob McManus (who’s now Bishop McManus of the Worcester diocese)—and many, many others.

Never did I have a bad experience with any of them.  Never!  They were good men who were very good to me.  I was totally comfortable around them.

For example, I can remember going into the rectory every once in a while (when I was taking a break from my maintenance work) and saying to my mom, “Would you please buzz Fr. Pat and see if he has time to hear my confession?”

So she’d buzz him on the intercom—and he normally would say yes (unless he was busy working on a homily or something else really important).  And I’d proceed to go up to the second floor into his private quarters, take a seat in his sitting room and make my confession.

Nowadays that kind of thing would never happen—and should never happen given the scandals of the last 20 years!—but back then I thought nothing of it.  Fr. Pat always treated me with respect and compassion—plus he was really smart and had a lot of wisdom.  I trusted him, and in this case my trust was well-placed.

That was typical of my experience of the priesthood in my youth.  It was almost all positive.

Well, unfortunately, as we all know, it hasn’t been that way for everybody.  All too many have been violated by despicable actions that should never have happened.  And even though this kind of abuse is rampant in every segment of our society right now (according to one study I read 14% of men and 32% of women in our country claim to have been sexually abused by some adult during their youth), that’s no excuse for the evil behavior of bishops, priests and deacons.  We preach chastity, and we’re supposed to live chastity.  It’s as simple as that.

And most, praise God, do live as they should—at least 96% do according to the 2004 study that was done by the John Jay College for Criminal Justice.  But, given the fact that we have about 35,000 priests in the United States right now (most people don’t realize there are that many priests in our country), even a small percentage of bad ones can do a lot of damage to a lot of people.

And they have.

What I want to share with you now is why we’re in this mess.  I’ve never shared this in a homily before, but I will now because it needs to be said.

You will hear from people (especially in the mainstream media) that the reason the Church has had to deal with these scandals in recent years is because the Church is old fashioned, the Church is out of date, the Church’s morality is oppressive, etc.  Their basic point is that for things to get better, the Church needs to accept modern, progressive ideas—especially regarding personal moral issues like contraception and abortion and homosexuality.  The Church, in other words, needs to “get with the rest of the world.”

That, my brothers and sisters, is totally, completely, 100% wrong.  The problem here is not that the Church needs to get with the world, the problem is that after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, a lot of people in the Church (clergy and laity alike) DID get with the world!!!  They embraced the morality of the sexual revolution, which was happening in American society at the very same time.

And many of the people who embraced these immoral ideas got PhDs and were given positions of authority in Catholic institutions like colleges and seminaries.  Some were (and are) members of the clergy, some were (and are) lay people.  This explains why some of you have sent your believing children off to Catholic colleges, only to have them come back four years later with no faith, and living the kind of lifestyle that would have made Hugh Hefner proud when he was alive.

It’s not a coincidence.

During the time when most of the abuse in the Church occurred (from the end of Vatican II in the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s) many seminaries were a mess.  Consequently any sinful tendencies seminarians had going in tended to be exacerbated.  Many, many seminarians were not taught to accept and live the teachings of the Church regarding faith and morals.  They weren’t taught the truth.  Quite oppositely, they were taught by their professors in their theology, psychology, sociology, history and even Scripture classes that everything in the Church was changing.  The Mass had changed, the fast and abstinence laws had changed, so these professors assured their seminarian students that in the very near future the Church’s moral teachings would change—so they just had to hang on and be patient for a little while.

It was a lie—a big lie!  And it was a big lie with terrible consequences.  It served to discourage a lot of good seminarians, sometimes causing them to leave the seminary; while, at the same time it encouraged a lot of bad seminarians (many of whom were active homosexuals) to stay and get ordained.

That’s why we’re in the mess we’re in right now. 

Now the good news is that the atmosphere in most seminaries has improved a great deal in the last 30 or so years.  Young priests today, generally speaking, have been well-screened, receive good formation and are taught the truth in their classes.

But the damage has already been done.

And we will probably reap the tragic consequences for some time to come.

So what should we do as faithful Catholic Christians in the face of all this?

Well, one thing we should not do is walk away from the Church, because, if we do that, in some sense we’re walking away from Jesus himself—since the Church is the Body of Christ.  The Church is also our spiritual mother; and you don’t abandon your mother when she’s sick.  And we need to try to remember that, in spite of the sins of her members, there is always great holiness in the Church.  That’s because Christ—and many saints—are always present in it.

And it’s through the Church that the grace of salvation comes to us from Jesus Christ.

Our attitude, ultimately, should be the attitude of Peter and the apostles at the end of John 6: “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

That having been said, we should also do all we can to support the victims of these and similar crimes, regardless of where they experienced the abuse: at church, at school, at the doctor’s office, on a scouting trip, at a family picnic—wherever. 

And, of course, we should also pray for them, that they will ultimately find healing for their inner wounds, and in the process find their way back to the Body of Christ.

And please don’t forget to pray for those of us in priestly ministry who are trying to do it right, who are being faithful to our vows and promises—which is the majority.  We need your prayers because the bad guys have cast a dark shadow on all of us, and that can be very discouraging.

The bottom line is this, my brothers and sisters: A good, holy priest is Satan’s greatest enemy on this earth because he brings Christ sacramentally into the world; but a bad priest is Satan’s greatest ally.  These scandals have made that fact crystal clear.

Let me end this homily on a positive note, with some words from St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests.  He’s speaking here in this text about good priests: those who are obedient, who are faithful, who do the Lord’s work quietly each and every day.  May God give us many more of them in the future.  St. John Vianney wrote:
O how great is the priest! If he realized what he is he would die… God obeys him: he utters a few words and the Lord descends from Heaven at his voice, to be contained within a small host. Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put him there in the tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for the journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest—always the priest. And if the soul should happen to die (as a result of sin) who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace? Again the priest. After God, the priest is everything. Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is.