Philadelphia Catholics react to abuse revelations with mix of emotions

PHILADELPHIA – “Cry out full-throated and unsparingly,” says the first reading from Isaiah (58:1) for March 11 –- the date set for a Lenten prayer service at Philadelphia’s Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.

That same day’s responsorial psalm (Psalm 52) gives voice to “a heart contrite and humbled” that will not be spurned by God.

The two passages describe the range of sentiments Catholics in the pews have expressed in the wake of the Feb. 10 release of the Philadelphia grand jury report alleging sexual abuse by clergy and personnel in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Since the report’s release, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has announced new measures and initiatives, and many priests have addressed their parishioners’ concerns from the pulpit and in private. Cardinal Justin Rigali also invited all Catholics to the 7 p.m. penitential service March 11, the first Friday of Lent.

The purpose of the prayer service is “for the forgiveness of all sins and for reconciliation with God and in the community,” the cardinal wrote in his letter for Lent.

“During this Lent we are especially conscious of the grave sins of sexual abuse committed against minors, in particular by members of the clergy,” he said. The prayers of petition during the service will “ask for the healing of all victims, that through the power of God’s grace sexual abuse will be effectively prevented, and that young people will always be respected and protected and be able to live the full measure of their human dignity as children of God without being abused by anyone.”

In interviews with writers for The Catholic Standard & Times, Philadelphia archdiocesan newspaper, after Masses Feb. 27, Catholics at parishes throughout the archdiocese reflected a mix of emotions concerning the abuse crisis and the archdiocesan response.

Some parishioners were unwilling to comment, while others, as at Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr, wept instead of speaking.

John Grady, a member of the finance council at St. Bridget Parish in Philadelphia, spoke of the exasperation and frustrations felt by some in the pews.

“I have little confidence in the archdiocese’s ability to manage this scandal and address the needs of victims,” he said. “After the first grand jury report, they hired a nationally recognized expert and rejected her recommendations. The response this time was more legalese. These crimes should be immediately referred to civil authorities. The archdiocese should not be investigating itself other than as an internal matter.”

All allegations of sexual abuse, according to archdiocesan policy, are reported immediately to the county district attorney.

Other Catholics were even more blunt.

“Let the archdiocese deal with it,” said Mary Ann Schrader, a parishioner of Our Mother of Good Counsel. “They might do a lousy job, but it’s their job.”

David Alonso, from St. Agatha-St. James Parish in West Philadelphia, said, “It’s a real shame. The people who have suffered, it is really horrible what has happened. … I don’t think there’s been a strong enough response, overall, from the church; that yes, we made mistakes but from now on we will make sure that they don’t happen.

“It just makes it seem to other people that (church leaders) don’t think it’s that big of a deal. That’s the impression it provides, I think,” Alonso said. “What I would like to hear is that from now on we will handle these cases differently.”

But others said there is reason to believe in the measures being implemented.

“I of course have faith that things will get better,” said Michael Chovanes, a campus minister at St. Agatha-St. James. “The church has certainly been in much worse situations in the past. In the very early church, we were very heavily persecuted. … We managed to come through those with our strength intact. I have faith that things will get better.”

“I would say that I am guardedly optimistic regarding the latest steps taken by the archdiocese to address this grave sin which continues to plague our church,” said Jim Hayes, a parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo in Drexel Hill. “These steps must demonstrate that now more than ever, the archdiocese is truly committed to facing this evil head-on. We must continue to pray for the victims as well as our bishops and priests.”

Concern for priests was frequently expressed in the comments of the faithful.

“I feel badly for all the good priests dedicated to their calling,” Grady of St. Bridget’s said. “They have been ill served and their credibility undermined by their superiors.”

Stephanie Erdman, a member of St. Leo Parish in Philadelphia, echoed his concerns. “I’m afraid all of our priests are being painted with a brush that applies to a few of them. They are humans; they can make mistakes. The higher-ups also made mistakes in handling all of this,” she said. “I pray for all of those good priests who are doing a good job and are being hurt by this.”

“I support the church and 99.9 percent of the wonderful priests we have,” said Jesse O’Shea, a police officer of the 9th Precinct in Center City and member of St. Bridget Parish.

“There is always a bad apple,” said Samuel French, a parishioner of Our Lady of Consolation in Philadelphia, “but it’s only a small percentage of priests and it doesn’t take my faith away.”

Contributing to this report were Matthew Gambino, Lou Baldwin, Marimah Branch, Christie Chicoine, Bill Donaghy, Michelle Francl-Donnay, John Gillespie and George Gregory.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.