Abused Priest to Speak out at Conference

By Donna Porstner
The Advocate [Stamford CT]
October 15, 2003

STAMFORD -- In the summer of 1980, John Bambrick was a 15-year-old working at his parish church in Keyport, N.J. A visiting priest struck up a conversation about Bambrick's future plans and his interest in the priesthood.

The man was supposed to be a mentor, but instead preyed upon Bambrick's eagerness to be accepted into the seminary and used it to start an inappropriate relationship.

Now the pastor of St. Thomas More parish in Manalapan, N.J., Bambrick has been on both sides of the clergy sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

He has lived through the scandal as a victim who testified before the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at their historic Dallas conference in June 2002. He also is, as a pastor, responsible for implementing the Diocese of Trenton's new sexual abuse policy at the parish level.

Next week, Bambrick will share his perspective with Catholics who disapprove of the church's handling of sex abuse scandals at a one-day conference, "Being Catholic in the 21st Century: Crisis, Challenge and Opportunity."

The conference will be at Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y. The tri-state meeting is sponsored by Voice of the Faithful, an organization that sprung up last year during the height of the scandals. The Boston-based group, which boasts 30,000 members worldwide, is focused on increasing the role of laity in the Catholic Church.

Among the organizers are several Norwalk residents who have had a strained relationship with Bishop William Lori of the Bridgeport Diocese since founding the Fairfield County chapter of Voice of the Faithful last year.

Lori showed his disapproval of the local group early on, banning them from meeting on church property and saying members' beliefs conflict with church teachings.

The bishop's disapproval hasn't stopped the chapter with about 200 members from meeting monthly at Norwalk's First Congregational Church on the Green, inviting victims of clergy sex abuse to speak and collecting more than $10,000 for a new fund that competes with the bishop's multimillion-dollar appeal.

Bob Mulligan, a founding member of the Fairfield County chapter of Voice of the Faithful from Norwalk and a conference organizer, said his group is not going to let Lori stop them from discussing the future of their church.

"This is one bishop, and there are other bishops who are friendly to us. . . . We have to take the long-term view," said Mulligan, 79. "The bishops who are against us, I think they are waiting for us to disappear. We have a lot of gray hair in our group and the young people, sad to say, are disinterested."

The group supports structural change in the church, which Mulligan said, could include giving parishioners a role in selecting their pastors and bishops.

He said the local group has decided against taking a stand on more controversial issues, such as the ordination of female priests.

The bishop objects to the group, in part, because members have not been upfront about their plans for structural change, diocesan spokesman Joseph McAleer said.

Lori is not expected to attend the conference.

"We would not encourage Catholics to attend, but we can't prevent them from attending," McAleer said.

Bambrick, who is expected to speak about restoring trust and credibility in the church, is one of more than a dozen speakers scheduled for the conference.

Newsweek contributing editor Robert Blair Kaiser, David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and Margaret Mooney, a member of the Emmaus Community at St. Maurice parish in Stamford, which splits leadership duties between priests and the laity, also are scheduled to attend.

Eugene Kennedy, a former priest and author of "The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality" is the keynote speaker.

More than 600 Catholics from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are registered for the Oct. 25 conference. It is open to the public. Admission is $35 per person; $45 with a box lunch.

Cardinal Edward Egan of the Archdiocese of New York, the former bishop of Bridgeport, was invited to participate in the closing liturgy but declined because of a scheduling conflict, conference organizer Joseph O'Callaghan said.

Fordham officials said the Archdiocese of New York was consulted before the school rented its facilities to Voice of the Faithful.

"No one in the Archdiocese of New York has in any way, shape or form indicated there is anything wrong with having Voice of the Faithful at Fordham," said Elizabeth Schmalz, the university's vice president for public affairs.

She said the university is a forum for ideas and hosts hundreds of conferences each year -- few of which receive the level of media attention the Voice of the Faithful convention is receiving.

O'Callaghan, a former Fordham history professor from Norwalk who chairs the Fairfield County chapter of Voice of the Faithful, said members are seeking attention from the secular media because they have been banned from advertising the event in local parish bulletins. He said they did not purchase an ad in the Fairfield County Catholic newspaper knowing how the bishop feels about his group.

Bambrick, now 39 and an active member of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said bishops can do more to reach out to victims.

"The church knows who the victims are in each diocese," he said. "I think the bishop should make personal visits to their homes."

During the Dallas conference, Bambrick said, bishops who met with victims of clergy sex abuse and their families showed little compassion.

As the mother of a victim who committed suicide began to read her son's suicide note aloud, Bambrick said, he stepped out of the room with the boy's father who couldn't bear to listen. When they returned, Bambrick said, "everyone in the room was crying except the bishops, who were stone-faced."

Bambrick said he is surprised that Voice of the Faithful still gets a frosty reception in Fairfield County.

He said it is an accepted organization within the Diocese of Trenton and he has no qualms addressing a group of passionate Catholics -- many of whom are lectors, ushers and eucharistic ministers.

"These are our people. They are not really radical," he said, noting that other dioceses that initially banned the group have relaxed their policies.

"In fact, I am kind of surprised Bishop Lori hasn't lifted the ban because they are your average Catholics," Bambrick said.


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