New Priests Prepare for Challenges of a Changed Catholic Church

By Helena Payne
Associated Press, carried in Boston Globe
June 12, 2004

BOSTON (AP) The latest crop of ordained priests will serve in a Roman Catholic church still reeling from a widespread clergy sex-abuse scandal and burdened by financial obligations. But this group is determined to help the church move beyond the crisis.

"I was disappointed in the priests that tragically failed the people and I was disappointed somewhat in the leadership that was shown, but I never lost my faith in God and I have not wavered in my faith in the church," said the Rev. George Hines, who attended St. John's Seminary in Boston and was recently ordained with the six other priests who are assigned to the Boston Archdiocese.

Those just joining the priesthood face a church struggling with dwindling enrollments and shrinking contributions. The Boston Archdiocese is in the process of closing 65 parishes, which Archbishop Sean O'Malley has said is necessary because of declining Mass attendance, aging buildings and a shortage of priests.

That's all against the backdrop of the clergy sex-abuse scandal that erupted in January 2002 with the release of court documents in the case of the Rev. John Geoghan, who was moved from parish to parish despite evidence he had molested children.

Allegations against dozens of other priests soon came to light, and hundreds of lawsuits were filed against the Boston Archdiocese. A report by the Massachusetts attorney general found that about 240 priests in the archdiocese were accused of abuse between 1940 and 2000, and that more than 1,000 children may have been abused by clergy.

The crisis put every U.S. diocese under new scrutiny.

"You might think, 'OK, now, they must be trying to discover a way to get out"' of the priesthood, said the Rev. Paul Dumais, another newly ordained priest from St. John's who is assigned to the Portland, Maine, diocese. "But, in fact, what you discover is a sense of calm because the men see in a tumultuous situation what is required."

The Rev. Jon Gaspar of Immaculate Conception in Marlboro, watched as the scandal unfolded during his eight years at St. John's, which he entered after high school.

"It affects people differently. Some guys knew priests who had been accused. Some guys knew victims. Personally, I had never had an experience of knowing a priest who was accused of anything," Gaspar said.

That was before he had a summer assignment at St. Joseph's in Needham where he began to meet the parents of abuse victims.

"There is when I really started to experience the raw feelings because of the scandal," Gaspar said.

The scandal appeared to have little effect on the number of would-be priests enrolled in the seminary.

"Actually, I was surprised at what little effect the crisis seemed to have on our enrollment numbers. I actually expected it to have some significant effect," said the Rev. Thomas Baima, of the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, where priests are trained in the Chicago-area for 45 Roman Catholic dioceses worldwide.

This year, Baima's seminary had 203 men attending, compared with 210 in the previous year.

Even before the scandal, the number of men in the U.S. pursuing the priesthood has been declining. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Georgetown University research center, seminary enrollment dropped to 3,285 men this year from 3,414 in the previous year.

In Boston, the epicenter of the crisis, many seminarians want to confront the issue where it erupted.

At St. John's, seminarians held discussions and participated in a weekend workshop on healthy male sexual identity with a featured speaker from the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., a rehabilitation facility for psychological and spiritual disorders.

"This is the place to be," said the Rev. John Farren, rector of St. John's. "If you want to be engaged in rebuilding the church then, hey, there's really no better place in the country than in Boston."

Priests in the seminaries say the sex scandal has changed the church, but Catholics have learned from it and can move beyond it.

"I think there is some level of heightened sensitivity, but I think in the long run we will deal with and minister to the youth. We always have," said Hines of St. John's. "We can't let a scandal like this dictate how ministry is done. It would be unfortunate if youth weren't ministered to because priests were afraid to be alone with them. That would be tragedy."


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