Priests, Lay Leaders Sad but Supportive

By Nancy Haught
The Oregonian [Portland OR]
July 7, 2004

The fax machine in the Rev. Peter Byrne's office at St. Ignatius Parish started whirring at 10 a.m. Tuesday. It was a letter from Archbishop John G. Vlazny announcing that the archdiocese was declaring bankruptcy.

Byrne quickly gathered the half-dozen staff members in the building.

"I read it to them," he said of the letter announcing that the Archdiocese of Portland was filing for Chapter 11 protection. The Jesuit pastor of the Southeast Portland parish said his staff was shocked by the news.

"I didn't get any sense that they would quit or throw in the towel," he said. "It was more a sense of sadness, of being subdued. "

Roman Catholic priests and lay leaders contacted Tuesday all said their faith would endure the legal and financial implications of the morning announcement.

Byrne said he thought about the Jewish people of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, and how they "lost everything" in their exile to Babylon.

"But out of that experience, they developed their most profound spirituality and theology," Byrne said. "They learned that God was present in that suffering, that they were purified by it and that God brought them back." The decision to declare bankruptcy may be the archdiocese's own exile, he said.

Byrne sent word of the bankruptcy decision to all the boards and councils that operate in his parish. "I wanted them to hear the news from me," he said.

"It is a humiliating thing, but you can't lose sight of the hurt that others have suffered. It's hard to keep all those values together."

Byrne was echoed by the Rev. Thomas Farley, pastor of St. Clare Parish in Southwest Portland. "It doesn't shake the content of my faith," Farley said. "Good comes out of evil. >From the incredible tragedy of Jesus' death, God produced new life.

"God is still God, and God knows the grace and sins of the Catholic Church no more or less today than yesterday," he said.

Farley compared the clergy sex abuse crisis and its aftermath in the archdiocese to a child who suffers a chronic or even fatal illness. "Would anybody choose it? No, you'd run a thousand miles an hour (to avoid it). We'll survive. Not because we're good, but because of grace."

Theresa Willett has been a member of All Saints Parish in Northeast Portland since 1978 and served on the parish council as that congregation dealt with the consequences of an abusive priest. She said that on a rational level, she wasn't surprised by the archbishop's decision.

"I'm sorry for all of us," she said, "but I'm sorry for our bishop, that this was an option he had to explore. . . . I feel badly for our leaders and for Catholic people of good will. It's almost like we are side-tracked by these issues, which is not to say that the underlying issues or complaints are not valid.

"The church, unfortunately, is made of people," she said.

Fundamental belief

In her 25 years of active involvement in the church, Willett has encountered what she considers poor examples of Catholic leadership. "Long before I knew anything about the scandal, I knew that I couldn't let a nun with a ruler rapping me on the head, or a priest who seemed cold or cruel, or a principal of a school or director of an agency or a member of a board really change my fundamental belief.

"I am a Catholic. . . . I support the social justice issues, the central Eucharist, and I can't leave that behind because someone has betrayed my trust. Jesus has never done anything to me. He has never let me down."

Willett said that she will continue to support her parish, the archdiocese and Catholic organizations. She has no patience with those who say they won't give anymore.

"Those are people who never gave very much to the church," she said. "They can keep their $2. This is the work of the church," she said of charity and social justice. "We are the church."

Vinci Paterson, 42, has been a Roman Catholic all her life, a member of Holy Redeemer Parish in North Portland for the past three years. She's married and has a 2-year-old son. She said she appreciated the difficulty of the archbishop's decision.

"But the church is bigger than one parish or one diocese," she said. "The church is universal. The church has been a nurturer to me and my faith, a place of support and a place of challenge over the years." She is in the church for the long haul, she said.

Financial discretion

She'll continue to give financially, Paterson said, "knowing that the archdiocese is using discretion in the use of funds and funding programs as well as healing.

She isn't sure about how church expenditures will be affected by bankruptcy law. "My gut feeling is that the church, the people of God, will continue to find ways to meet needs, even if it means contributing directly to St. Vincent de Paul or to Loaves & Fishes, rather than contributing to the archdiocese first."

"It doesn't have any effect on my faith at all," said Joan O'Neill, a former Holy Names nun, a member of St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland and a co-chairwoman of the Oregon chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a Boston-based global effort to reform the Roman Catholic Church.

"The church is not its buildings," O'Neill said. She recalled the Gospel read during Mass last Sunday, from Luke 10, in which Jesus sent 72 of his followers on ahead to towns he planned to visit.

"He sent them with nothing," O'Neill said, "not even a spare pair of sandals. His message, as I read it in Scripture, is one of love. He didn't found a church with big buildings. We might be better off without putting so much energy into stones. . . . There could be something good come out of this."

Nancy Haught: 503-294-7625