|Latest Diocese Sex Charges Test Faith Again Mark Guydish Opinion
By Mark Guydish
October 20, 2009
News that Father Bob Timchak turned himself in on child pornography charges in Pike County hit me like a punch in the gut. Why now? Why for this? Why him?
The Diocese of Scranton has struggled for years with epic problems of debt, diminishing contributions and Mass attendance, shifting demographics and a declining number of priests.
Bishop Joseph Martino came in and tried to right the ship but triggered more angst and anger when he administered the overdue cure of extensive school and church closings. His remote style exacerbated the process as he shunned secular media and rarely made personal appearances before the parishioners enduring the upheaval. Some pronouncements – particularly regarding Catholic colleges and teacher unionization – felt confrontational.
Underlying it all – though not, as some argue, causing the problems – was the priest sex scandal, which had hit the local diocese full force in January 2002, when then-Bishop James Timlin confirmed that two priests with the Society of St. John in Pike County had been relieved of duties following allegations of sexual misconduct with a young man. The diocese joined the ranks of those nationwide that struggled with recurring headlines of new allegations, new priests removed from duty, new lawsuits filed.
It was Martino, not Timlin, who suppressed the Society of St. John, which meant it could not function here. It did resurface in Paraguay, but at least it was no longer a local distraction. Martino also settled some high-profile lawsuits regarding allegations of priest misconduct, and the issue seemed to shift into the wings, just in time for school and church closings to take center stage.
Charges rekindle abuse scandal
Martino’s early retirement paved the way for some healing following his six tumultuous years, and the Vatican’s decision to tab Archdiocese of Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali to administer the diocese until a new bishop is chosen helped. Rigali has reached out often and delivered a consistently (if cautiously) upbeat message.
The charges against Father Bob come just as the diocese seemed to be turning a corner. Talk of child pornography rekindles the sex abuse scandal and casts a pall on the wonderful way he seemed to interact with children at Transfiguration School when he was pastor at the church of the same name.
Timchak oversaw the closing of that school, celebrating a final Mass in the basement auditorium/gym. I attended, standing in a place where -- decades earlier -- I had played during recess by day and performed in school shows at night through my eight years of lessons from the Bernadine Sisters.
Father Bob brought the crowd together when it was time to “offer the sign of peace,” usually a nod or handshake with the nearest neighbors. He told them to “really circulate,” and kids ran around the gym shaking every hand they could. Adults merged into the center aisle between the rows of folding chairs set up for the occasion, a sea of human friendship, a mass of hugs and sobs.
Father Bob brought them – and himself -- to tears when he told them “No matter where we are, we’ll always be friends.” The white-robed altar-servers behind him wiped their eyes.
He is innocent until proven guilty, but these accusations darken good memories. They give a new bruise to a diocese on the cusp of recovery.
The hardest part of this may be the oldest problem of any religion.
It can get hard to believe faith will get you through events that fracture faith.
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