Pastor viewpoint: Where God's spirit will lead reforms in the Catholic Church, I don't know
By Father John Gerritts
IVER FALLS (WI)
September 30, 2018
I am a Roman Catholic Priest and pastor at Saint Patrick Catholic Church in Hudson. The Catholic Church has been in the national news lately because priests and bishops in our church have been accused of rampant sexual abuse of children — which supposed leaders within the church have covered up for decades. The cover-ups continued even after church leaders made strong public commitments 16 years ago to protect children.
In the late 1970's and early 80's, as I was finishing junior high and moving on to high school, a
priest was assigned as a chaplain at the local hospital in our community. While his primary
assignment was serving at the hospital, he frequently assisted at our parish. People enjoyed it
when he offered Mass since he was a good homilist, had a fun sense of humor, and was quite
charismatic. He frequently attended various events with kids, such as high school athletic
contests and concerts. He was close to several families in the community, including my own.
Families were thrilled that he gave attention to the kids in the church. My parents were excited
because they knew I was thinking about becoming a priest, so surely his would be a good
A few years after he left my hometown we learned that he was no longer serving as a priest. There was no explanation offered, and very few rumors. I had lost contact with him for a year
or two, but when I started college he re-entered my life when he discovered that we were now
living in the same city. He frequently invited me to join him in the evening for some ice cream
or other treats. Occasionally others would join us, but often it would just be the two of us. Many
times I felt uncomfortable in his presence. I would eventually find out that he had been credibly
accused of abusing two high school students. In fact our church made a $3 million settlement with the families of the kids who were abused.
I share this story with you because I want you to know that I feel sickened, angered, frustrated,
and severely disappointed with our leadership in regards to abuse by priests and bishops. Back
then we didn't understand how sexual predators would groom their victims. I will never know
whether I was being groomed or not. I cannot imagine the horror felt by his victims or the
thousands of other victims of clergy sexual abuse.
The cover-ups, and our unwillingness as a church to take responsibility, have failed so many
people. Numerous worshippers have been driven away or become apathetic in their faith due
to my church's culpability in these offenses against children. We no longer enjoy their presence
in our parishes. I am also angered because these crimes make it difficult for us to be the moral
influence in our community, country, and world that we as Christians are called to be.
So what do we do moving forward? I am sorry for infractions perpetrated by the institution I represent and in which I serve as a leader. Grave harm has been committed. I grieve for the victims. I promise to report to law enforcement any abuse of children, even if it means reporting a fellow priest, deacon, or bishop. I hope other churches and pastors can learn from our mistakes and make a similar assurance. I pray as a society we learn from my church's mistakes and we all make a commitment to report to law enforcement if we suspect that a child is being hurt or in any way maltreated. I have learned it is not our job to investigate, only to report what we see or hear.
I know that this is one among any number of reasons why people might leave a church. It can
serve us all well to remember the message of Bishop Robert Baron of Los Angeles: at the very
beginning of Christianity there were no churches, congregations, parishes, or church-related
institutions. We gather with our community not because of the institution that has been built,
but because of Jesus Christ. There were evangelists and proclaimers of God's word among the
early Christians. If for any reason we cut our ties and run away from our congregations, who
will remain to be the evangelists and proclaimers of God's word?
There are significant calls for reforms within the Roman Catholic Church. Where God's Spirit will
lead us, I do not know. If anything good can come from all the harm, may it be that we all make
stronger commitments to protect our children and those who are most vulnerable, reaffirm our
creeds to proclaim Christ as Lord and Savior, and not fear being angry when church leadership
lets us down. As Christians we are called to follow, and we proudly follow Jesus. Sometimes we
need to step outside that idea of following and be the prophet calling for repentance and
vigilance to protect the most vulnerable among us — the Kingdom of God belongs to such as
these. The children truly are the most beloved by Christ in our midst.