July 10, 2020
By David O’Brien
Catholicism matters, and so does its absence. In Western Massachusetts, Catholics helped make our shared history. Now shuttered parishes and empty schools leave neighborhoods a bit more impoverished. Worse, we learn that disgraced and criminal bishops and priests assaulted children and caused lifelong suffering for too many of our neighbors and friends. They left behind shattered communities, demoralized Christians, and children and grandchildren disenchanted with churches. That Catholic decline matters; we are all diminished, and rendered less hopeful, when Catholicism as we once knew it is no longer with us.
No one can defend the leaders of the Catholic Church of Western Massachusetts. One revered former Bishop, Christopher Weldon, was credibly accused of the violent sexual abuse of children. This startling news comes 16 years after another former Springfield Bishop, Thomas Dupre, was the first American bishop indicted for abuse of children. Both revelations came amid credible reports of abuse by many diocesan priests. Since the first news of clergy crimes against children came out of Louisiana in 1984, all four Massachusetts Catholic dioceses have been shaken by accounts of criminal sexual crimes by priests, blundering cover-ups by bishops and their enablers, and lifetimes of suffering of victims and their families.
Locally steps are now being taken to protect children. Full responsibility for handling reports of abuse has been turned over to the area’s three District Attorneys. And yet another committee will try to improve church procedures for handling abuse. All of this while church attendance declines, Catholic pronouncements on sex sound hypocritical, and long-standing Catholic support for immigrants, working people and the poor is smothered by highly politicized, even cruel, pronouncements about abortion and homosexuality. Many younger Catholics no longer acknowledge a religious identity — former Catholics are now America’s second-largest religious group — and the once awesome Catholic infrastructure of churches and schools, hospitals and social service agencies fades from the civic landscape.
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