Homiletic & Pastoral Review
February 26, 2022
By MSGR. PAUL L. BOCHICCHIO
I write this letter after much prayer and reflection and with the utmost respect for the complex issue of leadership in the church.
I am not naïve regarding the challenges that bishops and church leaders face in the light of many crises and difficult issues that confront our church today. But I write — as a priest with 50 years of service to the church and a great love for the church — regarding an issue that deeply affects all of us, but especially brother priests.
The issue of sexual abuse on the part of clergy has had profoundly devastating effects on all members of the church — bishops, priests, religious and laity alike. The Dallas Charter, soon to be in effect for 20 years, has created an attitude of distrust resulting in injustices toward priests. The intention of the Charter was to address in a meaningful and credible way the issue of sexual abuse among the clergy. That intention was a necessary response to a terrible crisis that caused incredible pain and trauma to thousands of victims and greatly scandalized the church and society as a whole. In an attempt to address that crisis, the “zero tolerance” policy enacted by the bishops created more of an atmosphere of injustice than it intended. It was a reaction, not a response. Children’s safety and justice for priests are not mutually exclusive ideas.
Priests’ rights as American citizens were violated when there appeared to be a presumption of guilt rather than a man being innocent until proven guilty. Even when priests were exonerated, their reputations as priests and credible ministers of the gospel were compromised. This situation has caused a profound dilemma for the church on many levels:
- The relationship between priests and their spiritual fathers, the bishops, was ruptured.
- Bishops became more accountable to lawyers and law enforcement than they were to their own priests.
- Review boards and law enforcement, along with lawyers, seem to have no sense of urgency to resolve serious issues. Justice delayed is justice denied.
- Priests feel abandoned by their bishops and bishops seem unable to have any contact or concern for brothers accused.
- The perception among many of us is that chancery officials contact priests on administrative leave not to encourage or be supportive, but only to monitor their brothers.
- Even when priests are encouraged by formal or informal programs to reach out to their brothers, they are sternly warned to avoid any discussion of the issues involved. In what way does that help a brother who is hurting and feels abandoned?
We show a great deal of concern for the victims of sexual abuse, and we should. The church has an absolute obligation to reach out and help to heal those who have been victimized by our clergy or other church officials. It should not, however, be an “either–or” approach but rather a “both–and” approach. Priests, even if guilty, need to be treated with respect; but that respect seems to be lacking, even in the cases of priests falsely accused.
Pope Francis continually reminds us that the heart of the Gospel message is “mercy.” It appears to me and many other priests that we have not only paid homage to the legal system and law enforcement, but we have imitated the worst characteristics of our society by isolating and, at times, demonizing those who have been accused. Some priests have waited for years to have a case resolved and then, at times, feel as if they will always live under suspicion. But there is no such thing as an unforgivable sin. The mercy of God is made present to all of us. The church is the bearer of that mercy. It seems, however, that we instead imitate the attitude of a very unforgiving society. Our priority in outreach to victims seems, at times, to far outweigh our concern for priests.
Every priest lives with the fear of being accused, and with the consequences that result from that accusation even if there is no credible evidence to support it. The attitude of the institutional church, as with all institutions, is to protect itself — even at the cost of sacrificing, in an unjust way, those who have given their lives to its service.
I believe that there is a real morale problem among priests created by the hierarchy. I have often felt that priests too easily claimed that there is a morale problem, and I have often challenged that claim. But in the present situation, I believe that there really is a morale problem. The Dallas Charter, on one level, may have successfully addressed the clerical abuse issue but, at the same time, it has created scandal by causing a great mistrust of priests and by rupturing their relationship to their bishops.
The Charter has responded to a serious issue, but without thought of the consequences that are wounding the church and the credibility of priests. Further, because of the sins of a small minority of priests, we have created an unhealthy distancing of priests from youth. It appears that we are using means greatly disproportionate to the crisis to solve it, something like attempting to “kill a flea with a cannonball.” Many vocations to the priesthood and religious life were fostered by a healthy and genuine interaction between priests and youth. Five young men who were involved with me and youth ministry, in a wholesome interaction, are now priests. I wonder whether, if the Dallas Charter had been in effect at the time of my encounter with them, they would have responded to their call. Even though a vocation comes from God through his church, it needs to be nourished because “grace builds on nature.”
I know many fine priests who been accused of something that I firmly believe they never did. They are hurting because of a lack of support from church leadership. I am not bitter, but I am angry and greatly disappointed. I accept the humanness of the church and believe that the Holy Spirit will guide us even when we fail to respond. I have also examined my own conscience to see if as a pastor, or leader in the church, I have been guilty of doing the same in my relationship and attitude to the people I serve. I do not believe I have done so.
Recently, I spoke to a very fine priest who is faithful and fruitful in his ministry. He expressed deep anger with the hierarchy. At the time of ordination, he said, he promised obedience and respect to his bishop. But he believes that such respect is not mutual, a fact which greatly saddens him. I look at a church that often proclaims the need to be transparent. But when it comes to dealing with priests, I do not see that transparency — and that deeply hurts me. As I stated in the beginning, I have great respect for leadership of the church, and as disappointed as I am that our leadership is living in fear, a fear that goes counter to the gospel, I humbly acknowledge that I may not be seeing the whole picture. Having served as a pastor and in many other leadership positions, I know that matters are complex. I do not pretend to know all the levels of complexity, but I do know that I need to make my convictions heard. I am convinced that I speak for many priests.
Each day I pray for our church and its leadership but in a special way I pray for all brothers who been accused justly or unjustly. I often try to find ways to contact and encourage them. I also pray for and have ministered to victims, the majority of whom were not abused by priests.
I pray that my concerns, which, I believe, are also the concerns of my brother priests, do not fall on deaf ears. Every time I have expressed my concerns to our leadership, there has been no response; for this, I am very disappointed and feel that there is a lack of respect for us “in the trenches.”
Kindly allow me to conclude this letter with a reflection written by Carlo Carretto, the Italian spiritual writer, who speaks of the paradox that now faces us in the wake of the Dallas Charter:
How much I must criticize you, my church, and yet how much I love you!
You have made me suffer more than anyone and yet I owe more to you than to anyone.
I should like to see you destroyed and yet I need your presence.
You have given me much scandal and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.
Never in this world have I seen anything more compromised, more false, yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous or more beautiful.
Countless times I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face—and yet, every night, I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms!
No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even if not completely you.
Then too — where would I go?
To build another church?
But I could not build one without the same defects, for they are my defects. And again, if I were to build another church, it would be my church, not Christ’s church.
No. I am old enough. I know better!