Priests Feel Hurt, Angry, Guilty by Association
When Scandal Breaks, Say Innocent Pastors, They and Flock Get Caught in Turmoil

By Mary Therese Biebel
Times Leader
July 9, 2006

[See other articles in this feature:
- The Sins of Our Fathers, by Dave Janoski, Times Leader (7/9/06)
- The Shame of the Diocese: Allegations? Move Father Caparelli. More Allegations? Move Father Caparelli. Convictions? Keep Quiet, by Dave Janoski, Times Leader (7/9/06)
- Bill Aims to Loosen Limits on Suits: Statutes of Limitations on Sex-Abuse Cases Often Leave Victims with No Options, by Dave Janoski, Times Leader (7/9/06)
- Crimes and Accusations, Times Leader (7/9/06) [summaries, assignments, and photos of accused priests]
- A Church Re-Educates Itself: Changing Attitudes: The Catholic Church Has Mandated Special Training to Recognize Sexual Abuse and Abusers, by Mark Guydish, Times Leader (7/9/06)
- Morning Note from the Newsroom: the Church Series, by Matt Golas, Times Leader (7/11/06).]

Back in his office after comforting a bereaved family, Father Gerald J. Gurka turned his attention to a matter even more unsettling than loss of life the loss of innocence that accompanied the priest sex scandal.

"My initial feeling? I was angry," Gurka, who is pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Larksville, said late last month. "I don't want to judge, but I got angry that people would use their position to knowingly do something that hurts another human being.

Father Bob Timchak says goodbye to fourth-grade students Stephanie Provost, 9, and Victoria Herbener, 10, on the last day of class at Transfiguration School in West Hazleton last month. Timchak and other priests who are untainted by scandal say they have felt hurt and troubled by the misdeeds of other clergymen. Timchak, for his part, wishes the media would stop 'bringing it up and bringing it up.' Times Leader staff photo / Pete G. Wilcox.

"It hurt the church. It hurt the parishioners. It hurt everyone."

The secrecy with which the hierarchy handled many cases shuttling suspect priests from one assignment to the next only made a bad situation worse, Gurka said.

"Secrecy isn't healthy. Any awareness is a step in the right direction," said the 51-year-old priest who grew up in Nanticoke. "You have to admit what's happening first.

"Whenever a scandal breaks, I announce (in church) what has hit the headlines and say we need to pray for all involved. We pray for healing for the victim, proper guidance and direction for the perpetrator, and, if it's unclear what happened, we pray for justice."

Gurka is glad the Scranton Diocese is taking steps to protect children mandating that every adult who works with youngsters go through the VIRTUS program, which teaches people how to recognize signs that a child is being abused or that an adult has a tendency to abuse.

"I think it's a good, positive step."

On an optimistic note, the priest believes a stronger, healthier church, with safeguards in place to protect children, can emerge from the scandal. "I think of Noah and the rainbow after the great flood, and Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

"I think God's spirit re-creates. It's the whole point of cross and resurrection. If it's handled correctly, new life comes after the pain."

For some priests and a future priest all untainted by scandal the pain is still fresh.

"If (the abuse) is by your brother priest, it hurts you," said Father Bob Timchak, who has just begun a one-year leave of absence after serving as pastor at Transfiguration Church in West Hazleton and Saints Peter and Paul Church in Hazleton. "Priests are like policemen. We have a common bond.

"Fortunately, there aren't as many stories that come out now, but whenever one does, it hits you, because that's what you are and that's what you've given your life to."

Timchak feels some frustration when old scandals come to light because the casual observer might incorrectly assume it's a new scandal breaking.

"We just want to get beyond this instead of bringing it up and bringing it up."

"We don't want to go near children. Priests are terrified of children."

Seminarian David Bechtel
St. Nicholas Church in Wilkes-Barre

Seminarian David Bechtel, assigned to St. Nicholas Church in Wilkes-Barre this summer, agrees. "I think it gives the illusion that it's something happening today, when in fact these cases are old."

Bechtel hasn't been ordained yet, but he's already concerned the scandal could have a negative effect on his future ministry.

"I don't want to go near kids," he said. "I don't like confessionals because we don't go into the box anymore, we go face-to-face behind closed doors. What's to prevent a false accusation?

"Years ago, if there was a youth function, you might give a child a ride home afterwards. You might wait with them until the parents came. But not today. You're not going to wait with them alone.

"When I was at St. Mary's, other seminarians were in line with what I was saying. We don't want to go near children. Priests are terrified of children."

Father Gerard Safko, who led a recent VIRTUS training session at St. Mary's Church in Montrose, understands the dread, but said it would be unfortunate if clergy were to shy away from appropriate relationships with children.

Gurka, who recently directed a large cast of children and adults in the annual Passion play at St. John the Baptist Church, likewise hopes priests won't stop trying to be positive role models for young parishioners.

When he was a youth, he thought about devoting his life to veterinary science or creative writing. Architecture interested him, too. But he felt inspired by the priest and sisters he met at school and at church. He wanted to influence people the way they did, and the call proved irresistible.

"They really loved God a lot. Several were quite young and had worked in missions in Africa. They made me want to learn the Bible and learn to love God. The honest truth is, I thought, 'Wow, if we could do that for other people '?"

[Sidebar:] Impact of the Scandal

Did the priest sex scandal turn Catholics away from their church?

A new study reported in the New York Times in May [Study Sees Church Rebounding from Scandal, by Laurie Goodstein, NY Times (5/18/06)] found that American Catholic participation in church life and satisfaction with church leaders dropped noticeably at the height of the scandal in 2002, but has rebounded. Few left the church, while most attend Mass and donate to their parishes at pre-scandal levels.

The exception: Diocesan annual appeals. In 2002, 38 percent of American Catholics contributed to such appeals. In 2005, 29 percent did.

Times Leader Staff Writer Mark Guydish contributed to this report.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.