St. John the Evangelist Celebrates a Mass to Honor Victims of Child Abuse

By Elizabeth Wendt-Kellar
Naples Daily News
April 30, 2009

NAPLES — Victims of child abuse, especially those who suffered abuse within the Catholic Church, were remembered during a special Mass at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Naples on Thursday.

Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice celebrated the Mass, which was one of two Masses celebrated by the diocese this month to raise awareness as part of Child Abuse Prevention Month. The other was held at Epiphany Cathedral Parish in Venice.

Celebrating a Mass in Naples gave local parishioners a chance to pray for victims — and for their faith. Memories of the massive sexual abuse scandal that roiled the Catholic Church in 2001 were not far from the minds of many who attended the Mass, including Mary Foster, a Naples resident and Catholic who said she wants the church to acknowledge the pain those abuses caused.

“We’re all sorry and we all need to come together,” she said.

She was glad Dewane chose to celebrate Thursday’s Mass and approved of what he said in his message.

In his Homily, Dewane called for prayers for the victims, and condemned what he called the “grave, immoral behavior” of the abusive priests. He recalled the words of Pope Benedict, who on his recent visit to the United States met with victims of the sex abuse crisis. During the visit, the Pope described the scandal as a “great suffering” for the church.

Dewane stressed the need for healing, reconciliation and outreach to those who have been harmed by abuse. He also encouraged forgiveness.

“As a church we are called to be witnesses,” Dewane said. “We must be examples of love and forgiveness.”

The bishop also briefly mentioned behind-the-scenes matters, such as how the diocese handles new hires, a process that involves the screening of any potential employees to be sure that they are suitable to work with children.

About 300 people attended the midday mass, about 75 of which are a part of Voice of the Faithful of Southwest Florida. The group is the local arm of the national faith-based organization that was founded in 2002 as a response to the Catholic Church sexual abuse crisis.

For six years, Voice of the Faithful held a Mass at St. John the Evangelist to pray for victims of sexual abuse. But in March, St. John the Evangelist’s pastor, the Rev. John Ludden, declined to allow the annual Mass to continue, a decision that surprised and saddened the group. Attempts were made to reschedule the Mass elsewhere, but it was eventually cancelled.

Peg Clark, president of Voice of the Faithful, said she sees Dewane’s visit and Thursday’s Mass as a possible opening to dialog between the group and the diocese. She sent the bishop an e-mail commending him on the Mass, she said.

“This is an opportunity for unity. We’ve had the division,” she said. “Now, hopefully we can look forward to unity.”

Mary Schell, a member of the group, attended Thursday’s Mass. Schell has a friend who was abused by a priest in the seventh grade, as well as two acquaintances who were abused by priests. That made the Mass especially emotional and painful, she said.

Schell expressed concern regarding the refusal to allow Voice of the Faithful to hold its annual Mass at St. John the Evangelist.

“This bishop seems to me to be encouraging a greater separation of priests and laity, and it seems it should be the opposite. We should all be working as one body of Christ,” she said.

On Thursday, Dewane declined to comment on any decisions made about Voice of the Faithful, noting that he came to Naples to say Mass.

Ludden also declined to comment on Voice of the Faithful, but did offer thoughts about the church’s attitude toward those who have been harmed by abuse, saying now is a time to come together.

“It’s important to acknowledge the hurt that’s been caused by this terrible time in the church,” he said.

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