Changes for the Catholic Church

By Charlie Mangiardi
The Heights
February 15, 2010

NEW YORK -- Croton-on-Hudson, in New York's suburban Westchester County, is a small, heavily Catholic town with a single parish: Holy Name of Mary. When I moved there in early 1999, the parish had a large role in village life. The masses I attended were always crowded, and we usually had to arrive a few minutes early if we wanted a good seat. The pastor of the Church was a jovial guy named Genarro Gentile we all called him Father Jerry.

About a year later, Father Jerry was removed from our parish. Nobody told us why, although whispers began to spread that he had been touching the children of parishioners. At the time, I dismissed the rumors as unsubstantiated. After all, Father Jerry hadn't gone to prison; he was simply transferred somewhere else. I could hardly believe that he would have been permitted to have a farewell address to my CCD class if he had been an accused child molester.

I was, of course, wrong. We found out later on that Father Jerry had been facing numerous accusations for decades, dating back to the early 1970s. The Archdiocese of New York had covered up the controversy. When it finally became too much for them to handle, they simply moved him away. He wasn't defrocked, or sent to jail, or made to apologize, or anything. Nor was the archdiocese.

The parishioners of Holy Name took it in stride. The scandals that had rocked the Church had not yet boiled over. We didn't know we were part of a larger betrayal by our bishops and cardinals. So we welcomed our new pastor, Father Ken Jesselli, with open arms. It was Father Ken who confirmed me in 2001. It was Father Ken who led us through the painful weeks and months after Sept. 11.

The archdiocese, first under Cardinal O'Connor and then under Cardinal Egan, never intended to acknowledge the predatory nature of its worst priests. It only did so in 2002, when the rapidly growing international scandal forced its hand. It was then that we found out that Father Ken was himself a molester, accused years earlier at his old parish in the Bronx. Rather than being punished, he was eventually rewarded with a promotion to pastor of our parish.

The Archdiocese of New York exposed me, and hundreds of other Croton children, to the kind of sexual abuse that can destroy a life. I may have gotten through unscathed, but I have never again been able to attend a diocesan service without reservation. Nor have hundreds of other Crotonites, who migrated to the Episcopal Church across the street or simply stopped attending mass. Can sheep ever forgive their shepherds for handing them over to the wolves?

I personally rediscovered my faith when I came to Boston College. I have found the Jesuits to be of a higher ilk than the men that ran my parish into the ground (although, I am aware that they have not been untouched by scandal). This campus has a vibrant and faithful Catholic community; I have many friends whose lives are centered on their faith. Not a single one of them has plans to enter the priesthood. If Pope Benedict wants to truly deal with the scandals, he'd do well to take note of that fact.

Pope Benedict, like John Paul II before him, has treated the scandals like a temporary annoyance. He is an academic, a theologian, and St. Peter's Basilica is the world's tallest ivy tower. He doesn't see once-vibrant churches in New York or Boston, where just a few dozen people attend Christmas Eve mass.

The time has long since passed to lift the requirement that priests be celibate and male. The crimes of Father Jerry and Father Ken would not have been covered up for so long if the Archdiocese of New York had a supply of priests to take their place. I am aware that something will be lost when our priests have families of their own that take precedence over us. In places like Croton, something has already been lost that won't be easily found again. The Catholic Church is on the brink of irrelevancy in the modern world, and its leadership seems blissfully unaware of that fact. It needs talented young men and women to rejuvenate it. Slight upticks in seminary enrollment are not enough.

The sex abuse scandals are nothing less than the Church's biggest crisis since the Reformation, a fact that it has been loath to admit. Pope Benedict is meeting with Irish bishops today and tomorrow to discuss the scandal that has rocked that devout nation. I hope that he'll open his eyes afterward. But nothing he's done to this point leads me to believe that there won't be an abundance of seats available in Irish churches in the future.


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