Local Catholic clergy respond to sex-abuse scandals

By Brian Lee
Worcester Telegram & Gazette
September 15, 2018

Clouds pass between the sun and the cross that tops the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Worcester.
Photo by Rick Cinclair

College of the Holy Cross Associate Professor Mary Roche outside St. Joseph’s Chapel on the HC campus.
Photo by Ashley Green

Monsignor Thomas J. Sullivan at Christ the King Parish in Worcester.
Photo by Ashley Green

Catholic clergy are coping with the impact of a global sex-abuse crisis that has resulted in allegations of a cover-up even against the highest levels of the Catholic Church.

Since May: Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, resigned and was ordered to a life of prayer and penance after allegations that the cardinal sexually abused minors and adult seminarians over the course of decades; a Pennsylvania grand jury named more than 300 priests in a report that found more than 1,000 children had allegedly been abused over seven decades; an Australian archbishop resigned after he was convicted of concealing pedophilia by another priest; a former Vatican diplomat was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for possessing child porn; and 34 Roman Catholic bishops in Chile offered to resign after a child sex scandal and cover-up.

The cases prompted Pope Francis’ recent call for bishops from around the world to gather in Rome in February for a meeting about protecting minors.

In an interview, Mary Roche, associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross, suggested it is time for a March for Our Lives movement along the same lines as student protests after experiences of gun violence in schools.

“We need a space for children and young people to give voice to the experiences, to challenge and protest, and to make demands of people in power,” she said.

And as Catholic Church leadership meets to gain a handle on the crisis, Ms. Roche suggested the institution would be well-served by inviting people from both inside and outside of the church to the table, including laypeople, women and experts on sexual abuse. People from within the church should not be limited to clergy.

Also, the deferential attitude that prevails in the church should be challenged, Ms. Roche said. We shouldn’t encourage it in children and young people, she added. Children need to cultivate many virtues beyond obedience to authority.

A root cause of why the abuse is so widespread, she said, is that the church hasn’t done a good job of listening to children.

“I’m amazed at the courage of the people who are coming forward to share their stories of abuse when they were children,” the professor said. “I think the church is still struggling to listen to those folks. But listening to those folks when they’re adults - I’m not entirely sure how that’s working itself out into protecting children now.”

Asked if she felt the crisis would test Catholics’ desire to remain within the church, Ms. Roche said, “The church does have to face this question - about what will be the breaking point for many people, about whether or not they feel that they want to be members of the church or particular parishes and diocese, whether or not they’re going to worship, whether or not they will find other communities with whom to worship.”

Nationwide, there’s been a decline in Catholicism because of multiple factors, including a feeling that the church no longer speaks to them or for them, Ms. Roche said.

“They feel alienated from it in a number of ways, along a whole host of issues and teachings in the church that people feel don’t reflect their experience and don’t reflect gospel values as they know them,” she said.

“I do think that people, in cultures where people want a voice, they want to have a seat at the table, they want to have a vote in things - the reasons to sort of stay - and to feel powerless or betrayed by the organization, I think that’s going to be harder. I do think it’s a piece of it and I think it’s something the church should be watching really closely because I think it’s going to demand a response on their part in terms of the structures of the church and its authority and whether people get to participate in decisions.”

Locally, there was a varying degree to which clergy were willing to discuss how the crisis has been impacting parishes in the Worcester Diocese.

Bishop Robert J. McManus, the leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester, declined to be interviewed through a spokesman. But the spokesman noted in an email that Bishop McManus “has been speaking with many people about what is going on around us and will continue to dialogue with the priests of the diocese on how they are coping.”

Reached for comment, Monsignor Francis Scollen of St. Peter’s Parish in Worcester said, “I’m not going to talk about it. I think you people overplay it and give the negative spin on everything. No thank you.” He hung up the phone.

But others were willing to share their thoughts.

The Rev. Daniel R. Mulcahy Jr. of Our Lady of the Assumption in Millbury said the crisis brought back feelings of sadness, embarrassment and anger he said he felt after the 2002 Boston Globe Spotlight report uncovered the Archbishop of Boston sex scandal.

The pastor at Good Shepherd in Uxbridge at the time of the Globe report, Rev. Mulcahy said he felt support from people but at the same time believed others “were looking and wondering” about his motives when he was out in the community.

Having to go through this again, he said, was akin to being in a burn unit.

“You’ve had skin grafts, and this is ripping them off again.”

Rev. Mulcahy said he felt better after watching a video by Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who’s considered a Catholic social-media star.

“He was talking about the tendency of people to say, ‘I’ve had it. Why should I belong to this corrupt, unsafe church?’ ” Rev. Mulcahy said.

The message of that talk, Rev. Mulcahy said, is now is the time for priestly people to fight for and demand goodness of the church, and instead of jumping ship, one should pick up an oar and start rowing.

At Christ the King Church in Worcester, Monsignor Thomas J. Sullivan said there was a general air of disappointment about the sex abuse, and concern for the victims.

Asked how he and the parish were coping, Monsignor Sullivan said, “Sometimes they have a handle on it, and sometimes they’re just confused and haven’t penetrated to the level of the story, so they’re just confused about the data. And so our focus is on victims. They always have to come first and foremost, and people appreciate that.”

Monsignor Sullivan noted that allegations of child sex abuse in the church are a microcosm of a significant societal problem, with 90 percent of instances occurring within families.

And as to being on the front line during a challenging time, Monsignor Sullivan said, “People who come to church have been very supportive of the priests who are currently serving because, every priest that’s currently serving, there are no allegations. They know that we’ve been faithful to our vows. They appreciate what we’re saying from the altar ... But also they appreciate our candor and living our lives and service to them.”

At St. Bernard’s Church of Our Lady of Providence Parish in Worcester, the Rev. Jonathan J. Slavinskas recently put his frustrations in writing on social media.

An image with his writing contained the caption: “This Morning, I Didn’t Want to Put My Collar On.”

In the post, Rev. Slavinskas wrote of how the recent scandals made him want to hide from his collar.

“These past days as I moved from the rectory to the church, from the halls of the nursing homes and hospitals, as I’ve passed out school supplies to numerous neighborhood youth, I’ve had this one thought, ‘Take the collar off.’ ”

But the feeling proved to be short-lived.

Rev. Slavinskas wrote that as he visited sick parishioners at a hospital, a woman asked him to anoint her brother, who was dying of cancer.

He said it helped him remember that the collar was more than about himself. It’s about Jesus Christ and “remembering that we are not journeying alone in this world.”

Rev. Slavinskas resolved that he could continue to help people because he wears the collar.

“Ministry continues, even though it might be harder, because there are still souls that Christ is seeking to bring into His presence and peace. Know that you are in my prayers continually and in your kindness please throw up a prayer for me.”

Reached for comment, Rev. Slavinskas said he wanted to put the social-media post behind him. He said he’s engaged and focused on his work, and he wanted to bring to light “all the good stuff” in his parish.

“I’m sort of moving on from that craziness because the reality is, within my parish, I have work to do for (parishioners),” he said.

He added that he intended for the post to be read by just his parishioners and people he knows, but was aware it could draw additional attention through social media.

Carleen Ford, an attendee of a recent Mass at Our Lady of Providence, said the crisis hadn’t diminished her faith.

“I still feel towards my God as I did before all this unfolded, which has been going on for years,” Ms. Ford said. “I don’t go by what the priests do. Nothing will rock my faith. I just pray to Christ and believe in him, and I don’t care about any of the rest of it, because I can’t answer for them. They will answer, like I will answer, like you will answer. And that’s where I’m at.”

Another attendee, Aixa Sanchez, said the crisis has been devastating.

“But it’s not God, and it’s not the church itself,” she said. “It’s that human being himself who has decided to hurt someone.”

Ms. Sanchez said the embattled Catholic priests “should have never decided to follow God, who’s the light of the world, in kindness and love, and not destruction and despair and hurt ... That’s not what God is about. He’s about love and caring and protecting and nourishing people.”


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