To Be or Not to Be Catholic?

By Kim Chatelain
The Times-Picayune
October 1, 2018

Attendees depart from 9 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church in Mandeville on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018. (Kim Chatelain, | The Times-Picayune)

In 1955, a Gallup poll asked U.S. Catholics if they had attended Mass within the last seven days and 75 percent said they had done so. In 2017, a similar poll showed that the number had dropped to 39 percent.

Now, in the wake of recent revelations of clergy abuse in the church and efforts by the Catholic hierarchy to cover it up, questions abound as to whether the scandal will hasten the decline in Mass attendance, in men entering the seminary and in donations to one of the world's most generous and influential religious institutions. Bishops and priests around the county have acknowledged that the clergy sex scandals outlined in an explosive Pennsylvania report released in August exasperated Catholics and prompted many to contemplate their involvement with the church.

What Catholic leaders do in response to the scandal could play a major role in how many people hold onto their faith. As secretary and an executive committee member of the influential U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond could have a major role in determining the course of action.

"It is a crisis," Aymond said of the clergy abuse scandal in a recent interview. "It is something that gives a variety of emotions for all of us - anger, disappointment, outrage, heartbreak. It is important that we acknowledge those feelings" and bring about a renewal.

While hard numbers are difficult to come by, local church leaders say there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that many avid Catholics will continue to practice their faith but will demand that priests and bishops do a better job of policing themselves. If they can't, some Catholics say the church must establish an outside investigative entity to hold religious leaders accountable.

Aymond said he asked priests under his jurisdiction if they have seen a difference in Mass attendance or offerings since the scandal was reignited by the Pennsylvania grand jury report that detailed more than 300 priests credibly accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 child victims over the past several decades. The priests said no, according to Aymond.

The archbishop said he has also talked with many local Catholics since the incident. In an Aug. 17 letter, Aymond urged those who have been disillusioned by the church to call him. Many, he said, have taken the opportunity to give him a piece of their mind.

"I've seen lots of people, talked to lots of people on the phone who are upset about this - some (clergy abuse) victims, some not victims," Aymond said in a Sept. 20 interview. "People are upset, and they have every right to be.

"In 98 percent of those conversations, they express their anger, they give suggestions on how we can do it better and most often they will say 'but I'm not leaving the church. This is my church and you all have to do better at it.'"

While he said some have said adamantly they have no intention of returning to the pews, most say they believe the church is bigger than the scandal.

"It really touches my heart that they see our sin, they recognize our sin, but they tell me 'I'm not staying for you, or any of the priests,'" Aymond said. "They're staying because of the tradition of the church."

In January of 2017, Roman Catholic 20- and 30-somethings in the New Orleans area formed a local chapter of the non-profit organization Young Catholic Professionals, joining more than a dozen other chapters around the U.S. in seeking to bring young Catholic adults who may have strayed from the church back into the fold. Local organizers said participation in the group has remained steady, with more than 80 young adults showing up at a social event last week.

"We are deeply troubled by the clergy abuse, but we are determined not to let the evil actions of others rob us of the truth and gift of our Catholic faith," said Alexa Schexnaildre, associate director of outreach for YCP New Orleans. "We want to persevere in our faith and build a church community as Jesus intended so that good will triumph, and I think our steady numbers at YCP are evidence that many young adults feel that way and are continuing to pursue their Catholic faith."

David G. Clohessy, a former Catholic who for decades served as director of the national organization Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, has a different view. He said the Catholic Church's current crisis has elicited a more dramatic response among the faithful than did the one in early 2002, when the Boston Globe published an investigation that led to the criminal prosecutions of five Roman Catholic priests and brought the issue of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy under a national spotlight.

Clohessy said even though the number of clergy abuse incidents may be on the decline because of guidelines put in place by Catholic leaders, the fact that the church has continued to shield past offenders from public disclosure is fueling anger as more victims step forward because their suppressed memories are brought to the surface.

"There was considerable outrage in 2002, but it's much more intense this time," said Clohessy, who lives in St. Louis. "A lot of Catholics are feeling betrayed because the deception continues until this day. The coverup has stayed in place."

Catholic leaders say the vast majority of offenses outlined in the Pennsylvania grand jury report occurred before preventative measures were put in place by the U.S. Conference of Bishops in 2002. The "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" established guidelines to prevent clergy abuse. It has been updated three times since 2002.

Aymond said he was serving as bishop of Austin in 2002 and witnessed a similar anger among Catholics as he sees now. "I have to say, that lasted about a year then people let it go. They didn't forget about it, but they let it go."

The archbishop said he believes "good ministry" by parish priests will help improve the overall image of the church and move it beyond the current crisis.

The Rev. Edward Vacek, a Loyola University professor of theology who holds a doctorate in philosophy from Northwestern University and was ordained in 1973, said Catholics in the wake of the recent abuse revelations fall into three general categories.

"For one group, the response is 'I'm outta here. I don't want to belong to this anymore.' There's another group that says 'priests are messing up but I'm not going to run from my faith.' And there's probably a third group that says 'isn't this awful. What can I do about it?'"

Vacek said he believes public repentance and laity involvement in solving the issue could help see the church through the current crisis. He said despite its sins, the Catholic church remains one of the world's most generous organizations.

"If you know history, you know the church has gone through many tough times, scandalous times," Vacek said. "We have to be able to say we messed up."

Jason Berry, a New Orleans investigative reporter and author known for his chronicles on sexual abuse in the priesthood, said he believes the grand jury report, which came on the heels of the July resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick who was forced out after a series of sexual misconduct allegations, has left the faithful wondering why the church can't police itself.

It was Berry's groundbreaking reporting that brought clergy abuse into the headlines as he documented the wrongdoings of the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, a priest in the Diocese of Lafayette who in 1985 was convicted of sexually abusing as many as 39 young children. Other revelations surfaced over the years leading up to the 2002 Boston Globe report and the creation of the charter.

"It's hard to gauge what kind of direct impact this Pennsylvania grand jury report has had without any kind of hard data," said Berry, who is Catholic. "But as you reflect, it's sad to realize that an entire generation of Catholics has grown up with this issue. It has been a series of rolling waves and the latest Tsunami caught a lot of people off guard."

An independent criminal judiciary at the Vatican, Berry said, could "go a long way to reducing the skepticism Catholics have" toward their church.

Berry acknowledged that the clergy abuse has declined since the 2002 charter. Many of the reports surfacing occurred decades ago, leaving Aymond and other clergy members in an unenviable position.

Aymond said the church "must learn and repent from our sins and failures." He acknowledged that the past several weeks have been the most difficult in his nine years as Archbishop of New Orleans. The recent revelations have caused many to view clergymen with skepticism.

"It's painful," he said. "You can't help but think as you're walking down the street 'What are they thinking of me,'" Aymond said. "I felt that, especially in airports.

"I said to the priests, 'I'm sorry because you are tainted by this reality, though you have done nothing wrong."

Whether the current crisis will impact efforts to attract men to the priesthood is another offshoot of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. The church has for years grappled with a shortage of priests. At most Masses, Catholics say a vocations prayer that in part reads, "Open the hearts of many and raise up faithful servants of the Gospel, dedicated holy priests, deacons, sisters, and brothers, who will give of themselves for your people and their needs."

Aymond said Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans currently has a healthy enrollment of 148 seminarians. St. Joseph's Abbey Seminary College near Covington has 139 seminarians for the fall semester, up from 76 in 2009, according to abbey enrollment data.

After the 2002 church crisis in Boston, Aymond said seminary enrollment increased because many young men felt the church was in dire need of good priests. He said there could be a similar reaction to the current crisis.

"I've talked to our seminarians and they are telling me 'we're not the problem, but we can be part of the solution for the future.'"








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