Local Priests Address Pennsylvania Abuse Report
By Leann Burke
Dubois County Herald
October 5, 2018
For the last month, local priests have made themselves available for parishioners reeling from news of sexual abuse by priests detailed in a report from a Pennsylvania grand jury.
The 1,356-page report details how church leaders in almost every Pennsylvania diocese covered up child sexual abuse for over 70 years. Shock waves from the report reverberated throughout the country — roughly 10 additional states are now conducting their own investigations — and all the way to the Vatican where Pope Francis called on U.S. bishops to talk openly about the report. Here in the Diocese of Evansville, Bishop Joseph Siegel wrote a statement for local priests to share with their parishioners.
“Let us continue to pray for abuse victims and their families, care for them and provide assistance as they seek healing and justice,” Siegel wrote in the statement. “We pray also for those who have harmed them.”
Local priests have done their best to heed the bishop’s call when necessary, but the report hasn’t caused as much uproar locally as it has on the national stage.
“Since (Pennsylvania) is kind of distant, I don’t think it has people as involved in it as if it were closer,” said Father Ray Brenner of Jasper’s St. Joseph Catholic Church and dean of the diocese’s East Deanery. “Still, people are concerned and praying.”
In response to the report, the Evansville Diocese says it will release a list of diocesan priests credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors. There is no word on when that list may be released, but Siegel will host a prayer service at 7 p.m. Tuesday night at St. Joseph. The service is for the entire East Deanery, which covers all parishes located just below the Martin County line and south to Rockport. Local priests are encouraging their congregations to attend.
To Brenner, the aftermath of the Pennsylvania report feels a bit like the aftermath of the 2002 Boston Globe investigation that first revealed widespread child abuse in the Catholic church. Then, like now, many Catholics were left feeling hurt and betrayed. The church also took steps to increase safeguards against child abuse, including additional training for adults working with youth and providing resources for victims to report the incidents. Several local parishes print contact information for victim resources in their newsletters.
“We try to be pretty proactive about it,” Brenner said.
In addition to being available to talk to and pray with parishioners, some local priests have addressed the report from the pulpit. Brenner said St. Joseph associate pastor, Father William Traylor, recently spoke about it during a service. Father Eugene Schmitt of St. Isidore Parish, which covers St. Raphael in Dubois and St. Celestine in Celestine, also chose to speak about the report in his homilies.
“I talked about how horrible it was that this happened,” Schmitt said.
As Farther Gary Kaiser of Precious Blood Church in Jasper has heard about the report and talked with parishioners about it, he’s worked to look for the grace through the tragedy. Since the Spotlight investigation in 2002, he said, people have become more willing to talk about abuse in the church and support for victims has improved as the organizations learn how to deal with it. Still, he realizes that it offers little comfort.
“Sometimes you don’t have a lot to offer,” Kaiser said. “You’re just there for support.”
For the priests themselves, hearing the news that their fellow priests abused people is hard.
“It hurts,” Brenner said. “Sometimes people draw conclusions that you’re the same.”
In an assignment prior to coming to St. Joseph, Brenner said, he followed a priest who had been accused. He didn’t know about the accusations when he arrived at the church, and it was 18 months before he learned of them, but he does remember that what happened hurt the parishioners. Many people, especially the victims and their families, are feeling that pain now.
As Brenner prays with his parishioners and on his own about what the Pennsylvania report made public, he reminds people to look past the human priests to Jesus Christ and to stay faithful to the Gospel.
“The Church hasn’t changed because of the people that have gone astray,” Brenner said. “We don’t align ourselves with any particular person. We align ourselves with Jesus Christ.”