'It's a beginning': Catholics vent anger over sexual abuse in Greensburg

By Peter Smith
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
October 22, 2018

[with video]

More than two months after a landmark state grand jury report told a devastating history of sexual abuse by priests, more than 200 Catholics gathered at Greensburg's cathedral to report back.

In short, they were angry at the reports of sexual abuse by priests and the cover-ups that followed.

At the first of a series of listening sessions being held throughout the Diocese of Greensburg in the coming weeks, Bishop Edward Malesic paced the center aisle of Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Greensburg, listening as the microphone passed from one person to another, each angered over the reports of abuse, but often for different reasons.

"When we look at our history as a family and (wonder) how could that happen, I know there are feelings of confusion and anger and disappointment," Bishop Malesic said. "So I wanted to have a gathering as family so we could dialogue."

Beyond the revulsion expressed toward the sexual abuse, described in gruesome detail in the grand jury report, there was no common thread in the comments, which several people read from notes that shook in their hands.

Some blamed the lack of women and married priests, others blamed homosexuality, others argued back that it was pedophilia to blame, not gay priests. Some blamed demonic forces and supported the use of traditional devotions, including St. Michael's Prayer, an invocation against dark powers.

"We fight spirits, not people," one man said.

Others in the crowd, which skewed older, were worried about how their college-age children would ever be persuaded to return to a church with such scandalous baggage.

Still others were angered at the removal of priests from their positions for recently reported allegations of abuse from decades earlier.

And others wanted more listening, less replying from Bishop Malesic.

"You want me shut up?" the bishop asked.

"Yes," a speaker said.

"Thank you," the bishop said, and deferred more to the commenters as the evening went on.

The listening sessions are being held in response to the Pennsylvania grand jury report, issued Aug. 14, that said more than 300 priests had sexually abused more than 1,000 minors across seven decades in six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, including Greensburg.

The report said 20 priests in the Greensburg diocese had been accused since its creation in 1951. One, John Sweeney, has pleaded guilty to an abuse charge and is awaiting sentencing.

And the report especially criticized previous and now-deceased bishops of Greensburg for enabling known predators to stay in ministry and strike again.

Adding to the charged atmosphere was the news last week that federal investigators had launched their own probe into Pennsylvania dioceses.

The listening session is the first of seven being held between now and late November in the diocese's counties of Westmoreland, Armstrong, Fayette and Indiana.

The diocese permitted news media coverage but asked that members of the audience not be identified unless they agreed to afterward. Not all were available for comment after.

Chris Parrendo of Murrysville questioned whether the diocese was overcompensating for its past mistakes by now announcing whenever a priest is removed from ministry pending investigation of an allegation.

"Anyone who hurt a child should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," she said afterward. But for those who didn't, "these men's lives are ruined forever," she said. "Even if they are vindicated, there will always be the whispers, that's the guy who got away with it."

Several diocesan officials attended.

Asked about financial payments in response to clerical abuse, diocesan chief financial officer Sheila Murray said the diocese does not pay for the defense of accused priests.

She said the diocese has paid less than $1 million in financial settlements with victims and that it would soon be publishing the legal expenses paid by the diocese since the grand jury investigation began in 2016.

The first questions of the night centered on the question of why women can't be priests.

Bishop Malesic replied that Catholics try to follow the example of Jesus in their teaching about sacraments and that Jesus ordained only men as apostles.

But he said it's important that women have positions of leadership in the church to advise on decision-making, pointing to several key positions filled by women in the diocese.

The best way to keep the past abuse from happening is to "have a lot of different people looking at what you're doing," he said.

Ellen Katter of Murrysville, a member of the diocese's new Safe Environment Advisory Council, said Monday night's hearing featured many "powerful emotions" that are necessary for people to voice.

"We wanted people to feel free to speak up," she said. "It's a beginning."



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