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Catholics grapple with scandal at parish forum

Cambridge, Mass.

Catholics in increasing numbers and in more and more parishes and worshipping communities throughout the Boston archdiocese are finding themselves “bewildered,” “angry,” and “outraged,” with the incessant reports of priest sexual abuse in the news media.

The frequency of the reports has increased since the history of child sex abuse practiced by John Geoghan, the defrocked priest of the Boston archdiocese, was told in early January. Geoghan, who has been accused of molesting more than 130 children, on Feb. 21 received the maximum sentence in the first criminal case brought to trial against him: He will serve up to 10 years in jail for indecent assault and battery on a 10-year-old boy. Geoghan was scheduled to face a second trial scheduled to begin in late February on charges of raping a minor.

The pain and shock is so great that some parishes and other Catholic institutions have begun offering pastoral support to the laity and clergy. One such parish is St. Paul’s, located in the Harvard Square neighborhood of the city.

St. Paul’s Parish serves the Catholic community at Harvard, its undergraduates and graduate students, university faculty members, and Catholic intellectuals. It is also home parish for families in the Riverside and Mid-Cambridge neighborhoods and home base for the Boston Archdiocese Choir School.

Here, on Sunday evening, the same day an afternoon protest was held at Cardinal Bernard Law’s residence, Msgr. Dennis F. Sheehan, the pastor, welcomed a group of nearly 100 to an open-microphone public forum in the church’s DiGiovanni Hall.

Mary Hogan, who is on the archdiocesan board of education, and Joanne Coakley, a guidance councilor in nearby Arlington, Mass., served as the forum’s moderators.

“We have faced a period of terrible shock, disappointment and upset in the church in Boston,” Sheehan said during his introductory remarks. “That period has been focused on two issues as I see it. They are related unfortunately, even tragically, to one another.”

He listed “the sexual abuse of minor children by clergy in considerable numbers” and the “considerable anger and wonderment at the closing of ranks and secrecy that seem to be much more concerned with protecting the image of the church than with protecting the safety of children and the integrity of religious life.

“I share that concern as much as you do. I don’t have any greater wisdom, don’t know anymore about this situation than you do. One of the issues is that the parish clergy are really without any resources, communications, either among themselves or with the diocesan leadership.”

Laypeople who spoke at the forum addressed a variety of concerns, issues that some believe have direct or indirect bearing on the scandal mandatory celibacy for ordination, incomplete magisterial understanding of human sexuality, nonordination of women and married people, the threat the scandal poses to vocations, the role of the laity, the media’s role in reporting sexual abuse, even canon law.

The prevailing mood was one of “wholehearted support” for good priests.

June Cuomo reminded people, “We are the church,” adding, “Let us take heart and stop living as docile lambs, trusting that the benevolence and wisdom of our church structure can flourish without constant support and vigilance.”

Richard Griffin voiced concern and support for the children “who have been hurt and abused” but also a caution about how accused priests are being treated. “Is it just to pick out from lists in the chancery the names of clerics who may have been accused long ago, maybe only once perhaps, then to contact them to get out of the rectory immediately, that they are all finished with pastoral ministry?

“It seems to me that is treating our own clergy very unjustly.”

Rose Moss placed the local scandal within a national and intern+ational framework. “This issue of abuse is found in every diocese in the United States and in Ireland, England, France, Germany, South Africa, South America. Wherever there is a Catholic church with power this scandal exists,” she said.

More pointedly, “There has never been a gap such as the one on sexual morality that we have now in the church, except before the Reformation,” Moss added.

The final speaker was Neil Doherty, a member of the parish peer youth group and pastoral council. He suggested the idea of an interparish vow of nonsilence.

“We can’t stand for the abuse of our children, brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ,” he said. “We cannot be silent about any abuse physical, sexual or emotional.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2002