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California priests plan day of public penance for sex abuse scandal


The idea caught the public imagination for a weekend -- priests doing public penance to apologize to victims of the Catholic church’s sex abuse scandal. It caught people off guard.

Why, callers asked when they telephoned the Catholic Worker house in Santa Ana, Calif., with suggestions for penances, would priests who have not been involved in the sex scandal want to do public acts of contrition on behalf of those who have?

Which had Catholic Worker Leia Smith, on the other end of the line, trying to explain to Catholics and non-Catholics about people choosing to take on communal responsibility, “to make sacrifices for the whole, even though we didn’t do anything wrong.”

Here is what led up to a plan for a Dec. 18 “public penance” meeting at the Worker house: A few weeks ago a handful of Orange County, Calif., priests gathered -- as priests around the country sometimes do -- in an informal support group to talk and pray. This evening “we were sitting there discussing what [Boston] Cardinal [Bernard] Law should do by way of contrition,” said Fr. John McAndrew, “realizing he wasn’t going to do anything, and realizing maybe we should.”

Fr. Bill Barman, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Santa Ana, and McAndrew, administrator of San Francisco Solano parish in Santa Margarita, decided one way to grasp the nettle of the continuing scandal would be public acts of contrition -- not something the cardinals, bishops and priests responsible have undertaken.

Easier prayed over than done. What to do? The answer, join with Catholic Workers Dwight and Leia Smith, to whom both priests are close. The Smiths agreed to let the house telephone and e-mail address (714-835-6346; OCCW@igc.org) be used by people who wanted to offer suggestions for penances for the priests.

“Asking the Catholic Worker to join us really makes the connection with the ones who are physically oppressed and forgotten,” said McAndrew. “They’ve had 60 to 70 phone calls and I was grateful [the Smiths] actually stayed by the phone rather than switch to the answering service,” he said.

Priests who choose to will gather at the house Dec. 18 and share among them the penance suggestions.

The callers, said Leia, have included a “Jewish lady in Los Angeles and a Pentecostal minister in Texas, all supportive. We’re outside the church establishment,” she said. “Maybe that’s why some people feel comfortable calling us.” She added, “But maybe some people don’t know that.”

Smith said callers were “doing their best to come up with suggestions as helpful as possible, everything from working in a location for the developmentally disabled, to praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament for one hour a week, to praying for the victims by name.”

“I think we actually have an opportunity to do something for the Body of Christ,” said McAndrew. “Priests have wanted to do something, but I think most found themselves kind of compromised -- perceived as more a part of the problem than part of the solution,” he said.

McAndrew has a daily reminder of the problem -- he is administrator of a parish whose founding pastor, Fr. Michael Pecharich, publicly resigned earlier this year as he admitted he had “transgressed the personal boundaries of an adolescent” boy 19 years previously. (A second man has now claimed he was abused by Pecharich.)

“What I found in coming to this parish in July,” said McAndrew, “was that people were just thoroughly deflated. Our Masses are not as crowded as they were a year ago,” he said, and the collection has dropped off. He attributes both declines to the scandal. The parish still has about 4,200 families, some 16,000 parishioners.

“The notion of public penance -- quite common in the early church -- is peculiar,” McAndrew continued. “I didn’t’ realize [it would begin] with the publication of that photo in the newspaper. [The Los Angeles Times carried a picture of both priests.] I found myself holding back -- I didn’t want to be photographed, yet I wanted to get the word out and realized this is how they get the word out.”

He said he did not know how many priests would join Barman and himself Dec. 18. “We’ve heard from quite a few. Some who said they were going to be there, others said they can’t be with us but they’ll be joining with us in prayer, fasting and abstinence. If it’s something that’s of the Spirit then I think it can be successful,” he said.

Barman told NCR, “It’s a fabulous, grace-filled experience. Serendipity. It works well for priests; it works well for victims; it works well for the public. What I hear coming from priests is they’re real pleased about this. They wanted to do something and no one could figure out what was a cleaning thing to do.”

One suggestion Barman has received is for the bishop of the Orange diocese, Tod Brown, to wash the feet of any victims who want to come forward.

“That would be a cool thing,” said Barman. “No reason he couldn’t do that on Holy Thursday. That suggestion will be made at the 18th meeting. I think if priests hear something they can do, they’re willing to do it.”

“It’s not going to be easy to rebuild our church,” Dwight Smith said. “We’re going to need people who are committed to carrying this cause for quite a while. This may eclipse their careers. The grace is that these two don’t have careers -- they [people at the diocese] tell John [McAndrew], what does he expect when he opposes the death penalty and wears his hair long?” said Smith, laughing.

Smith has his own plan underway. “We’re going to try to provide some way for SNAP [Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests] to have input into the way things happen on the 18th.”

And Smith has McAndrew in his sights: “Know what I’m going to tell him? For his penance he’s got to cut off his pony tail.”

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is arthurjones@attbi.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002