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Santa Rosa Catholics speak on ‘crisis, not a crisis of faith’

NCR Staff
Boyes Hot Springs, Calif.

Catholics nationwide may see their own opinions reflected in a parish poll conducted here following a Santa Rosa diocese sex scandal and financial nosedive (NCR, March 3). The problems arose when the now resigned Santa Rosa bishop admitted a sexual involvement with a priest, and the discovery after the bishop’s departure that the diocese is probably $30 million in debt.

Parishes responded in many ways -- in meetings with their pastors, in meetings of school parents, of parish councils or committees. St. Leo’s Parish here took a survey Jan. 8 and 9 to gauge “a clear sense” of its people’s attitude toward the crises. In addition to filling in the survey, parishioners were invited to make comments.

The overriding response reveals a mature Catholic population that understands its rights and roles within the Catholic community.

One parishioner wrote, “This is a crisis, but not a crisis of faith. Rather, the veil of secrecy has been at last ripped away revealing the hidden cancer of power seeking -- forsaking the gospel of love for the gospel of power, clericalism and self-will run riot. It’s our role as church to call the hierarchy to repentance.”

Another said: “There should be a strict separation of secular (financial) duties from the ones the priest -- any priest -- should focus on, the spiritual; guiding his flock instead of concerning himself about money matters.”

Overall, the 457 survey responses showed 88 percent “concerned or very concerned” about the sexual misconduct of priests; 90 percent were concerned about the financial difficulties. Ninety percent believed the laity should play a strong or very strong role in dealing with current diocesan programs; 97 percent supported joining with other parishes to consider current problems.

St. Leo’s Parish communications team, which organized the survey, sees the last point as its mandate.

One juxtaposition would seem familiar in most U.S. parishes: While 97 percent of parishioners supported networking with other parishes, only 17 percent said they’d be interested in getting involved themselves. Forty-six percent said they would not get involved, and 37 percent said they might.

The following are excerpts of comments appended to four of the survey questions.

1. How concerned are you about the sexual misconduct of priests?

“This is obviously a problem that the church continues to downplay.”

“Create an order of priests that can marry.”

“I feel like I can’t trust any priest with my children.”

“About misconduct, private acts are private.”

“These are symptoms of the whole hierarchical structure.”

“It is the issue most often raised in my conversations with those of other faiths. All remedies must be explored to address this issue.”

“Calling our priests to celibacy is too much to ask, but vows are vows.”

“Not how I was brought up. Very distressing to think their vows were not taken seriously.”

“Let them get married.”

“Priests and laity need to really open the door on sexuality and begin a real dialogue on celibacy.”

“Reflects our church’s inability to face issue of celibacy. Cover-up or sexual contact with minors is very serious.”

“It is not about sex; it is about abuse of power. Marriage might be worse -- the poor wives!”

“Give me a break! Our priests are human. How about our laity who are committing adultery, casual sex, etc.? I’m not justifying their conduct, but keep it in perspective.”

“We feel it’s deplorable. We haven’t discussed it with our children. We are disappointed in all the deceit and cover-ups.”

2. How concerned are you about the financial difficulties of the diocese?

“There needs to be lay oversight. Priests should be priests, not financial officers.”

“I would like to see a financial committee picked by each parish -- not friends of the bishop. The audit firm should be changed every five years.”

“I never paid attention to financial issues of the church. I always thought the Catholic church was rich.”

“I want to support my parish, but not the diocese. Especially if they are using it the wrong way.”

“While I am concerned as to how this came about, I believe the church has the resources to come back.”

“It’s a symptom of a deeper sin/illness in the church -- a love of power, a form of idolatry.”

“The stewards of our money have been totally irresponsible.”

“It’s a symptom of the closed way of doing things.”

“I believe people are withholding money waiting for issues to be addressed.”

“How sad that people have sacrificed for others to spend frivolously.”

“I feel uneasy about the whole situation. I have done the best I could to contribute financially and feel my sacrifices were a bit of a joke.”

3. How strong a role should the laity play in dealing with current diocesan problems?

“Need to be agents for reform. Long-term, laity should be used on oversight and advisory committees.”

“I believe it should be a 50 percent lay, 50 percent clergy group. And open to anyone wanting to enter.”

“We are church!”

“Leverage what other [dioceses] have done with similar problems if they worked.”

“Until church leaders involve the laity, nothing will be accomplished. The leaders forget they are the laity’s servants.”

“Our leaders haven’t done so good. The laity should get a chance to bring reality to the church.”

“The laity is the community.”

“We are church -- the clergy looks pretty silly without us.”

“I’m wondering if the laity really has a say and wondering why no one from the southern part of the diocese is on the archbishop’s committee. [San Francisco Archbishop Levada has established a 19-member finance committee in Santa Rosa.] The actions of the diocese have made me very bitter.”

4. Should the parish investigate joint lay meetings with other parishes about current diocesan problems?

“The parishes are not united. We need to be a stronger voice, and we need to band together.”

“We need to work together and share ideas with one another.”

“I shall work toward more openness and laity involvement in the future.”

“We need a way to ‘save face’ with people outside the Catholic church.”

“We must speak with one voice.”

“If necessary, bypass the pastor who might not be receptive.”

“Top-down management is not working. It’s time to try bottom-up management.”

“The more communication there is, the better for any relationship. This would create a greater sense of solidarity and commitment.”

“Investigate [the proposal], and follow through with thoughtful action.”

“What happened in this diocese is the first chip in a crumbling system. Many more such instances will occur before change does.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2000