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Special Report

Parishioners, priests search for solutions

Cambridge, Mass.

Catholics of all stripes, ordained and nonordained, faithful and lapsed, recovering and “ex,” are struggling to make sense and come to terms with the daily barrage of news coverage about clerical sexual abuse here in the nation’s fourth-largest archdiocese.

A number of parishes have tried to help by conducting open-microphone public forums -- a local Catholic version of the New England tradition of town meetings.

One diocesan priest who has convened several such listening sessions is Fr. Jerry Osterman, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Everett, Mass.

A blue collar, working-class suburb outside Boston, Everett is the kind of place where the sexual abuse of boys by priests often occurred. The one exception to this demographic is Weston, Mass. (Boston’s western, more affluent suburb), home to St. Julia’s parish, where convicted pedophile and former priest John Geoghan allegedly committed some assaults on youngsters.

During a wide-ranging interview, Osterman discussed how his parishioners are coping in the wake of scandal. He also shared his views on church politics and ministerial and pastoral concerns.

“I’ve preached on [clerical sex abuse] three times,” he said. “People seemed very appreciative of that,” he added. Osterman also held question-and-answer sessions after each Mass.

“I think people were also appreciative of the opportunity to speak about it. … They like the fact that you are willing to hear them out.”

Osterman said he was surprised that support for the cardinal did not depend on age. “I thought that support or lack of it for the cardinal would go down by age, with seniors being the most supportive.” One local poll, however, showed a 50 percent split in opinion on whether Law should resign. And the support “was spread across all age groups.”

“People’s talk of the cardinal’s resignation isn’t with rancor,” said Osterman. “They’re able to see that he’s done a lot of good things. But they don’t understand how he can be part of the solution if he was part of the problem.”

The priest, a soft-spoken New England native, meets with a group that started last summer when three suburban members of the clergy began meeting to discuss issues such as burnout and loneliness.

“We are a group of priests who are concerned about the church in Boston and ministry in the next five years or so,” he said. “We also invite speakers to come and talk to us.

“There has been no real forum to think creatively,” he said. “We are trying to address the shortages of priests, parishes without priests -- topics you are not supposed to talk about.”

Recently, news of the priests’ forum grabbed attention in the local press when the group invited Fr. Richard P. McBrien, a noted Catholic theologian and professor at the University of Notre Dame, to address the gathering.

In an interview with a Globe religion reporter McBrien said, “If the priests do not give voice to their concerns, who will?” The priests decided to continue meeting because they were frustrated that they had no opportunity to discuss with their archbishop problems of mutual concern.

McBrien said that by the time he arrived on the scene, “the situation in the archdiocese had changed quite drastically, so that they are no longer seeing themselves as a support group, but as having a responsibility as a group of pastors to take some leadership, with or without the cardinal’s support or involvement, in helping to address the issues that are tearing apart the church of Boston and leaving laypeople confused and embarrassed.

“If the priests hold back or defer to the cardinal, laity are going to conclude the priests are part of the problem,” McBrien said.

Osterman said Law had been informed about the priests’ meetings even before the scandal broke. “We told him,” he said. “We’d like the cardinal or bishops to come. But I suspect it’s viewed as a fifth column, so we’re ignored.”

Still, Osterman underscored that there were and are structures in the church for wider participation, not only by the clergy, but also the laity. He mentioned, for instance, the presbyterial (priests’) council and the diocesan council for laypeople.

“These structures, however, are not used in a creative and imaginative way,” he said. “It’s a one-way street, with the agenda decided ‘from above’ and answers given out to the questions.

“We used to have a priests’ senate, which was run democratically insofar as it set its own agenda and brought issues to the bishops’ attention. But that forum and the group’s newsletter got dropped. The senate was replaced by the presbyterial council,” said Osterman.

The presbyterial council is a representative group of about 40 priests picked according to year of ordination. The cardinal can add people to the body, Osterman said.

Wider issues -- the breadth and depth of the local scandal of the sexual abuse of children by diocesan priests and matters both theological and ecclesial -- also concern Osterman and other members of the local clergy.

“What George [Spagnolia] did needed to be dramatized,” Osterman said, referring to a priest who denies an accusation that he sexually abused a youth (NCR, March 8). “We are almost creating another set of victims. It is hard to say that because the true victims have been ignored for so long. But in order to protect the priesthood, another set of victims, it seems, is created,” Osterman said.

“Even if one is guilty, there’s a difference between secrecy and confidentiality,” he said.

“I don’t see any of the district attorneys turning over names to the press. I wonder why we are,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you don’t act on the issue and report it. But I am not sure you have to go to the press with the names. If it’s an allegation and it’s proven false, your reputation is already ruined. Restoring it is never a Page 1 story.”

Another concern among the priests who are meeting, Osterman said, is the leadership style of the cardinal. “He’s doing what a CEO would do to save his reputation, while claiming he’s a shepherd,” Osterman said. “That hasn’t been missed by the people.

“It’s hard to be accusatory,” he said. “It comes down to theology. If your theology is that ‘Where the bishop is, there’s the church,’ then you do everything to make the bishop look right, because it’s the same as saying, ‘We’re trying to repair the image of the church.’ ”

But, said Osterman, “Most people operate … with a broader reality than that.”

Osterman also thinks that the local leadership is “not recognizing the signs of the times.”

“One is that we are dealing with an educated laity, in some cases highly educated,” he said. “Even those with only a high school education have life experience raising families and have street smarts.”

Another sign, he said, is deeply embedded in the American experience. “We live and breathe democracy and democratic ways of doing things.

“It’s too glib to say that the church is not a democracy. That may well be true, but democracy flows in people’s veins,” he said. “Part of dealing with the times is recognizing that the flow of information is not one way. That doesn’t mean that ultimately they don’t have the final say or authority. But people in our culture earn authority. This hypersensitivity to authority, it’s the hierarchy’s problem, not anybody else’s.”

Finally, Osterman said, “Not recognizing the signs of the times includes not realizing that the victims are our primary concern. That’s a given, taken for granted by people.

“The scandal is sweeping the problem under the rug.”

People have dealt with pedophilia in their families for generations, for example, the “crazy uncle” you are told to stay away from, he said.

“If anything positive comes from the press coverage,” he said, “it’s how all-pervasive pedophilia is. Priests are just the tip of the iceberg. The advantage is that we are such a control group, so we can be studied.

“People are able to deal with clerical pedophilia. They say, ‘This priest is sick.’ But many people just don’t understand why church authorities couldn’t recognize that,” he said.

Nonetheless, Osterman sees hopeful signs from the cardinal himself. “The assumption should be that he is our bishop and how can we work with him? He’s listening and hearing. That is a positive sign,” he said. “I am not sure he knows how to respond right now, but then again I’m not sure anyone would at this time.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 15, 2002