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Scandal tests faith, but we still believe


Our pastor placed the host in a monstrance on the altar, and we all began to pray. We began what can be compared to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grieving: denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance.

Three hours earlier, in a news conference carried live on local TV stations, Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell said he had sent in his resignation. Bishops need permission to quit. It took Rome five days to give it -- quick in church time, late and laggard in the new real time. The pastor said later he didn’t know what to expect when saw 250 parishioners waiting that Friday night. There is no drill for what Palm Beach, Fla., was undergoing. They don’t teach it at the seminary. He got it exactly right anyway.

On Sunday he preached before all the Masses and then listened to parishioners, some of whom wanted to hang O’Connell and others who thought he was being crucified. After the LifeTeen Mass Sunday evening, the three priests and seminarian in residence had an open meeting with the kids and their parents until there was nothing left to be said.

“Very cleansing,” is the way one of the adult core team members described it.

I started with my parish because that’s where my Catholicism had to work out its reaction to O’Connell, and it is an exceptional parish. Of the 14 parishes I’ve lived in, it’s the best by miles with no obvious distinction to explain why. My impression is that in parishes where the parishioners feel a sense of ownership, the people handled the trauma better than in parishes still comfortable with the old “pray, pay and obey” principle. Florida -- like everywhere else in this country -- has Catholics from all over, an infinite variety.

I’ve heard from a cross section since writing a long piece for The Palm Beach Post, a week after the resignation, trying to explain how the Vatican gave us a bishop with a past to replace a bishop with the same past. After all the shouting and grieving, that’s the question we’re left with.

Palm Beach has had three bishops. The first, Thomas Daily, now of Brooklyn, has been identified as an enabler during his earlier career as an auxiliary in Boston. The second, Keith Symons, disappeared to Michigan after his relations with five youths in the 1960s became public. O’Connell faced the world at his news conference.

It was a remarkable event even for a county that had the butterfly ballots, the hanging chads and the first anthrax delivery. As O’Connell was going, a Jewish cemetery was charged with shuffling bodies around to make room in over-sold plots.

O’Connell said that, under the influence of sex researchers Masters and Johnson, he was trying some new therapies when he improperly touched his accuser. Some people thought that was making excuses, but others (I’m with them) think that after all he had already confessed to he was being honest about what he had already called his stupidity. Others were offended that priests stood behind him during the news conference. As one said, “When someone is hurting, I stand with him. I am a priest.”

That’s what I do. I’ll stand with his victims as well. O’Connell, until March 8, was good for the diocese. He came to a land broken by his predecessor and made himself available to the point of ubiquity. What he said at the news conference about needing forgiveness himself he had said countless times about forgiving others.

Some Catholics’ first thought was that, if there was any way, he should stay. Some still think so. But given the zero-tolerance statement of the Florida bishops, including himself, earlier that week there was no way that could happen.

Some fellow parishioners say they “can never” forgive O’Connell. The best wisdom I heard on that subject was from another parishioner, who said forgiveness isn’t up to us. It has to come from God and his victims, and he apparently thought he had it.

All O’Connell did to us was take an assignment he shouldn’t have taken. Given the people he works for, who take five days to react to a publicly televised mea culpa, you can’t give him all the blame for even that.

But it isn’t over. A Methodist acquaintance says her pastor announced 25 “visiting Catholics” last Sunday. It will never be over. We have to live with it. The point of my piece in the Post was that the worldwide, institutional church has to change to deal with bad things openly and honestly, as our parish did. Contrary to my expectation, the response to my piece was overwhelmingly positive, even from people whose current parish situation suggests to them that change will be a long time coming.

I had only one e-mail and one phone call along the lines of “Christ set up the church exactly the way it is, and you had better love it.” One of the most prominent Catholics in the diocese left a message on my voice mail: “The veil over the old boys’ club is not just punctured. It’s rent asunder.” An even more prominent Catholic sent one word: “Thanks.”

We’ve been through this twice now, but I’m afraid it’s an event that’s coming to other dioceses around the world. The institution -- the old boys’ club -- has to change, but we will get through it. The monstrance on our altar that Friday night was both the answer to the question of how and the reason why.

That’s what we say we believe. We’ve had our belief tested. We still believe.

Tom Blackburn is an editorial writer for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.

National Catholic Reporter, March 29, 2002