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Where the People of God feel safe


The kids run up and just tackle us,” said Fr. Austin Doran, “and give us a big hug. And I’m certainly not going to push a kid away.”

It was Monday. Doran was reflecting on the previous day’s 9:30 a.m. family Mass. As always, just before the Eucharist, Doran invited the children up to join him around the altar table.

Up they came, three dozen or more of them. Kids bold and shy, with little tots looking behind them to be sure a parent hovered nearby as they mingled with the older ones.

Watching the happy scene, there was a little tear of joy in the corner of some eyes -- just as there might have been in Jesus’ eye whenever that celibate in his 30s delightedly called the children to gather around him.

Did Doran, though, as pastor of Our Lady of Grace parish in Encino, Calif., watching the children gather, wonder if the sexual abuse crisis was altering his relationship with the parishioners, the parents -- and indeed, the children?

He read Los Angeles’ Cardinal Roger Mahony’s letter on the archdiocese’s “no tolerance” policies on sexual abuse. He then addressed his own remarks to the congregation of this mid-sized church -- 2,900 registered families.

“As parish family,” he said, “we are shocked and also angry. There are so many stories.” He urged the parishioners to “agree to speak openly and freely” about the “betrayal of trust. We can talk about it, fairly and responsibly, about what we can be feeling.”

After Mass, as the people filed up to greet him -- Girls Scouts and Brownies eagerly hawking cookies -- many came up with their usual friendly approach. That was, he said later, “a way of making a statement. Others came up and specifically thanked me. They were grateful for the cardinal’s comments and mine. And I’ve gotten e-mail and telephone messages to that effect, too.”

Parishioners also expressed “their fears, concerns and sense of confusion, too.” At Sunday evening’s St. Joseph’s Day dinner, the scandal was table talk -- “very measured comments,” he said, “people reflective, concerned for the children, but concerned, too, that the scandal not get in the way of the good things the Catholic church does.”

As pastor, Doran said he has a personal relationship with the families at the Mass. “These parents are intelligent, they’re reading the papers, they’re concerned about their children,” he said. “And we’re addressing it, talking about it. Giving them a chance to voice their concerns is very, very important. They naturally have very strong reactions to such terrible situations.”

But people are also reasonable. They know, Doran said, that sexual predators constitute a tiny percentage of the general population and the priesthood.

He said fellow priests are feeling overwhelmed. “I certainly identify with them,” he said. “It does seem overwhelming. A terrible mess. I noticed in conversations with priests, the hope emerges -- based on our own experience of how God’s grace works -- that we will come out of this somehow spiritually a better and stronger church.”

Doran belongs to the Jesu Caritas priests’ prayer group, has supportive family and lay friends, and priest friends in other parishes. Adding to this support system is his brother, Fr. Brian Doran, also an archdiocesan priest.

Austin Doran came to the parish almost five years ago after eight years as spiritual director at Los Angeles’ archdiocesan seminary.

For all people, “part of our formation for our whole life,” he said, “is in coming to a deeper self-knowledge. In formation for the priesthood and any other kind of ministry, we’re getting to know people who are getting to know themselves. If people do not know or accept themselves very well it makes it more difficult to get to know them,” he said, and that’s a difficult judgment for seminary faculties -- “gauging how well this person knows himself or herself, and therefore how ready are they to make this commitment, and how safe they are for the People of God.”

Is he more guarded now with children?

“My formation was recent enough that I was trained in the seminary to be cautious. I’ve shared that with priests --just to be very prudent. Have another adult present.”

But out on the patio, the kids run up, calling, “Father Austin! Father Austin!” and give him a hug. He gives them a gentle hug back and happily sends them on their way.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 29, 2002