At their Dallas meeting, the bishops opted for a tough zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse. They scrapped their original provision that would have let a priest with a one-time offense in the past be monitored and continue in ministry. While some applauded the bishops’ action, the reality of what it means is hitting home hard at more that a few parishes across the country that find themselves losing their priests. This story is just a sample.

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Post-Dallas: Parish struggles for healing after two priests are removed

Dana Point, Calif.

Few parishes have faced the psychological fallout of priestly sexual misconduct more directly than St. Edward the Confessor in Dana Point, Calif., which lost two of its four priests to the crisis, and later found that two other priests with accusations of molestation in their backgrounds had served their parish in the 1980s.

Fr. Steve Sallot, St. Edward’s current pastor, said it is difficult to generalize about how individuals or parishes cope with these issues. He said the moods of his parishioners are “all across the board.” Sallot was the rector president of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., for 10 years. In September he was asked to do double duty until he could switch permanently to St. Edward at the end of the school year in July.

He described the community as going through “a general mild depression.” But people are also saying, “OK, now let’s regroup and move ahead,” Sallot said.

The parish lost Fr. John P. Lenihan last fall after it became known that he was accused of impregnating a teen and paying for her abortion in the 1970s. The Orange diocese paid $1.2 million to Lenihan’s accuser. In April, Fr. Denis Lyons was removed after being accused of making advances toward a teenage boy in 1979. Neither accusation involved the priests’ tenures at St. Edward.

Lenihan was a charismatic and popular figure and Sallot sees a classic grieving process taking place. “It is as if the favorite uncle died suddenly,” he said. “This parish is like a large extended family that’s grieving on lots of different levels.”

Sallot said many priests are going through a difficult transition as well. “We all knew these guys, some of us went to the seminary with them, some of us worked with them. Now you realize the family structure has changed and that’s been painful for a lot of people.”

The 4,300-family, ocean-view parish faces practical problems also. Sallot noted, “This parish is going from a staff of four priests to only two, so even if nothing else had happened, the parish would be undergoing a loss of clerical availability.” He added, “What’s been outstanding is how many people have stepped to the plate to help -- both lay people and the other priests.”

Joe Sinacori, the principal at St. Edward Parish School, said the parish crisis had an almost positive effect on the school. He said, “I think having a school in a parish when you’re going through something like this makes it easier because you see the children -- you see the future there. People gather there everyday and can be uplifted by their togetherness.”

He said, “I was amazed at how very little negative reaction there was from the parents.” The school was in the process of fundraising for an expansion program and, Sinacori said, “At the beginning it seemed like everything might fall apart without the pastor, yet we all hung in there as a parish.”

Sinacori said people didn’t talk much in the early days of the crisis, but “you could see it in their eyes, you could walk around and just feel it -- we all knew what we were going through, but we also knew that we would get through it.”

He said the sense of community he felt while working through the situation was a wonderful thing to experience “We went through a bad year, but looking back at it now that it’s over and we’re into a transition, it was one of the best years.”

Sinacori sees a strengthening of the church’s laity resulting from the sex abuse scandals. “The problem with the Catholic church is that good priests are psychological leaders as well … and it’s very difficult for lay people to come forth and have that presence, but it’s going to happen because the numbers of priests are diminishing.”

Other active parishioners echo Sinacori’s faith in the laity. Laurie Saine, who helped coordinate the St. Edward Parish capital campaign for improvements, has been a volunteer for 14 of her 17 years at the parish.

Saine sees great strength in the lay community at St. Edward, which is a diverse parish with a large number of ministries. “A lot of people are involved in this parish, and they continue to be involved, which is a great sign for us,” she said. “We’re strong -- we’ve been stronger, but we’ll strengthen ourselves again.”

She admits to sadness about losing the former priests, “It’s a very emotional time for a lot of us.” She added, “I’m here for Jesus. I’m not here for any particular human individual.”

Gina Robertson and her husband Jack have been members of parish since 1987. Since 1995, she has worked in religious education, children’s liturgy and on the finance commission. Her husband converted to Catholicism in 1997 and has since been active in the program that prepares adults to join the church.

Robertson said she has noticed no drop in weekly collections. However, she said there have been questions about whether money donated to the church goes to legal settlements. This answer to this question even has a place on parish Web site. Robertson said the way Bishop Tod D. Brown of the Orange diocese faced the problem has helped greatly. “By and large the bishop in our case did the best thing that he could with the situation that he was faced with. When things were brought to his attention, he tried to clean up immediately.”

Robertson admits to feeling sorrow and confusion about why so many people with “issues” were sent to St. Edward by past bishops. “Personally, I feel angry with what the hierarchy has done. There’s disappointment in the hierarchy, but not disappointment in the faith.”

She’s been saddened by the huge amount of negative publicity linked to the parish name, “You hate to see the church dragged through the mud. For all of us, it’s embarrassing.” Robertson said she and her husband are struggling with the paradox of missing the very priests who brought that embarrassment to the parish. She said it’s hard to lose longtime personal ties. “It feels like someone’s just been snatched away, and you’ve lost a friend.”

But Robertson says her faith and her parish life “are so much more than the priest. The priests will come and go, but the faith community is what supports us. That’s why our parish continues to be strong.”

Melissa Jones is a freelance writer with advanced degrees in religious studies and history. She lives in Colorado.

National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 2002