What happened when a dad challenged his priest during Mass about the sex abuse crisis
Susan Reynolds, a Catholic studies professor at Emory University, took to Twitter to describe something she witnessed during Mass on Sunday that she said was unlike anything she had ever seen before.
In a series of tweets, Ms. Reynolds described an encounter between the pastor of St. Thomas More Catholic Church and a father at Mass with his young son, who is on the verge of making his first Communion.
This morning at Mass, I witnessed something I have never seen, and words still mostly fail me. /1— Dr. Susan Reynolds (@SusanBReynolds1) August 19, 2018
The priest, Mark Horak, S.J., had just delivered his homily, which was devoted to the news that 300 priests have been named in a grand jury report chronicling the sexual assault of more than 1,000 victims in Pennsylvania. Father Horak apologized to those feeling angry and let down by church leaders, and he lamented that lay people were not empowered to do more in the church.
In some ways, it was a call to action.
But as Father Horak finished preaching, the young father stood up from his pew near the front of his church. With emotion in his voice, Ms. Reynolds recalled in a recent interview with America, he asked the priest: “How? Tell us how.”
Ms. Reynolds said that “jaws dropped” when the young father stood up.
Ms. Reynolds said that “jaws dropped” when the young father stood up. After all, she said, the Mass is not a common setting for dialogue between priests and laity.
But instead of asking the parishioner to have a seat or even thanking him for engaging but urging him to wait to talk until after Mass, Father Horak took a moment to gather his thoughts before he tried to respond.
“I was caught short initially,” Father Horak said in a recent interview. “What do you say?”
The priest urged the parishioner to focus on the Eucharist—and not on the institutional church.
“I said something to the effect that the Eucharist is not the church. The church is not an idol,” Father Horak recalled. “We hope that we encounter Jesus through Eucharist, and it would be a shame if people avoided Eucharist because they were unhappy with the leadership of the church. Eucharist is one of the ways we are transformed.”
“It would be a shame if people avoided Eucharist because they were unhappy with the leadership of the church.”
But the priest also relayed some ideas he has heard lay people say could help express their anger: withhold donations, write to the bishops or sign a petition.
He conceded that because of the church’s structure, there is only so much lay people can do.
“There isn’t a whole lot you can do because lay people are not in positions of power in the church,” he said. “Basically you’re outsiders, and the only way you can influence is as an outsider.”
But, he added, “Fortunately there are lots of people throughout history who are outsiders who have made great changes through persistence and firm pressure.”
Ms. Reynolds said the exchange lasted about 10 minutes.
“It was a powerful moment because it was a response in real time, a compassionate response and a response that didn’t try to dismiss, didn’t condescend, and one that represented our grief and betrayal,” Ms. Reynolds said. Father Borak, she added, “didn’t make excuses. He let this guy lament, he offered his apologies, and he did the best he could. It was a really powerful moment.”
“People don’t want finessed press releases. They want to name their betrayal out loud, in public, in sacred space.”
As she put it on Twitter: “People don’t want finessed press releases. They want to name their betrayal out loud, in public, in sacred space, before the tabernacle, before God and one another. They want to be listened to without condescension. They don’t want easy answers. They want contrition.”
Reaction from lay Catholics to the latest revelations of clergy sexual abuse and the cover-up by bishops has included calls for bishops—including Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., whose handling of sexual abuse while bishop of Pittsburgh is criticized in the report—to resign.
That is a response Ms. Reynolds favors.
Following the release of the report, she wrote and invited Catholic theologians, educators and lay leaders to sign an open letter inviting all U.S. bishops to submit their resignations to Pope Francis, following the lead of bishops in Chile dealing with the fallout from their own sexual abuse scandal. Over 4,400 have signed on as of Aug. 20.
“Those in power have not adequately expressed their own shame, their own sorrow, their own horrors and their own complicity,” Ms. Reynolds said.
“Those in power have not adequately expressed their own shame, their own sorrow, their own horrors and their own complicity.”
While new policies and structural reforms are necessary and appear to be working, she said bishops have not engaged in “an authentic demonstration of repentance” for the church’s mishandling of sexual abuse.
She acknowledged that such an act is unlikely and that it is even more improbable that the pope would accept hundreds of resignations en masse. But for a religion that is imbued with symbolism, such a move would help heal the rift between lay people and church leaders.
“This isn’t a few bad apples,” Ms. Reynolds said, describing the challenge facing the church as “structural sin” that cannot be fixed by even well-meaning bishops.
For his part, Father Horak says while he maintains hope, he has yet to see the church make the kinds of structural changes required to empower the laity and prevent future instances of abuse and cover up.
“Certainly things have changed in terms of reporting and [creating a] safe environment,” he said. “But I don’t know that much has changed in terms of the church’s structure, the church’s way of governing. I don’t think much has changed in terms of the church’s clerical culture.”
“You can change the people, you can change the players, you can adopt new procedures, but until that culture changes, I don’t have a lot of hope,” he said.
But, he said, he hears many priests and even some bishops saying they also support the kinds of reforms that he and Ms. Reynolds advocate.
“Somebody has got to take some bold, prophetic action that rocks the boat,” he said.