Signs of the Times

Keeler Prays With Victims at Day of Atonement

In a day designed to bring healing and promote understanding, Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore prayed with the victims of clerical sexual abuse during a day of atonement on March 7, asking the survivors to forgive the church for the sins it had committed against them. While the event was closed to the media, several abuse victims who spoke with The Catholic Review, Baltimore’s archdiocesan newspaper, following the service said one of the most moving moments came when Cardinal Keeler asked some 15 to 20 priests and deacons to kneel with him at the altar of St. Joseph in Sykesville to pray the Confiteor, a traditional prayer of confession and atonement for sins.

The day of atonement was organized by Healing Voices, a local group of survivors of sexual abuse by members of the clergy of all denominations. Mary Liz Austin, president of Healing Voices, said the service grew out of a yearlong conversation among survivors, clergy, archdiocesan representatives and concerned lay Catholics.


During the 40-minute service, attended by about 100 people, a tape recording was played that shared the voices of victims. Following the service, Cardinal Keeler said he was able to meet personally with many of the survivors. Ms. Austin said she hopes the day of atonement will inspire others to begin a dialogue about the needs of survivors, and that the service will be the first of many efforts the faith community will make as it grows in understanding the concerns of survivors. We cannot restore the body of Christ without listening to survivors and responding to their needs, she said.

Several survivors said the event made a deep impact on them. I thought it was really a profound thing to have people gather as they did and have survivors speak the truth of their experience and have the church people respond with a real heartfelt act saying they were sorry, said Alice McCormick, who said she had been abused by a priest more than 30 years ago in the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn.

Ms. McCormick praised Cardinal Keeler for being a real leader in reaching out to victims and amending past wrongs. She was particularly pleased that Baltimore’s archbishop published in The Catholic Review a list of the names of members of the clergy accused of sexual abuse, a step not taken by many other U.S. dioceses.

It took incredible courage to step forward to do that, she said, calling on other dioceses to follow Baltimore’s lead. It’s important to survivors, she said. They need to have their experience of abuse validated as abuse. That’s the most important thing the church can do. Ms. McCormick said there was something healing about hearing the survivor experience being spoken in a very clear and powerful way, adding, It’s making a clear statement that this church wounded us by their lack of response.

Archbishop Apologizes, Calls Abuse a Tragedy

Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk called clergy sexual abuse of minors a tragedy in a talk titled What Were the Bishops Thinking? at the University of Dayton on March 10. We [the bishops] are all sorry for what is happening, for the inadequacy of our decisions. I am personally sorry and will carry that sorrow with me to the grave, he said.

Noting that sexual abuse by members of the clergy has been called a crisis, a scandal, an epidemic, a catastrophe, a moral panic, Archbishop Pilarczyk said there was some truth to those terms, but he would add the word tragedy. Tragedy takes place when basically good people, engaged in what they perceive to be virtuous actions, bring upon themselves and others sorrow and destruction, he said.

He warned against judging past actions by today’s standards rather than by the knowledge of the day. Before 1985, he said, the available psychological, legal and canonical expertise created a climate that did little for the victim but much to protect abusive priests. He quoted a supposedly authoritative psychological textbook of that era, the third edition of Human Sexuality by James L. and Stephen P. McCary: Early sexual contacts do not appear to have harmful effects on many children unless the family, legal authorities or society reacts negatively.

It is chilling, he said, to think about what we knew then in the context of the questions that would be asked now. Why didn’t you do more for the victims?’ Because we did not understand or appreciate the severe impact of sexual abuse on the victims.’ Why didn’t you call the police?’ Because it was not clear that we were supposed to.’ Why didn’t you fire the priest?’ Because, for all practical purposes, we were not able to....’ As I said, these answers are chilling in the light of present-day awareness.

Archbishop Pilarczyk described the period 1985-2002 as one in which the bishops became increasingly aware of the effects of sexual abuse on the victims and began to respond more effectively. In the early 1990’s, dioceses began establishing written policies based on national guidelines published in 1992. The guidelines called for bishops to respond promptly to allegations of abuse, remove the alleged offender from ministry if the allegation seemed plausible, comply with the obligations of civil law about reporting abuse, reach out to victims and their families and deal as openly as possible with media.

While the bishops’ conference and U.S. dioceses were changing their views and policies, many psychologists still advised that some abusive priests who had successfully undergone treatment could be returned to pastoral ministry, Archbishop Pilarczyk said. Church law that made it nearly impossible to dismiss a priest permanently for sexually abusing a child remained unchanged as well. Not only was it possible to restore priests to ministry; in some cases, it was almost, tragically, obligatory, he said.

That began to change in 2002, when it became known that some bishops had been reassigning priests who had offended without adequately searching for supervision, he said. In June 2002 the bishops issued their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which said any priest who had ever abused minors would be permanently removed from the priestly ministry.

Name Cleared, Albany Priest Returns to Ministry

The Rev. Donald Ophals returned to his parish, St. Francis de Sales Church in Troy, N.Y., on March 7 for weekend Masses for the first time in nearly a year, after being exonerated of sexual abuse charges. Referring to the parishioners of St. Francis, Father Ophals said: "These people are my life. I love these people. I want to get back to serving them." During the 10-month suspension, Father Ophals, a priest for nearly 43 years, felt panicked, devastated, upset, frightened, he said. The parishioners were totally supportive, he said. The parish staff was wonderful. No one at all in any way thought the charge was true.

In January, Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney determined, after an investigation, that there was no basis for a criminal charge against Father Ophals. Shortly after, acting Supreme Court Judge Barry Kramer dismissed the civil suit. Finally, the Albany diocesan review board completed its own investigation into the underlying charge of sexual abuse and found no evidence to support the allegation against him.

News Briefs

Christian church membership and giving rose in 2002, but the proportion of giving for benevolences fell to a new low, says the new Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.

The ombudsman charged with overseeing the police force in Northern Ireland told a U.S. commission on March 16 that complaints about police abuse have decreased.

Bishop Wei Jingyi of Qiqihar, an underground bishop in northeastern China, was released on March 14 after 10 days in detention. His detention had prompted the Holy See to demand an explanation.

Catholics in Britain have expressed concerns about plans to broadcast Popetown, a television cartoon program that portrays a corrupt Catholic Church. Popetown is scheduled to be aired by the British Broadcasting Corp. in May and is said to feature the pope as a childish pensioner whose every fickle whim must be indulged.

Pope John Paul II called the Madrid bombings a horrendous crime that had shaken the world by its barbarism.

Nigerian bishops said the nation’s political leaders have failed to live up to people’s expectations. In their plenary assembly in Abuja on March 1-6, the bishops called for a restructuring of the economy to meet people’s needs.

Modern conventional weapons like cluster bombs cause traumatizing and devastating effects on civilian populations long after wars are over, a Vatican representative told a group of international experts. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi called on the international community to adopt a preventive approach to limit the damage done by such weapons and reduce useless suffering in many countries.

Archbishop Nikolaos Foscolos of Athens, president of the Greek Catholic bishops’ conference, said Orthodox leaders are excluding religious minorities from planning for this summer’s Olympic Games in Athens.

If Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ is anti-Semitic, then the Gospels also would be, said Joaquín Navarro-Valls, the pope’s spokesman in a March 11 interview with the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero.

A Polish Jesuit priest, who in the late 1980’s helped negotiate the relocation of a Carmelite convent that had been established on the site of a former Nazi concentration camp, died at age 65. Father Stanislaw Musial was an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism and a pioneer in Polish-Jewish reconciliation.

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