Addressing a crisis in the Church: Views from a more local clergy perspective shared in regard to sex abuse scandal globally impacting the Catholic Church

by David M. Johnson

Christianity teaches that a pious life is a life where there is sacrifice for others, a caring and loving attitude to those around oneself and a surrender to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the opening of one’s heart, mind and soul to Him.

From the very early Church when there was a large number of people who personally knew Jesus and heard his message as the way to salvation, to the many churches and denominations today where that message has been embraced to inspire piety, Christians have always had something to guide them when dealing with life. As evidenced in documented declines in church attendance, many people today may feel as if their churches have abandoned the responsibility to embrace that message to keep their flocks on the road to salvation.

There is alarm, sadness and anger when the leaders of their church have abandoned the needs and safety of their charges they are supposed to care for. Reports have surfaced of some 100 churches closing each week in the United States as people are becoming disenchanted with their religious leaders and faith.

The Catholic Church is currently in the midst of a faith-challenging scandal, primarily the alleged sexual abuse of both children and adults by Church clergy. Many have either read or heard of the recent sex abuse scandals in the many dioceses throughout the United States.

There are the devastating scandals in Pennsylvania where federal authorities have subpoenaed both individuals and the records of the eight dioceses in that state. Across this nation there are other dioceses that are experiencing the ugly head of sexual abuse and the fallout from this abuse. Not only are parish priests in the spotlight, but so are bishops, archbishops and cardinals.

The Church is facing a backlash from its flock in country after country, whether it is in Europe, in Central American or South America.  The Church in India, Africa and Australia is not immune to the trepidations that were not addressed immediately and have festered into a problem that has engulfed the Vatican. There is, although a minority, a growing chorus that Pope Francis should resign due to what they believe is a cavalier attitude toward the scandal and a hostility toward the victims of abuse.

The Catholic Church is not the only institution that is being overwhelmed by sexual abuse. Hollywood has been inundated with scandal after scandal with the Weinstein episodes garnering the most headlines. Education has generated attention as teachers have been found to have abused their position of trust and authority to assault and take advantage of their charges in the classroom.  Washington and Wall Street are contributing players to what appears to be not just an infection of society but a cancer.

What appears to be harming the Catholic Church is not only the abuse attributed to a minority of the clergy but the veil of silence implemented by the hierarchy when there was abuse. The Huffington Post points to canon law that contributed to this silence or what some call “cover up.”

When there are abuses of the law, clerical officials are more likely to follow the statutes dictated within Church canon than to follow up and contact local, state and/or federal law enforcement entities. Each diocese has a chancellor whose responsibility is to oversee daily business and archival records. Only the chancellor and the bishop have access to the records, including the list of those clergy committing abuse crimes.

Instead of punishment of those committing that abuse, diocesan authorities have not publicly acknowledged the indiscretions and have addressed the issue by shuffling assignments of their clergy responsible for the abuse. Thus, an ongoing situation plays out where there is a repeat of crimes that might last not only years but decades.

Because of the public scrutiny and the demand by victims for justice, the Church has begun a more transparent campaign. The Church is going forward to right the wrongs by compensating victims, assisting with law enforcement to punish those responsible with the crimes of abuse, and to initiate a program that reverses a mindset that allowed the abuses to happen and continue.

As Archbishop Michael Jackels of the Archdiocese of Dubuque has stated, via the Diocesan newspaper The Witness, not only his diocese but others across the country will save any and all documents related to sexual conduct.  There will be aggressive measures to ensure the protection of children and young people from abuse.

Archbishop Jackels, in a message to The Witness, confirmed that since 2002 there are criminal background checks done for seminarians, permanent deacons, priests, bishops, Church employees and volunteers, plus since 2002 there has been required safe environment training of all of the above. Since 1993, the diocese has not allowed any priest to exercise ministry who is guilty of abuse, and since 2006 there exists a list of all priests who had claims of abuse made against them.

According to Archbishop Jackels’ message to The Witness, the diocese is seeking to put in place more women as members of the Archdiocesan Review Board, the implementation of a third-party reporting system and a more rigorous application process for seminarians put in place. The process entails psychological evaluations, letters of recommendation and family home visits to ascertain the character of those seeking the priesthood.

The Church is making attempts to correct the horrendous crimes committed against both children and young adults. But even in the midst of all the negative and sordid publicity against clergy being exposed in media outlets, the work of the Church must go on. It has been estimated that well over 90 percent of clergy are pious and moral individuals who are embarrassed and mortified by the actions of a few.

So, how does the local parish priest handle and confront this atmosphere of mistrust and even hatred against his profession?

Father Mark Osterhaus, pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Waukon, has been a keen observer of this ongoing tragedy and has some thoughts on this issue. Ordained in 1985, Father Mark has had numerous assignments and responsibilities but says what is going on in the Church today is something a little different. He is a strong supporter of the protocols established by The Catholic Bishops of the U.S., including reporting directly to civil authorities those priests and other church employees who have had complaints of sexual abuse leveled against them.

Father Mark believes that, “We in the clergy have lost a lot of credibility, and we need the help of those outside the hierarchy to lead us. We need the help of those who have suffered abuse, and the help of women to lead us.”

When asked about what appears to be a lack of morality and respect in society that leads to not only sexual abuse but mental and physical abuse, Father Mark replied, “Certainly, abuse is a respect issue. Respect needs to be encouraged in our public discourse and on social media.”

Father Mark believes that what Archbishop Jackels and other officials are attempting to do to reverse the abuse issue is on the right track, especially when it comes to transparency. This parish priest reflected on the new course of action by observing that, “One of the criticisms against our response as a Church over the last three decades is that we too often seem to be more concerned to protect our ‘reputation’ than to listen to and respond to those who have suffered so much because of sexual abuse. We need to be better listeners, to believe people when they trust us with their concerns, to respond with compassion, and try to make reparations as the courts decide what is appropriate.”

Father Mark sees the uphill battle that the clergy have on their hands to regain trust and respect, knowing that the credibility of the clergy has suffered, a reputation stained in not only the eyes of Catholics but also including those individuals that are not members of the Catholic community. He feels that as long as clergy try to stay positive and supportive - not avoiding the subject of sexual abuse but meeting it head-on, this approach is appreciated by both members of the parish and those outside the parish community.

Father Mark has given a homily regarding the issue during Sunday Mass services and feels the best approach when dealing with people distressed with the issue is, “… to try to listen to their concerns, their anger, and feelings of betrayal. And then try to do what we can to refocus on our commitment to God, and how that can help people from other faith communities and us as well. We are all in this together.”

By utilizing this approach of honesty and concern, Father Mark has not really experienced any increase in difficulty in his ministry. One of his biggest concerns is the possibility of loss of trust of parents and their concern with the safety of their children. He wants to do his best to show them that he wants to treat children with respect and wants to ensure parents and parishioners that clergy and employees of the Dubuque Archdiocese are frequently updating abuse prevention training, and that recently there has been security and intruder training with teachers and staff members at St. Patrick’s School as well.

“Safety of children is a prime concern for us at St. Patrick Parish and School,” added Father Mark.

There are a number of people who believe that “if only priests would be allowed to marry.” When asked about this position, Father Mark responded that, “Some abusers in the larger society have spouses and children. Many of those guilty of abuse of children were themselves abused as children. Abuse of children and vulnerable adults seems to be more of a ‘power’ issue than a sexual issue.”

Feeling that priests being allowed to be married is not so much a remedy to this issue as would be the encouragement of women being allowed in more leadership positions in the Church, Father Mark believes that women would help the Church to accept a wider variety of perspectives on this and other issues. This amplifies the direction that Church authorities have adopted at both state and national levels.

The abuse of others, especially children, is an evil that if allowed to fester, will grow and continue to hurt especially the most vulnerable. For evil to live and grow depends on the inaction of good people. There are clergy on the front line, like Father Mark, who are working hard to regain the trust and love of those he has been entrusted with to guide in their spiritual lives. The Catholic Church is not the only institution afflicted with this tragedy, but maybe the Church will be the one to finally find the way to regain the moral and spiritual direction, reminding again the importance of that message first preached two thousand years ago.

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