'We are the church'

'Listening sessions' let parishioners and Catholic Church officials tell each other what they think about abusive priests

October 29, 2002|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

The schedule for the "listening sessions" set up by Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler arrived too late to be included in the Sunday bulletin distributed to parishioners at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Essex. Mary Rose Mueller, 46, found out about it by reading the Catholic Review.

She wanted the cardinal to know how she felt about the church that linked her to the ages, the church she had been brought to as an infant and to which she had returned every Sunday since. It was, after all, her church, too. But up until now, communication had been one way. This was her chance to speak about something that for so long had been hushed up: sex abuse of children by priests in the Roman Catholic Church.

The night of the meeting, only she and two other parishioners turned out. On a metal folding chair at a row of long tables, within easy sight of the electric bingo board, she sat and, for a long time, listened.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption in yesterday's Today section misattributed a comment by Bishop W. Francis Malooly to Monsignor Richard Woy. It was Malooly, not Woy, who described handling the crisis over Roman Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse as the worst five months of his life. The Sun regrets the error.

Another woman had been relating her discomfort at the thought of confessing to a priest who himself had awful things to confess when Mueller spoke.

Going to confession to a priest who might be a sex abuser didn't affect Mueller nearly as much as thinking about such a priest consecrating the Eucharist, the host that Catholics believe is transformed into Christ, during Mass.

It's so disturbing, she told the others, because every Sunday she sees a couple, long married and leading good lives but who, because they were not free to be married in the church, are not allowed to receive communion. Yet the sin of the abusive priest who celebrates Mass is so much greater.

How did it happen, she asked, and why? The church is facing the scandal, she thought, but not what's behind it. It's hard to believe the number of priests involved, she said. "This has rocked me to the core."

Firmly she rejected a fellow parishioner's suggestion that the low turnout this night was a sign Catholics are ready to move on.

"I'm not there yet," she said.

There was only one thing the bishop present that night could do about the distress in her voice. W. Francis Malooly looked straight at her. "I am sorry this has happened to you," the bishop said.

Distress. Anger. Those were the sounds of voices heard at a series of listening sessions held over the last three weeks and organized by Keeler in a bid to restore trust in the church. There were faltering voices, and rational ones. Pleading ones and argumentative ones. Damning ones and very sorry ones.

They are mad, these Catholics, about the sex abuse scandal in their church, and sad. Some are mad about the release by Keeler a few weeks ago of the names of 57 priestly sex abusers; others about the cover-up before it. Some are mad about a top-down hierarchy, and about their letters to the cardinal going unanswered.

They are mad as - shall we say? - hell about the four-page application they now must complete to serve as a parish volunteer. And sad beyond belief about the impact of the scandal on good priests.

But sitting in on five of the 10 listening sessions - the final one is scheduled for tonight at 7:30 at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cockeysville and comes after the Vatican rejected a "zero-tolerance" plan by U.S. bishops - one could hear bishops talk of pain as much as their parishioners, and see tears shed as often by critics of the church as by the devout.

These sessions, some of which drew a few dozen people, others just a handful, are hardly a complete picture of the archdiocese. Perhaps meetings last spring that drew hundreds of people in some parishes better expressed the anger over the refusal of the church to be upfront about the scandal and to protect children. But the unusual airing of views reveals how many ideas there are about what now should be done, and how much has changed since spring.

For one thing, it would have been unimaginable six months ago to hear a bishop explain to a skeptic why abusive priests should be publicly identified.

Yet there it was, in the school gym at St. John's in Westminster, when Agnes Geraghty, a retired insurance company worker with gray hair and glasses, stood to say she didn't buy the idea that publicizing the names of abusive priests was the way to help victims come forward and heal.

Couldn't the church organize a media blitz with that aim, instead of publishing the names of priests whose parishioners, family and friends knew nothing about the accusations against them? "We've all been victimized," she said. "I do not condone child sexual abuse. In my own family there was a case, with devastating effect, but at the same time I cannot accept publication of those names. Three of them denied it, and if only one of those men is innocent, haven't we done a grave injustice?"

What if there was only one offense, she said, and the man led a saintly life for 37 years? Wasn't it in grade school where we learned that telling about another person's sin is itself a sin?

"This is a crime, not a sin," Malooly replied.

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