The Silence of the Shepherds

02-24-2019Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

“L’Affair McCarrick” has been adjudicated, partially. Theodore McCarrick, aka “Uncle Ted”, former Cardinal and Archbishop of Washington D.C. has in the common parlance been “defrocked”. In Church Law parlance he has been permanently removed from the clergy and returned to the lay state. Though technically the sacrament of Holy Orders, like Baptism cannot be removed only its exercise restricted. This penalty for the crimes he was convicted of by a Vatican Tribunal is irrevocable. What still remains to be adjudicated is to find those who knew or covered up McCarrick’s behavior and held accountable. We owe a debt of thanks to those who came forward and broke the thick cloud of silence which enabled this atrocious behavior. Ultimately this is what ends sexual abuse: breaking the silence about abuse so that perpetrators are held accountable and prevented from abusing others. It is often not easy for a victim to come forward as one of the characteristics of abuse is that it gets you to blame yourself.

Breaking the silence is the necessary key that opens the door to bring abuse into the light. As abuse cases from the past come to light there are two things that I want to point out. First, there were many of us, myself included who tried to bring light on the behaviors of other clergy that were both suspicious and inappropriate though there was no accusation of abuse that had been made. Often, in the absence of an outright claim of abuse, reporting inappropriate behaviors or suspicious behaviors were met with incredulity, some of us were told we were only jealous of another priest’s success with young people or that there was some sort of personality conflict. I remember one case in particular, in the 90’s, after I had written to the Archbishop about my concerns about a very inappropriate relationship a priest had with a teenager, though I didn't know if anything sexual was going on. I was the one called on the carpet and asked “what’s wrong with you, your letter seemed very angry?”. My response was less than polite. My point is that there were some of us who tried to say something in hopes of either preventing or stopping abuse and certainly scandal but we were not listened to and in some cases were chastised for trying or labeled as trouble makers. (Years later that very priest was brought up on criminal charges.) Sexual abuse has a way of pulling in many accomplices who help keep the code of silence. Such is not the case today as things have changed dramatically especially since each Diocese has a Safe Environment Office, which operates independently from the Bishop’s Office and to which reports can be made directly to and will be investigated. Or where there are real or suspected sexual abuse reports are made directly to local law enforcement.

Second, currently dioceses across the country are publishing lists of priests, deacons or seminarians who have been accused of abuse and removed from ministry. The problem with these published lists is that often there is no way to know if the priest was afforded due process, able to defend himself or if the case was just settled financially by the Diocese to avoid a court case, leaving the priest unable to have his day in court. Obviously, the cases that were handled criminally are much clearer and more convincing. Still, the lists are jarring as many of you have pointed out to me after seeing the name of a priest you knew growing up or when you lived in another state. The two reactions that seem to be the most common are, “he seemed like a really good guy” or “I always thought he was a bit creepy”.

As a result of seeing the name of a priest you know who has been removed from ministry, many of you ask, “are the sacraments he gave me valid?”. The answer is yes. The longstanding teaching of the Church is that the grace of the sacraments depends not on the work of the worker but comes from the very work itself. In other words, regardless of the moral or spiritual state of the minister of the sacrament, the sacrament itself always gives grace to a properly disposed recipient. And that’s a good thing. If God’s grace depended on the holiness of any one of us, we might never receive that grace. God has made sure that we who are earthen vessels, imperfect at that, can have His grace always available to us even when the minister of the sacrament is a master scoundrel.

The more past cases of abuse come to light, the more our pain and sorrow will grow. But we need to remind ourselves that the light is also shining on the abuse that was shrouded for way too long in darkness. The darkness cannot overcome the light. Though it sure seems like the darkness has had its way for too long.

Fr. John B.

PS Work will begin on March 4 to upgrade the Church HVAC System. Thanks to all who donated to the Together Let Us Go Forth Campaign that made this possible. This summer when it’s hot outside and cool in the Church you can say, “I helped make this possible!” If you haven’t made your gift, you can still give to the Campaign either online through our website or by filling out a Pledge Card located at the Church exits. We are currently at 97% of goal.