Over the last year, the Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America has gathered bishops, academics, and victims of abuse to explore the root causes of clerical abuse and work on ways to prevent it in the future. “Catholic University has both a responsibility and a unique capacity to serve the Church in this regard,” says Stephen White, executive director of the Catholic Project.
Last week, White led a discussion with a panel of priests gathered at the University to discuss what they have experienced over the last 18 months as clerics, faithful Catholics, and employees of the Church.
“These men have felt the same anger and betrayal of the past months as the rest of us, but they have also borne the weight of the sins of their brothers,” White said in his introduction.
White noted that the relationship between the clergy and the laity is “meant to be one of collaboration and mutual reinforcement,” but that ”some priests and bishops have violated that relationship in horrific ways. Hopefully this discussion, in addition to being enlightening and thought provoking, can also be (for those who need it especially) a balm for wounded hearts and a sign of hope in discouraging times.”
“This has been a tough year for all of us,” said Rev. Robert Boxie III, parochial vicar at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Largo, Md. “But for me ... my ministry from the beginning, was always to be a faithful disciple and a faithful priest of Jesus Christ … to be this instrument of God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s hope, and God’s nearness to the people that I serve.”
Rev. Matthew Fish, administrator of Holy Family Church and School in Hillcrest Heights, Md., discussed how he felt after learning that a priest active in ministry in his high school had previously been accused of child abuse. He shared the frustration and anger he felt knowing that this priest was ministering to young kids when Church authorities knew of his past. Reflecting on his frustration and anger, he said “at a certain juncture there came this need to encounter Christ at a deeper level in the midst of that brokenness and disappointment.”
Rev. Carter Griffin, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington and rector of St. John Paul II Seminary, shared that he’s had to “renew and deepen my own faith that in fact the Church — despite all of us sinful human beings — is in fact guided by the Holy Spirit.”
But, “We can’t just sort of say, ‘Well, we’re all sinners,’” he said. “I do think that there’s been a greater clarity and a greater understanding that we have to be more consistent in our priestly lives — not just ourselves, but holding our brothers more consistent and bishops holding their own priest-sons more consistent.”
Father Fish and Father Boxie emphasized the ways that they prioritize fraternity with each other and local priests in order to build trust and hold each other accountable.
In addition to finding community with his brother priests, Father Boxie reflected on his call to create community with every member of his parish.
“This crisis has crystalized for me the importance of what our mission really should be; and that’s preaching the Gospel,” Father Boxie said. “I’ve found that what people do want is Jesus Christ. My mission is to go out and bring Jesus Christ.
“People’s needs have not been addressed. People feel as though they don’t have a voice or a seat at the table where they can be heard,” he continued. “The sex abuse scandal has shown me that this is one of many issues that we have to face and address in the Church. Everyone needs to be ministered to.”
The discussion was followed by a Q-and-A session. The first question addressed the title of the discussion, “Shepherds to a Wounded Flock,” and asked how the “flock” can find healing for their wounds.
“I think there comes a point where a priest has to simply just listen. And listen to some very uncomfortable things,” said Rev. Paul Scalia, vicar for clergy in the Diocese of Arlington and pastor of St. James Parish in Falls Church, Va. Rather than jump to respond or defend, “Just listen,” he said.
“Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting,” Father Fish said. “The reason we can forgive is because God is making all things right. We believe that in the fullness of time, no one gets away with anything and no injustice goes unpunished.”