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Catholics hope for substantial response from leaders in wake of grand jury report

September 18, 2018

Pope Francis lights a candle as he visits the Knock’s shrine Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018, during his apostolic trip to Ireland (Ciro Fusco/Pool photo via AP)

Calls for change are coming from deep within the Roman Catholic Church locally and across the country as parishioners and institutional leaders process the disturbing findings of a Pennsylvania grand jury that detailed allegations of horrific sexual abuse and cover-ups spanning seven decades.

Despite apologies from the pulpit and the insistence of bishops that the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children by 301 priests and subsequent cover-ups reflect the church of the past, many want action.

Darrin Taormina, 53, of North Huntingdon, a lifelong Catholic who has sent his three children through Catholic schools, said he’s disappointed and ashamed. He hopes the church will open a dialogue with the laity.

“We have to have a plan to fix the hypocrisy that has gone on for so long, and a bunch of priests behind closed doors are not the best ones to do it,” he said. “I’m a physician, and it used to be hard for a woman to become a physician, but they’ve brought a lot of good. Maybe we need more women involved,” he said.

A new online statement signed by more than 5,100 Catholic teachers, theologians, professors, lay leaders and parishioners asking all 456 U.S. Catholic bishops to tender their resignation as a sign of penance, suggests many Catholics are seeking a deep conversation on the issue.

Susan Reynolds, an assistant professor of Catholic studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was the lead author of the statement, which purports to have signatures from Anchorage to West Palm Beach, and nearly everywhere in between.

Reynolds said that, as she read the horrors detailed in the grand jury report, she thought of the 34 Chilean Catholic bishops who submitted a mass resignation after a broad abuse scandal unfolded there earlier this year.

Pope Francis subsequently accepted five of those resignations.

“What was so stunning about that act was that it suggested to Chilean Catholics in a way U.S. Catholics have not yet seen from our leaders, a collective recognition of the magnitude of the problems and collective responsibility for the cover-up. I don’t feel we’ve received from the bishops an adequate sense of the horror. ... We’ve seen finessed press releases and genuine expressions of sorrow, but we don’t see action,” Reynolds said.

She described the respectful statement posted on Daily Theology as a loving and prayerful response to the revelations of the grand jury report. However, it was not the first suggestion that bishops should shoulder more responsibility for what many see as a systemic failure in the church.

SNAP, a national organization of survivors of priest sexual abuse, demanded that Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik and his predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., resign for the gross abuses outlined in the Pittsburgh Diocese, where some priests were simply moved to new posts when allegations surfaced.

Both men have insisted they intend to stay on unless Pope Francis decides otherwise.

Taormina said Reynolds’ online statement seems like a symbolic gesture that overlooks the good he said he sees in Zubik and Greensburg Bishop Edward Malesic.

Elsewhere, others have raced to embrace the statement that was forwarded to the U.S. Conference of Bishops on Friday.

They included professors from the nation’s leading Catholic universities, college students, Catholic school teachers, music ministers, catechists, lectors, parish council members and some who described themselves simply as parishioners.

Some offered brief statements with signatures included:

“Heartbroken, lifelong Catholic,” wrote Lori Gonzales of Los Angeles.

“No parish anymore,” wrote another signed simply Karen Columbe.

“A cousin of one of the Pennsylvania victims,” wrote Dede M. Potticary, of Our Lady of Sorrow, Monroe, Ohio.

“This is not an angry fringe group of theologians,” Reynolds said.

John P. Slattery, a theologian at Notre Dame and co-editor of Daily Theology, said he has never seen anything like the response to the statement he helped Reynolds refine.

“People want to have faith, and they want to continue being passionate about it, but it’s hard. And this becomes the flash point for so many things,” he said.

Slattery said any thought that the outrage and disappointment among practicing Catholics will abate anytime soon is misplaced.

Paul F. Knitter, Emeritus Paul Tillich Professor of Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, was among the theologians who signed the online statement. He said the many signatures on it play into questioning among the Catholic laity as well as the #MeToo movement.

“There is a mounting effort that the time has come to put an end to the abuses of men in power, whether they are Hollywood magnates who have always called the shots or purpled prelates who claim to be successors of the apostles,” Knitter said.

Greensburg businessman John Boyle, 54, attended Catholic schools, sent his own four children to the church’s schools and watched his late mother, Joanne, rise to become president of Seton Hill, a Catholic university. He said he hasn’t seen much evidence of genuine change in the course of his close relationship with the church.

“The church says it’s changed, but nothing much has happened. I haven’t seen any sort of collective action on the part of the church,” Boyle said.

Although he stopped short of endorsing the statement calling for mass resignations, Boyle said he’d like to see every bishop and cardinal who was involved in passing on abuse allegations or moving priests accused of abuse resign.

Many hope to hear Pope Francis voice a plan of action soon.

Reynolds said the editors at Daily Theology have tracked her statement across the internet and know it was opened at the Vatican. Pope Francis’ statement on the issue echoed some of the language in the far-reaching document.

But to many, that is just a starting point.

“Lay people have all this grief, all this desire for change. ... I think the bishops are waiting for it to blow over,” Reynolds said. “And in part because of these coalitions that have formed on social media, it’s not going to blow over.”

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