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Is this the new normal for the church? Not if we can help it

Father James Lentini
Father James Lentini


(Father James Lentini, pastor of Holy Cross Church, Dover, and Immaculate Conception Church, Marydel, Md., shared this message with his parishioners the weekend of Sept. 1-2.)
I start out this week’s column with an excerpt from a message from the Diocese of Wilmington, and our Bishop W. Francis Malooly.
In the wake of the grand jury report based on a two-year investigation by the state’s attorney general into sexual abuse claims in six Pennsylvania dioceses, bishops and dioceses are responding to new questions regarding the crimes and sins of priests in the past and how the Church protects children.
“Here in the Diocese of Wilmington, we have demonstrated a continuing commitment to preventing sexual abuse,” Bishop Malooly wrote. “We are grateful that the Diocese of Wilmington has not had a reported instance of the sexual abuse of a child by anyone in diocesan or parish ministry in over 25 years. Our policies, procedures, training, and continuing commitment make our churches and schools safe places for children.”
In April 2002, diocesan officials met with the Delaware Attorney General and disclosed all reports of abuse the diocese had ever received. In August of 2002, the 10-member Diocesan Lay Review Board was formed to review allegations of sexual abuse made against priests, deacons or other church employees or volunteers and make recommendations regarding fitness for ministry of those accused. Allegations also are reported to law enforcement as required by Delaware and Maryland law. Furthermore, in 2006 the Diocese of Wilmington became one of the few dioceses to release to the public, the names of all known diocesan clergy regarding whom there are admitted, corroborated or otherwise substantiated allegations of sexual abuse. For the last ten years, that list of names has been posted on the diocesan website.
The diocesan safe-environment program, For the Sake of God’s Children, which is overseen by Michael Connelly, a retired Commander of the Delaware State Police Criminal Investigation Division, has been widely praised and used as a model for other diocesan programs. Because of this and diocesan leadership’s continued vigilance and commitment to assure the safety of young people, the Diocese of Wilmington has been found to be in compliance in all audits including its first audit in 2004.
I thank the bishop for his statement regarding status of our diocese in regard to the protection of our young people.
From the headlines: Unless one has been living under a rock, or on a mountaintop, you’ll have heard about recent controversies in the Catholic Church as noted above.
The issues stretch from Pennsylvania all the way to the Vatican. The revelations are at once both shocking and disheartening.
Quoting philosopher and statesmen Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” I think that quote sums up well the problems that have come to the fore. There is the problem of the actions themselves (sexually predatory actions by clergy), as well as the variant responses to those actions in some cases (moving the clergy member involved to another assignment, sending them for counseling and then reinstating them, or ignoring the actions altogether). Actions regarding Cardinal McCarrick add yet an extra layer of scandal to the existing problem.
Certainly, many people were rocked by these stories, but sadly, others were not: the cynic has met the realist in ascribing this as par for the course for the church in the 21st century. I want to address both of these groups of people who have had to experience this latest scandal.
I want to address first, the people who were rocked, wounded and hurt by these revelations. I want to address this on a most personal level, I’m hurt, too. Last I looked, I’m a person and I’m a Catholic who happens to be a Catholic priest. And these revelations, while they do not shake my trust in the Catholic faith, cause great a sting on my heart. They are painful, and they cast a shadow on the priesthood in which I serve, and a blot on the church in which I worship. Much like a police officer who is sullied by the actions of some bad actors on the police force, or of a bad actor in the chain of command who is corrupt, so, too, my fellow clergy and I are sullied and wounded by these revelations. Each day, amidst this scandal, we still have to rise, don our priestly garb and serve the Lord, his flock and the church as best we can, however imperfectly. But that shadow now weighs heavy on us, too, as it does on the wounded faithful. So, to those wounded by these revelations, be aware I’m wounded, too, and share in the hurt that you feel.
To those who were not rocked by these revelations, and consider them par for the course, I would commend you not to adopt that view that this is just the new normal in the 21st century church. It is not. It is not normal, it is not right, and it is not something with which anyone should ever be OK. It is a scandal, and it is a damaging one — it is the devil at work in the world. The cause is a most personal one for the perpetrators of these heinous acts: When man does not master his demons, they will master him, and they can lead him down this path of disordered action and self-centered, perverse, pleasure. Thus, in this scandal, the world, the flesh and the devil, have scored a victory. Make no mistake of that. But the human component of the church abetted that victory.
While the statement from the bishop’s office gives balm to us here in the form of knowing that effective action has been taken to make sure that our lamenting cry of “never again” bears fruit, the pain and hurtfulness of the matter still linger. That injury to the body of Christ — that is, to the Catholic faithful — will require both time and the rebuilding of trust to heal. With God’s help, I pray we will have both.
A very powerful reflection from Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisc., helped me contextualize the matter of this scandal in both a pragmatic and spiritual way. In a five-page letter to the people of his diocese he wrote, in part, the following:
“There is nothing about these stories that is OK. These actions, committed by more than a few, can only be classified as evil, evil that cries out for justice and sin that must be cast out from our church. Faced with stories of the depravity of sinners within the church, I have been tempted to despair. And why? The reality of sin — even sin in the church — is nothing new. We are a church made of sinners, but we are sinners called to sanctity. So, what is new? What is new is the seeming acceptance of sin by some in the church, and the apparent efforts to cover over sin by them and others. Unless and until we take seriously our call to sanctity, we, as an institution and as individuals, will continue to suffer the ‘wages of sin.’”
Well said.