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Important for faithful to talk about sex abuse

by The Reverend Michael Farano
Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, March 24, 2002

For the past two weeks, I've been struggling within myself to decide what, if anything, I could say to you about the current scandal within our church involving priests who have been accused of sexual misconduct, specifically that committed against children and adolescents. For me to say nothing is like having an elephant in the middle of the living room and acting as it were not there.

There is no sin, no crime, no fault that possibly could conjure up more loathing, more anger and more disgust than the violation of a child, including an adolescent. When that happens at the hands of someone who is ordained to walk with others in their spiritual journey, it becomes all the more heinous. We are held to a higher standard, and rightly so. We ought to be.

There is no circumstance, no pathology, no amount of clinical analysis that can take away from a victim the hurt and lasting effects of molestation. It has been demonstrated time and time again, that the effects of such victimization can lie dormant for decades, only eventually to surface and have to be submitted to the experience of healing, to whatever degree such healing can taken place. Words do not adequately express the devastation of the sexual molestation of a minor.

I was asked to give a reflection to some of our priests two weeks ago, concerning the way that priests treat one another. I began that reflection by saying that I believed that we priests are a communion among ourselves, that is, we share a bond in that God's own mystery is forged among us by our priestly ordination. What one priest does affects all priests.

Because I believe in that bond so very strongly, I share in the shame of what some few of my brothers have done. Conscious that I carry my own priesthood in a fragile clay vessel, I need to say to you that I am embarrassed, ashamed and humiliated by the actions of those among my brothers who have been guilty of this grave sin. Because of that bond with my brother priests, all of them, I apologize to you for whatever pain or feeling of discomfort you experience because of these sins.

I know that some of you may have to endure the jibes of others, the cynical remarks and the "I told you so'' comments by persons who just look for reasons to discredit anything Catholic. I'm sorry for that. You should not have to suffer because of what some of my brother priests are guilty of.

In the past few weeks, the media has behaved as the media is designed to behave these days. I'm not here to bash the media. Some of the reporting has been accurate. Some has not. Some has been sensational. Some has been more measured. Some has been downright brutal.

On March 15, the Times Union editorial called the present policy on sexual abuse that the bishop follows an immoral policy. By clear, logical implication, the Times Union called our bishop immoral in so far as he still has this policy in place. For me, that personal attack crosses a line that ought not to be crossed. If the Catholic community lets that personal attack on our bishop quietly stand, then shame on us.

The media attention, local and national, has been constant, unrelenting, and creates the overall impression that large numbers, if not the majority of priests, are sexual predators. What it has brought to the fore, however, is a plethora of opinion about how the local church, in the person of the bishop, has handled and ought to handle incidents of sexual abuse. For nearly 10 years, Bishop Howard Hubbard has had a formal, written policy in place to address any accusation of sexual abuse by clergy or others. That policy is overseen by a board that has on it parents, women and men, as well as persons with canonical, legal and psychological expertise. Most recently, the bishop has appointed a panel to review those policies and procedures, and to make recommendations for any change that may be necessary in light of the nearly 10 years of experience with those policies. I'm in no position to say what the ultimate disposition of church policy ought to be in these instances.

Please permit me to offer some reflections on what I do think I'm in a position to comment on. Bishop Hubbard has been hailed throughout his priesthood, and his years as bishop, as a person whose heart always stands first and foremost with the victim, with those who suffer in any way, and with those who cannot defend themselves. The media itself often highlights that dimension of the bishop. Some in that same media, however, now editorially declare that he is incapable of properly dealing with victims of sexual abuse, when that abuse is perpetrated by a priest. According to the media's reasoning, Howard Hubbard is a bishop, and as a bishop he will naturally be more concerned about the reputation of the church or the welfare of the priest than the welfare and care of the victim. All of a sudden, in this one single issue, he is supposed to be guilty of a Dr. Jeckel and Mr. Hyde change. I don't think so. I don't believe so. To be most concerned for victims is in our bishop's very nature, and his entire history as a priest and bishop is a witness to that.

I am not here to defend my bishop. In view of what I have just spent time saying, that may sound strange. His defense is not my purpose. If needed, he can do that better himself. I am here, however, because for good or for ill, I am your pastor and I need to speak the truth to you, my parish family, as I presently understand that truth, before God.

I believe that the bishop is going about the review of the present policy in a most deliberate, studied, honest, forthright and pastoral way. It may very well be that the current policy needs to be changed. That is a legitimate issue for debate. If there are changes needed, he will implement them. It is easy for any of us to say what he ought to do. It's easy for the media to dictate what he ought to do. We are not the ones who have to sit with the victims and deal with the always complex issues involved in any instance of sex abuse. I ask you to join me in prayers for our bishop. There is not one of us who would want to be standing in his shoes today.

It is part of the history of the human dimension of the institution of the church that at times the church has been a wonderful example of God's will to offer redemption and salvation to our world. At other times, the church has been co-opted by the sins of the very world it is supposed to redeem. At those times, the church itself stands in need of the redeeming mercy of Christ. The same may be said of the priesthood. Priests are persons with feet of clay, called to a ministry that would be more fittingly carried out by angels than men. It matters little that only a relatively few of the more than 42,000 priests in the United States are guilty of sexual misconduct. What matters most is the harm that is done to the victims. Then it matters what harm is done to you, who are the church, and to the priesthood. What shall we say of these men who stand accused and are guilty of such a grave sin? Shall we say that they have to accept the responsibility and the consequences for what they have done? Yes. A thousand times yes! Shall we say that they are less worthy of the mercy of Christ than you or I? Are we prepared to say that their sin is beyond the redemption of Jesus? Only in your own heart can that question be answered. For me, if I were to put a limit on God's mercy and the power of the Lord's redemption, I should have to leave the priesthood and perhaps the Christian faith itself, because those two divine gifts, God's mercy and the Lord's redemption, are what sustain me as a priest. If I wish them for myself, I have to wish them for others.

I've often said to you that we are family. I've counseled families not to hide from issues, but to bring them out into the open and to talk about them as a first step toward discerning solutions. I'm called "Father'' in this parish. It's time for the father to heed his own advice and talk to his family. Likewise I urge you to talk to one another. Especially, talk to your children. I have such great concern for the effect of all of this on them. I fear the position they are placed in with schoolmates who can be unthinkingly cruel. Answer your children's questions as honestly as you can. Ask the Lord, as I do, for the right words.

My brothers and sisters, our Catholic faith is part of every breath that we take. Without this faith of ours, life would make no sense. We are the church of the Jesus who was crucified for us on Calvary's hill. We are the church of the Jesus who defied death in order that we, too, might live forever. Please continue to rejoice in who we are and what we have yet to be. Pardon the sins of those of us who are too weak to rise to the challenge. Stay close to Jesus, who is the very heart of the church. In all things, let us gather around this altar that sustains us, and let us pray especially for those whose lives are forever changed because someone who should not have sinned did so. Please know of the love that priests have for you who are the church. Please try to believe that we priests would give anything we could to take back the pain that victims of abuse suffer and that all of you, the people of the church, suffer because of the sins of some among us.

Today, on Palm Sunday, we enter Holy Week. For me, as for many of you, Holy Week always is a very special time. There always has been something peaceful about Holy Week. This year will be different. Maybe it will be better, though. Better in the sense that the sadness of what is happening around me will help me yearn for the glory of Easter even more than usual. As sure as the events of Calvary led to the empty tomb, this Good Friday of pain and suffering for our church will lead to the renewed life of Easter Sunday.

I'm sorry for the length of this reflection. But I had to take care of the elephant in the middle of the room. God's love and peace be yours.

The Rev. Michael A. Farano, former chancellor and vicar general of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese, is pastor of St. Pius X Church in Loudonville, where he delivered this homily on March 17. He shared it for publication at the request of the Times Union.