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'We are entitled to a righteous anger': Catholic masses address abuse

Church leaders found themselves in a difficult but sadly familiar position, as they faced their congregations.

Regular worshippers at Sacred Heart Church in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, and visitors from around the world at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in New York packed the pews and listened intently to what church leaders had to say about the sex abuse revelations that continue to pain Catholics and haunt the church.

Church leaders found themselves in a difficult but sadly familiar position, as they faced their congregations. Except this time they grappled with the unique breadth and horrific details outlined in a grand jury report that ran nearly 900 pages. The report accused 300 priests of abusing more than 1,000 victims and cataloged ghastly assaults, like that of a priest who raped a young girl in a hospital after she had her tonsils removed.

At a crowded Mass celebrated at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Monsignor Robert Ritchie, the rector of the church, acknowledged the “terrible, terrible stories” of church leaders who “covered up things that should have seen the light of day.”

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A priest, he said, is called upon to live a life different from other men. “He is called upon to be someone that has to turn his back on so many of the temptations of this world,” he said in the homily. “When this doesn’t happen, things get very ugly.”

Still, he implored Catholics to not turn their backs on the church because of the vile actions of a few and repeatedly urged churchgoers to offer prayers for the abusers.

“They are good, but they’ve done bad things,” he said. “Pray for your priests.”

Worshippers generally agreed that the most recent reports of sex abuse were yet another stain on the Catholic Church, but not a blow to their faith. While describing the priests’ alleged actions as inexcusable and appalling, some said the revelations were part of God’s plan.

“I think it’s really horrible what has happened to the children,” said Sheryl Scott, 53, who lives in New York and works at a foster care agency. “But I also believe the Lord is bringing this out so we can heal.”

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Others at St. Patrick’s called for radical reforms within the Catholic Church.

“It has to be taken care of, and we have to do away with the celibacy,” said Phil Rehbein, 67, a retired accountant who was visiting from Atlanta.

About 7 miles away at Our Lady of Victory Church in Brooklyn, parishioners listened to a sharper rebuke from the Rev. Daniel Kingsley. He offered a full-throated denunciation of cover-ups detailed in the grand jury report and called for the Catholic Church in the United States to submit to an outside investigation of its handling of sexual predators in its midst.

“Business as usual will not see us through,” Kingsley said. “An honest-to-God, top-to-bottom independent review is the only way forward. Twice we have failed to police those within our own ranks, and we have paid dividends for this. I am not talking about moneys paid out in lawsuits, but the loss of moral authority and trust.”

He said the church, his diocese included, must also change how it recruits and trains priests to screen out abusers. Kingsley said his own parish, Saint Martin de Porres, did not escape the shadow of the scandal: Christopher Lee Coleman, a predecessor of Kingsley’s as parochial vicar, was among eight Brooklyn priests defrocked for child sexual abuse, according to a report in fall 2017 from the Brooklyn Diocese.

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When he finished speaking, a wave of applause filled the church. Afterward, as Kingsley greeted exiting parishioners, he was met with hugs and praise.

Still, not everyone approved. “He shouldn’t have been that direct. Some people might get offended,” said Michael Das, 22, a student and regular worshipper at Our Lady of Victory. “But I think he was speaking the truth.”

At Church of the Ascension on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York, one priest confronted the scandal directly during a homily, while another, during a Spanish-language Mass there an hour later, chose to remain silent on the subject.

“In the past few weeks, it has not been easy to be Catholic in America,” Monsignor Thomas Shelley said at the 8:15 a.m. service. “You have every right to be angry and indignant.” Still, he urged parishioners not to abandon the church. “Your anger shows your love for the church,” he said.

Parishioner Maria Teresa Sanchez, 83, said her faith in God is unshaken. “I come to the church with my faith, but I have no faith in priests,” she said in Spanish. “I have faith in God, and I know God is real, but in everything else, I don’t believe in it.”

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At some churches in Pennsylvania, a video message from Bishop Joseph Charles Bambera of Scranton was shown in lieu of the homily.

“None of you deserve to be confronted with the behavior described in this report. It is unsettling, tragic, and it breaks your heart,” he said in the video.

In New Jersey, a priest at Sacred Heart Church in Lyndhurst dedicated his homily to the significance of the Holy Eucharist, and a visiting priest from Liberia at St. Mary’s Church in Nutley spoke mostly about the hardships the West African nation has faced, but neither mentioned the cases of abuse.

For some parishioners, the grand jury report need not be mentioned: For them, the Catholic Church was being unfairly singled out.

“I always feel like there’s a bigger attack on Catholics or Christians and faith,” said Rachel Bolonos, 30, as she left St. Mary’s Church with her 8-month-old son. “This goes on in other areas — in schools or what not.”

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Jim Goodness, a spokesman for Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey,said the cardinal wrote a letter to priests this weekend in which he encouraged them to speak to him about any matters related to sexual abuse.

Goodness said priests should “meet parishioners where they are and be frank and forthright. They are free to express their particular sadness.”

At the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus in New York's Upper West Side, the Rev. Larry Ford said the report was a “shame and embarrassment” to the church and issued a call:

“If you know someone, or you are someone, who has been violated, come here,” he said. “Let us help you, listen to you. If your faith is challenged, come here and let us, together, talk about this.”

He added, “We are entitled to a righteous anger.”

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Luis Ferré-Sadurní © 2018 The New York Times

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