A faith that is shaken, but not lost. Deep disappointment, but hope for the future. An overwhelming feeling that there is a lesson to be learned and a stronger church if it is taken to heart.
In the wake of the October grand jury report chronicling hundreds of cases of sexual abuse by priests around Pennsylvania, as well as testimonies of victims who say their lives have been turned upside down because of the church’s inaction, Catholics are struggling to deal with the news and the future.
Jill Stanek’s parents taught her to respect and to revere the clergy and the church. Now, the Sharon mother of five is teaching her children differently.
Stanek and others associated with the Catholic Church in the Shenango Valley and Lawrence County came together to talk about those questions – what to think about the scandals, what to believe about their faith and church and what to do next.
But in the end, the crimes that put a stain on that church will not erase the faith that built it and those who serve it with honor, they said.
For Stanek, who worships at St. Joseph Catholic Church and is a preschool and Sunday school teacher, reading the grand jury report was especially hard.
“It’s so sad,” she said. “It’s a breach of trust. Those (priests and lay people) had free will, and they made disgusting choices. And with innocent kids. It makes it so much worse. They took something so pure and made it tainted.”
Stanek said she is teaching her children new lessons — about all types of authority.
“We’ve been very open with my kids,” she said. “I tell them if something seems wrong, it’s probably wrong and to let me know. I took it across the board to include coaches and teachers.”
She is angry, she said, not at the church, but at those who defiled it, by committing the acts and then covering for the abusers.
“I’m happy that things came out and continue to come out,” Stanek said. “The more information that comes out the better.”
Ann Antognoli, a member of St. Vitus Church in New Castle, said the blame should be assigned to the correct sinners.
“Often, Catholics blame the block of marble because the sculptor butchered it,” she said. “There is a difference between those perpetrators who used and abused the victims and the church and the theology of the church that Christ instituted.”
And those sinners include those who knew of the abuse and did not take proper steps to eliminate it, said Joe Ranelli, of Sharpsville, who works as campus minister at Kennedy Catholic High School and as youth minister at the Church of Notre Dame in Hermitage. He also worships at Notre Dame.
The hierarchy of the church, long shadowed, shuttered and insulated, was impenetrable, “a sealed box of authority.”
“There is a real danger to that because the hierarchy, in some case, believe that they are above reproach,” Ranelli said. “That authority starts to corrupt, and they are in a position to keep people silent. They are in a position to cover up.”
But he knows that while there has been some accountability, there is more that probably should, but probably won’t, happen because those in the church leadership who are charged with moving forward are imperfect themselves.
“This is a cleansing moment,” Ranelli said. “There are individuals that should come forward and automatically resign because of past practices. But at the same time, we’re dealing with humanity who are not giving up the lifestyle or authority. So, they, too, are plagued with the same sins we are plagued with.”
But Ranelli emphasizes that there are many priests, lay people and church authorities who practice their faith honorably and who live with the taint of those who haven’t.
“It’s not as widespread as the media’s making it,” he said. “It’s God-awful, absolutely, but we’ve got some solid, holy, very rooted priests serving the people of God.”
Stanek agrees. The church remains important to her.
“It didn’t cause me to feel different about our local priests. I guess that’s the advantage of growing up here and knowing the priests and nuns.”
The Rev. Joseph McCaffrey is pastor at seven Catholic parishes in Lawrence County. Under a consolidation plan by the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, he was asked to oversee the merger of the New Castle area’s seven existing parishes. When the merger is completed, McCaffrey will be pastor of a single parish.
He has questions, too, about that church hierarchy.
“As a parish priest, I have been very transparent in terms of the finances of the parish with the people and the diocese staff, but I don’t see that happening on the episcopal level — the realm of the bishops,” he said. “And even (the bishops) — who are they accountable to? Who can scrutinize what’s going on in their leadership?”
He says accountability and oversight are also questions brought into the light by the sex abuse scandal.
“There needs to be some real scrutiny and oversight of the hierarchy,” McCaffrey said. “I think the biggest crisis in the church — and I have said this for years — is the crisis of leadership.”
Transparency is one of the first steps. And perhaps, Ranelli said, outside perspective. Some of that might come from the legal system itself.
“Great violations have occurred where one priest was guilty in one area then moved and assigned elsewhere,” he said. “Many of the hierarchy would claim, ‘Well, the law was this or the law was that.’ But something at this level, you needed a law. You’ve got a sick individual here. How do you put them back into the field?”
Arrogance needs to be attacked and attitudes changed, he added.
“Sometimes our deception even deceives ourselves in a variety of ways, but God sees and hears everything. Any priest, any bishop and cardinal that has covered up anything, God knows.”
McCaffrey said he is dealing with the consequences of the sex abuse scandal, too, in an age when innocence once assumed is now questioned.
“It only takes one person to accuse you of something, and you’re done, you’re over with. To me, that’s a risky business, because no bishop is going to support us,” he said. “It only takes somebody to make up something, and you’re done. And since you have been accused, you’re considered guilty, and you are never reinstated. Even if it’s proven to be wrong, and I have known cases where it has been proven to be wrong, the person never got their good name back because the media doesn’t report that. That’s not just. You have no recourse. Where is the due process?”
Antognoli said good clergy and faithful Catholics need to demonstrate genuine empathy and concern for the victims while defending some good priests who have been accused unjustly.
“The low bar that determines guilt, ‘It could have happened,’ therefore the church makes financial reparation in order to escape the false impression of not caring enough needs revision,” she said. “Otherwise, the church will be creating more innocent victims.”
Father Jason Glover, president of Kennedy Catholic Family of Schools in Hermitage and in residence at St. Joseph Church in Sharon, understands the doubt and the potential crisis of faith many Catholics face.
“I am encouraged by the bishop’s transparency and encouraged by the reparation fund that the diocese has established,” Glover said. “But when you are talking about rendering justice in such a horrible situation, I don’t know that you can make up for the damage that has been done, but we do everything that we can.”
He has received calls from many of his parishioners.
“People who know their priests personally are actually very supportive,” Glover said. “People I haven’t heard from in years have reached out with their support.”
Moving forward, he said, will be about faith.
“I think, it’s just a matter of recommitment on my part,” Glover said. “Recommitting to the church, recommitting to the priesthood, recommitting to our universal call to holiness. I think it is necessary not just for us priests, but for the church in general, the people in general, to sit back and re-examine and make that commitment.”
The answer might be in the history of the church itself, said Chris Papa, a New Wilmington attorney who worships at Tridentine Latin Mass Church in Youngstown.
He thinks about Francis of Assisi, he said, who saw a corrupt church, but who remained faithful and reformed it.
Luther, on the other hand, saw the same corruption, and left.
“But if people look at it from an historical perspective, I think we have to stay in and fight, demand accountability from these bishops, demand accountability from the hierarchy,” Papa said.
And, he added, guidance on how to move forward can be found in Scripture.
“Go back to the saints, read the people who went through challenging times like Athanasius of Catherine of Siena or Padre Pia, a famous local saint who was persecuted by his own church,” Papa said. “That’s just over and over again in church history — corrupt hierarchy pulled back by saints.”
Now, many eyes are on the Catholic Church, he said.
“If you compare this, the stats tend to bear out that the church itself, the levels of priest-to-abuser, is not any greater than it is for any other sort of profession,” he said. “It is sort of a failing of the human condition. I don’t think it’s endemic to the church.”
But what matters, he said, is that people expect more from those associated with the church.
“We hold ourselves to be better than that,” Papa said. “And the level of hypocrisy that the church is facilitating is what screams out for news coverage and scrutiny.”
Ranelli agrees. This is a time, he said, for light.
He said the synod in mid-February, when the church leadership addressed policies and procedures, raised more questions than it answered.
“No one truly felt it was at the level it should have been,” he said. “There were still shadows and how do we allow shadows to occur in something like this? Any time we are dealing with any corporate structure, we’re looking at the dark room where no one sees any light because they’re afraid to let any light come in. In this area, we’ve got to allow as much light as possible.”
Glover said openness, communication and shining those lights on previously dark places should be part of the agenda.
“A person or an institution can never force people to trust them,” he said. “We just have to be sure that we don’t give them a reason not to trust us.”
Outreach in the community, listening to parishioners will help, but so, too, will continuing to do what has always been the tenet of the church and its clergy.
“We do what we have done since the beginning,” Glover said. “We preach the gospel. We give witness to Jesus Christ, His love and compassion. We do it just like the apostles do it. I think that the only way to attract people is to present a happy, holy and healthy gospel message.”
So, moving forward, it is that light, faith and an understanding of a bigger picture, a greater purpose that will chart the course for the future of the Catholic faith, the respondents said.
“Hopefully, justice is done,” said Genevieve Jackson, who worships at St. Camillus Church in Neshannock Township. “My focus, what they have done was terrible, but my focus when I go to church is my faith. That is not going to break me.”
Faith will be Ranelli’s center, too.
“We can’t focus on the sin because when we do that we neglect to see the glory of God,” he said. “We need to examine how deep our faith is. If our faith is in humanity, we’re going to walk away. But it is bigger than that.
“There has always been the triumph of the church. Nothing you or I can do at the human level is going to force those doors to close. God is still in control.”
Stanek said the scandal actually points to the need for more faith.
“It shows that there’s still a true evil in the world,” she said. “The human condition is so flawed.”
She will remain in church, even though the priest sex abuse scandal has made her look at the leadership a different way.
“This is where I go to find God,” she said.