Fr. Joseph Wilson gave this homily yesterday at St. Luke’s Parish in Queens:
Sermon: xxix Sunday in Ordinary Time “A”
Today, I need to put aside the Scripture readings appointed for today. We have something else we need to talk about. It is an urgent concern, an unpleasant topic, but if we are a family, the Family of God, then we do indeed need to talk about this. It is something about which I have spoken from the pulpit before, but recent things you’ve been seeing in the newspapers make it necessary to speak of it again.
It is the clergy sexual abuse scandal. This time, it has hit our own Diocese of Brooklyn. A week ago, a lawsuit was filed against the Diocese and some of its leaders, alleging negligence and failure to prevent the sexual abuse of young people by priests. The suit seeks $300 million in damages.
Monsignor and I both agreed that we did not want a situation where you were reading and hearing about this in the media, and weren’t hearing anything about it from us when you came here.
We also agreed that we wanted to emphasize the importance of seeing this whole thing from the perspective of our faith. Each day at Mass, we hear the Word of God in Scripture. Scripture is a remarkably frank document; that’s part of its Jewish character. While other ancient peoples were writing of their heroic kings and heroic armies as greater than any other, the Jews wrote of their kings Saul, David, Solomon and the rest as graced, but flawed, even tragically flawed men — as sinners.
And think of the Gospels! Apart from the opposition Jesus faced throughout His ministry from His enemies, just think of His friends! Constantly misunderstanding Him, arguing for first place even late in His ministry… and one of them betrays Him to His death, and the captain of His band denied Him. Our Faith is very realistic and frank about sin, and there’s a reason for that.
You see, grace builds upon nature; it doesn’t destroy nature, but builds upon it and perfects it. When God calls me, He calls me because He loves me — me, who I am. He doesn’t destroy my personality, obliterate my personhood. He leaves me my free will and calls me, faults and all. He wants me for His friend, His lover, not a mindless zombie or a puppet — so when He calls, He leaves me free to say “No,” and if I say, “Yes,” I still have my indviduality in which I delight Him, and my faults and weaknesses through which His grace works in this fascinating interplay.
Grace is not automatic. Those of you who are married already know that. On the day you stood at the altar, if you think back, I’m sure you’ll agree with me — maybe you never admitted it, but it was there — “My marriage will be DIFFERENT!” You’d seen good marriages and bad marriages, but yours wasn’t going to be one of those humdrum ones, or tedious ones, or “bad” ones. You were going to avoid all the mistakes you’d seen.
Then, of course, it doesn’t take you long to discover that when you walked away from the altar, you were still the same person who had walked towards it. If you managed to avoid your parents’ mistakes, it was only because you’d managed to think up variations of your own.
Ordination works the same way. You never really expect it to, but it sure does. As you process down the altar steps after the liturgy is over, it’s a short while before you discover that you’re the same person and all your faults got ordained along with you — ordained pride, ordained sloth, ordained envy… And you grow in grace over the years to the extent that you open up more room in your heart for Him. Grace is NOT automatic.
Unfortunately, that means that a sick, twisted person will still be sick and twisted after marriage or ordination.
What we are talking about here is a very small percentage of priests — very small indeed. Each of them has multiple victims, some a horrifying number of victims, which is why you get the impression of overwhelming numbers. If you ask what could be wrong with the priesthood that people in it act like this, then be aware that sexual abuse of young people is epidemic in our society, and the vast majority of perpetrators are married men. When people argue that priests ought to be allowed to marry in light of this scandal, they aren’t aware that if men who are sexual abusers became married priests they’d go right on abusing young people — including their own children.
But this is not by any means a problem confined to the priesthood.
Apart from the harm done to the victims, one absolutely horrifying aspect of this crisis has been the response of the Church.
Monsignor and I both agreed that we wanted out motto to be that of Bill Donohue of the Catholic League — “I am not here to defend the indefensible.” There is simply no excuse for what we have seen in the response or lack of it of our chief Pastors, the Bishops. Our two widest-read lay-run journals in this country are the Wanderer and the National Catholic Reporter. The Wanderer is usually seen as extremely conservative, and you will not be surprised to hear that I write for it; NCR is the liberal organ. BOTH of these have been covering these scandals and exposing them to the public and the Church for twenty years and even longer, and yet these problems have not been effectively dealt with. It is truly scandalous. Only in the last nine months, as the horrified attention of the country has been riveted on this Situation, have the bishops scrambled to put into place a policy for consistently dealing with this, and how many, many people have been hurt in that time? The actions of the bishops have been reprehensible, really beneath contempt.
All of these things you have read and will be reading about. And this Situation, while it must have the priority now because it is a matter of life and death, is in reality but one of half a dozen grave crises facing the Church, which have been obvious for forty years, NONE OF WHICH have our chief Pastors addressed.
I think it is important, though, to be careful about judging too quickly. We have a legal system which protects the rights of accused and accuser, and that is the way we want it. The specific accusations against our diocese will be judged in court on their merits, and we should wait and see what is decided. It has been the case in other places that false accusations were leveled.
We need to be praying, first, for the victims. The damage done to a young person by clergy sexual abuse is utterly devastating and life-long. I am in touch with a lady in Kansas whose son was sexually molested by their priest as an eleven year old altar boy. He killed himself at age 29 after battling depression for years. The priest, who is in prison, was responsible for five suicides of altar boys.
These victims need to be listened to when they come forward — this is not always the case, and sometimes they are treated as thiough they are attacking the Church. They are hurt and they are angry; they need to be treated with compassion, and helped in any way possible.
We need to pray for the bishops of our country, that they may remember what their office means, and be pastors, be shepherds to us.
And we need to pray for each other. If anyone in the congregation has troubles with all of this or needs to talk or wants information, please call one of us: we need to be here for each other.