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Fr. Matthew's Homily on the Abuse Crisis

August 18-19, 2018

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
August 18-19, 2019
Delivered by Rev. Matthew L. O’Leary

I need to talk about something today that is unpleasant.  Something that is uncomfortable for many of us.  Something that many of us wish would go away. Because it has to be talked about.  It is the terrible things about our Church that have been in the news, concerning former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick—someone I once admired as a great leader of the Church in this country—and then the Grand Jury’s report from Pennsylvania.  

Yes, much that was reported happened long ago, but the report brought it all back.  I had to force myself to read through that report. 

My first reaction was to get sick. Then I got angry.  And then I became ashamed.  Sick, angry and ashamed that

  • wolves—demonic wolves—dressed in the sheep’s clothing of the Church abused members of the Lord’s flock;
  • children and young people had their image of God damaged if not destroyed to the point where many cannot even relate to God or Jesus;
  • the Church—the Body of Christ—the Community of Believers—was assaulted and blasphemed by people charged with the sacred responsibility of handing on the tradition and representing Jesus;
  • that once again you—and millions of the good people of the Church have been let down, ashamed, and embarrassed by the pastors of the Church—and once again you face the humiliating questions from family and friends and co-workers—many non-Catholics—about what’s wrong with your Catholic Church and how can you even be a part of an organization like that;
  • and me—once again my vocation, my ministry, even my person and reputation are called into suspicion because of guilt by association with these reprobates.

I must confess to you my immediate reaction to all this—we’ve known each other too long and I could not stand before you now and not admit to you that my first reaction was feeling that these demons should be burned at the stake!

But immediately I heard a voice—the voice of the Lord—saying, “No, Matthew, that’s not your place, that’s not the way that we do things, vengeance is mine, not yours.”  And I remembered words of Jesus, recorded in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 9, verse 42: “Whoever causes harm to these little ones of mine, it would be better for him to have a giant millstone tied around his neck and he be thrown into the deep sea”—clearly to drown.  Yes, there will be justice and punishment for this, the justice of heaven will be meted out to those who have abused God’s people.  Ours is not to take satisfaction or delight in punishment of others, but justice will be done. 

Again, much of what was reported from Pennsylvania happened a long time  ago—long before the massive wake-up call we experienced 15-16 years ago—but this report brings it all to the surface again, and this time reveals the callous collusion and conspiracy among Church leaders to cover it up.  The Church does not have a corner on abuse—it happens in other Christian churches, other religious traditions, schools, the military, workplaces, offices, and in families.  But the Church is held to a higher standard—it must be held to a higher standard, because the Church is the Body of Christ—it is his Church. 

As St. Paul so eloquently reminds us, “We are ambassadors of Christ” (2 Cor 5:20). We represent him and we live by his standards.  Jesus showed us how to best love and serve God, and love others in God’s name.  He gave us values and principles to live by, and we raise our own standards by living lives according to his.  This is most especially true when we face serious issues—abortion, capital punishment, caring for the hungry and homeless in our community and in our world, lovingly treating the stranger in our midst, living lives morally and ethically.  We are always best imagining him standing there with us—if we can imagine him encouraging us and helping us do something, then we can know that it is right. 

Jesus is our bread of life—he is our sustenance, he is the substance of our lives.  This is clear in the principles he gave us to live by and in a most extraordinary, physical, and tangible way, when gather here around his altar and partake of his body and blood—the Bread of Life and Wine of Salvation.  How tragic that there are people who cannot partake of the Bread of Life because their relationship with Jesus and the Church was damaged by abuse.  And many others have walked away because of this.  I know people, some Church professionals, who have said that they love the Church, but just can’t be part of it anymore.  I understand it.  I get it.

So what do we do?  The words of St. Paul just a few moments ago ring out: “Do not continue in ignorance, but try to understand what is the will of the Lord” (Eph 5:17).  The Lord clearly demands that something change in his Church!

Now to be fair, our archdiocese has done some things.  We were among the first to respond to the abuse crisis when we started to hear about things in the 1980s.  We instituted a much more stringent screening process for men applying to be seminarians to train as priests.  When I applied in 1997 and 1998, I was subjected to a battery of psychological tests, interviews, and a reconstruction of my entire life’s history and every significant relationship—over months and months—to try to determine whether I had any markers to indicate eventual sexual abuse or abuse of power.   Men the years before me and all the years since have had the same rigorous screening.  We also have mandated training for clergy, employees of the archdiocese, and volunteers working with children and vulnerable adults to identify appropriate boundaries and signs indicating that someone might be the victim of abuse.

But the news this past week shows us that the system is still broken and that the hierarchy—the bishops—have failed, at least in terms of this part of their responsibilities.  Something must change.  We as a Church must ask the question of why these situations of abuse happened and were allowed to continue. Every custom, practice, tradition, and Church law related to this must be examined and evaluated in light of repairing the Church and preventing anything like this from happening again. 

I am absolutely convinced that the solution to this crisis is ultimately you—the lay people of the Church.  I don’t often stress a difference between you as laity and me as clergy, but let’s  face it, clergy have been part of the problem, and laity—you—must be part of the solution.  You who have passed down the faith through the generations, who have built hospitals, offered charity to the strangers, and faithfully won converts by witnessing the values of Jesus—you are the heroes of the Church and key to solving this crisis.

You must demand full accountability of what has happened and why—what things allowed the abuse to happen, and what things need to be changed.  You must be part of raising up new priests and leaders in the Church.  You must have a greater role in calling forth Catholics to serve as priests and leaders in our Church.  At least with the present model we work with, start by looking in your own families, and then among friends and members of the parish community, to identify those qualities and people that would make for a good priest.  Then call them, and present them to the Church as a possible candidate.

I am absolutely convinced that you—the lay people of the Church are key to the Church’s renewal.  The Spirit of God will work through you to renew the Church, and through the Church to renew the face of the earth.

Proverbs 9:1-6
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

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