Father Christopher Seibt's Homily on Accusations of Abuse by Priests

Delivered at St. Daniels on the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Watch carefully how you live,” St. Paul tells us in our second reading today from his Letter to the Ephesians. Because, he says, “the days are evil.” The days are certainly evil. A recent article referred to the past weeks as the Catholic Church’s “summer of shame:” (1) the immoral behavior of the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and (2) the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, which revealed the failure of many bishops. Plus, a number of less recent international headlines – stories of a similar nature.
Whether you are currently aware of all of this or not, please accept my apology for having to speak about it today. But it must be addressed. And before another word is spoken, please let me say that as a member of Christ’s Body, the Church; as a priest, I am deeply ashamed, disgusted, angry, and saddened by all of this. None of this should have ever happened. Regrettably, it did. And now we are left wondering why and, more importantly, what should we do now.
“Watch carefully how you live…because the days are evil.” Theodore McCarrick did not heed these words. As a priest in the archdiocese of New York, he sexually abused minors. And as a bishop, he engaged in sexually immoral behavior with seminarians and priests, some of whom felt trapped and helpless because of the power he wielded over them as their bishop. Yet, he continued to rise through the ranks – first as bishop of Metuchen, then as archbishop of Newark, and finally as cardinal archbishop of Washington. How did this happen? Who knew about it? What, if anything, was done? More to the heart of the matter: Why? And, what should we do now?
“Watch carefully how you live…because the days are evil.” Many priests and bishops did not heed these words. This past Tuesday the Attorney General of Pennsylvania released a grand jury report that was two years in the making. In this 887-page report “more than 300 predator priests were found to have committed sexual abuse in Pennsylvania, harming more than 1,000 children.”
As I read parts of this report I wanted to throw up. It is that vile. It is that evil. And there is nothing I can say to soften the blow of the absolutely horrific things that took place – things that harmed so many young, innocent boys and girls; things that destroyed their lives forever. But, there are certain things that must be said because otherwise we are tempted to think or believe things that are simply not true.
First, this report contains things that happened in six Catholic dioceses over a period of seventy years, beginning around 1950. These are not new allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. Thanks be to God.
Second, please believe me when I say that all priests are not pedophiles. And, sexual abuse of minors is not exclusively a “Catholic priest problem.” Reading this report or other stories in the news sometimes makes it seem that way. But, nothing could be further from the truth. And, we need to be aware of this in order to better protect our children. Studies have shown that children are abused in greater number by their own fathers as well as by their siblings and other relatives; by their school teachers, coaches, scout leaders, social workers and so on. Even so, it is intolerable in clergy of any denomination. We are and should be held to a higher standard.
Third, the main claim of this new report is that bishops did nothing to stop the priests who were abusing children. This is where the situation becomes extremely complex because bishops were, in fact, doing something. Not necessarily the “right thing,” as we understand it by today’s standards. But, many were doing something: some bishops did, in fact, remove these priests from public ministry altogether. Many bishops sent them away for treatment. And they only reassigned these priests when they returned because the medical professionals who treated them told the bishops that they were “cured;” something that science today now knows is not generally possible. Certain bishops respected the request of parents not to report these priests to the police. There are other things that were done by bishops to stop the abuse from happening, which the report fails to mention.
But, the primary failure of the bishops illustrated by this report is that they tried to cover up or hide what was going on. No matter what they did or tried to do, young people continued to be harmed by the same priests over and over again because of the decisions they made. This is inexcusable.
Out of anger and frustration; feeling disgusted and betrayed; in our sorrow for the victims we ask: Why? And, what should we do now?
The answers to the first question are many: the effects of the sexual revolution and of a culture that has abandoned all efforts to live the virtue of chastity, corruption within the Church, the work of the Devil, and so on. But, at the core of all these, the answer is the same. Why? Because of sin. Bishops, priests, and seminarians are human beings who struggle with temptations and make bad choices. They – we – sin.
The hierarchy, the leadership of the Church failed, however, by becoming desensitized to the sexual sins of priests, particularly those sins that were causing harm to others. And, by trying to treat them with mercy alone when their heinous sins cried out to heaven for justice because of the pain and suffering that so many endured as a result of them.
In response to this failure, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said, “I apologize and humbly ask your forgiveness for what my brother bishops and I have done and failed to do… scores of beloved children of God were abandoned to face an abuse of power alone. This is a moral catastrophe… I have no illusions about the degree to which trust in the bishops has been damaged by these past sins and failures. It will take work to rebuild that trust.” In response to this failure, Bishop Cunningham said, “Like you, I am deeply troubled by these grievous acts and I must again apologize for the pain and suffering endured by our people.” Those who failed must be held accountable; bishops are no exception.
So, what do we do now? We do penance. We make reparation for these terrible sins. We fast. And, we pray. First and foremost, for the victims who have suffered and their families. Pope Francis has said that he wants victims to know that he is on their side; that those who have suffered are his priority. They must be our priority as well. Second, for all those bishops and priests who have hurt others, that God may have mercy on their souls. And, for the bishops and priests who strive to live their vocation faithfully each day, now under the shadow of scandal and shame. And finally, for the purification of the Church and for all those scandalized by what has taken place in the past.
Second, we must acknowledge – as the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report did – that although there is still much to do to make sure this never happens again, much has already changed since the scandal of sex abuse of minors by members of the clergy first broke in 2002. The policies and procedures that we have in place today are working and they have contributed to creating a safer environment for minors in the Church and beyond. If you or someone you know has been abused by a member of the clergy, I encourage you to please come forward. And I promise you that you will be heard.
Finally, while our faith is shaken in those who acted in an immoral way. We cannot, we must not, lose faith in the Church altogether. Because we know, we believe that it is Christ’s Body – the place where he dwells; the place where we experience his love and salvation. Rather, all of us must do our part to heed the words of St. Paul in our second reading today: “Watch carefully how you live…because the days are evil.” And, hold those who shepherd us – our bishops and priests – accountable to this as well. Together, we must turn more completely toward Christ, “the living bread that came down from heaven” because, as he tells us in today’s Gospel, when we eat his flesh and drink his blood he remains in us and gives us eternal life.
My friends, this is a dark hour in the life of the Church. On behalf of Bishop Cunningham, Monsignor Yennock, and all the priests of our diocese and beyond I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering that has been caused during this “summer of shame.” There are good bishops. There are good priests. The Church is doing good work. As people of faith, we know that the light of Christ has the power to dispel this darkness and to bring the healing and purification that is so desperately needed. And it will. Through us. Through our efforts to “watch carefully how we live” as members of his Body, the Church.