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Chester County Press

St. Patrick Church: Pastor and congregation galvanize against the storm

08/28/2018 12:30PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

On Aug. 23 at about 11:30 a.m., Rose Hearn and Barbara Abate, members of the St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Kennett Square, met to talk outside the large, gray parish hall on Meredith Street.

It was a gorgeous morning, a rare occasion in a summer of mostly rain, and their discussion was interwoven with the business of a small town – pedestrians walking dogs, and delivery trucks that drove by.

As Hearn and Abate spoke, their topic of conversation dipped headlong into a ferocious, dark cloud of ugliness that has caused irreparable harm to thousands of victims, and left the Catholic Church in a recoiling turmoil that threatens the future of this institution statewide, nationally and around the world. And yet, as Hearn and Abate spoke, the tenor of their voices resonated with timid hope and solemn bravery. It is through power of their faith, they said, that answers may begin to reveal themselves.

They were referring to the 1,356-page Pennsylvania 40th Statewide Grand Jury report, issued Aug. 14, that documented that for more than 70 years, bishops and other leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania covered up child sexual abuse by more than 300 priests of at least 1,000 child victims, while persuading victims not to report the abuse and convincing law enforcement to avoid investigations of these crimes.

The stories in the report document the horrors of what has happened in six of the state's eight Catholic dioceses since 1940: rapes, tortures and other incidents so heinous as to appear unfathomable to those who have read the report.

“It's horrible, tragic, sad and it is also hurtful,” Rev. Christopher B. Rogers, the pastor at St. Patrick, said of the report. “Someone asked me if I was angry, and I said that of course I was angry, but in reading this report, it is more a feeling of being sick to my stomach.”

The report is the third such document of research that the state's grand jury has issued. The first was issued in 2005 and the second came in 2011. They join a nearly 20-year legacy of accusations that began in 2002, when The Boston Globe published the results of an investigation that eventually led to the criminal investigations of five Roman Catholic priests. These reports have joined similar accusations coming from other parts of the world in cracking the lid wide open on what has become a global crisis.

To Rogers, the latest report is an echo of both reprehension and futility, telling a decades-long tale of abuse, lies, deceit, cover-ups and settlements. He's not alone in trying to come to grips with it. Catholic leaders all over the world have condemned the latest actions, in their pews and pulpits and in scathing letters.

“Some people, credible people, have challenged [the report's] processes and disputed elements of its content,” wrote Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput in his weekly column. “But the substance of the report is brutally graphic and profoundly disturbing as a chronicle of evil inflicted on hundreds of innocents.”

As he began to see St. Patrick parishioners file into mass on Aug. 18, just four days after the grand jury report was released, Rogers knew that the atrocities they had just read about were on everyone's mind.

“They were certainly on mine, and I began to wonder how I would possibly speak to it,” he said. “There has been a tremendous loss here, a tremendous wound, and just as in any family, these things need to be acknowledged and grieved and mourned.”

In his sermon, Rogers said that “the gates of Hell would not prevail against [God's] church, no matter what. He promised to be with us to the end of the age. He promised to write straight with crooked lines. For God so loved the world, and so deeply knew his people, that he gave us the church.”

During the Aug. 18 mass, Rogers invited the congregation to a holy hour of prayer at the church on Aug. 21.

That following Tuesday evening, two-thirds of the church was filled, as more than 150 people attended the service. Together, they meditated. They were splashed with the holy water of baptism. They followed readings from John 11, when Jesus healed Lazarus [“Master, the one you love is ill”]; John 2, when Jesus drove the money changers from Jerusalem [“Take these out of here, and stop making my Father's house a marketplace”]; and Mark 2, when Jesus healed a paralytic [“I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.”]

The church has placed two crosses, draped with purple cloths, directly outside the church, acknowledging the victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, as stated in the grand jury report. During the Aug. 21 service, one of the crosses was moved into the church and positioned near the altar, and Rogers invited each parishioner to come to the cross and empty their emotions in front of it.

“As a pastor of this family, I felt their strong need to do something as a family,” Rogers said. “Whenever there is a tragedy, especially nowadays, there is often a huge amount of money donated to the cause. People wait outside lines at a funeral home just for a moment to express a moment of condolence to a family that they love. As a church family, I thought, 'We are going to gather here. We are going to pray.'”

'The truth is there'

Hearn and Abate both attended the service.

“As a parish, we are very strong because the truth is there, and having Pastor Rogers address our grieving from a spiritual standpoint was the thing we needed,” Abate said. “It helped give us purpose and focus for what we need to do in the future on this issue.”

“Pastor Rogers knew who we needed to go to,” Hearn said. “He knew that we needed to bring this to God. Tuesday night for me was important, because we need to unite in prayer, first, and then act from that. Sometimes protests happen, but we want to be sure that we are protesting prayerfully, with God's blessing. In that, we will make a difference.”

The grand jury's 2018 report comes at a time when the sting of these reports has finally begun to affect the highest stations of the church. In July, the resignation letter of Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., who was accused in the sexual abuse of young priests, seminarians and minors for many years, was accepted in July by Pope Francis.

Recently, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's Professional Responsibilities Review Board announced that Rev. Andrew D. McCormick of Sacred Heart Parish in Swedesburg (Montgomery County), who was arrested in July 2012 for the alleged sexual abuse of a minor, was ruled “not suitable” for ministry.

The first call to action by the Catholic church to address the wave of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy came in June 2002, when The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People – also called The Dallas Charter – was established. Revised in 2005, 2011 and in 2018, the charter provides guidelines for reconciliation, healing, accountability and prevention of future acts of abuse.

The charter lays the groundwork for creating a safe environment for children and young people; healing and reconciliation of victims and survivors; making prompt and effective response to allegations; cooperating with civil authorities; disciplining offenders; and providing for means of accountability for the future to ensure the problem continues to be effectively dealt with through the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection and the National Review Board.

Critics of the Catholic church's means of handling this growing scourge, however, claim that the charter is a lip service, knee-jerk reaction to a growing perception that Catholic lawmakers have conspired to sweep the scourge under the rug, deny that the problem is as widespread as has been reported, and criticize the media for what they believe is an anti-Catholic campaign.

The widening gap between fact and fiction among these leaders has reached the highest level of the church itself. Pope Francis, on a papal visit to Dublin last weekend, was roundly criticized – in massive protest and commentary – for not using his office and influence to help safeguard children around the world.

Hope in numbers

While Rogers said that the fault of allowing this scandal to multiply rests with the church's hierarchy, he said that there is hope in numbers.

“There are now only 14 bishops who were active bishops in 2002 [when the charter was first released],” he said. “That's the old guard. Since 2002, every priest has lived under the law and we will continue to do so. Statistically speaking, that's made a big difference, but unfortunately, the Dallas Charter was not enough. Why? Because it exempted the bishops from that norm. It's recognized that it now needs to change, and the people who will change that are the 90 percent of the bishops who know how to do it.

“It's the younger bishops who will make the difference,” he added. “They're sickened to their stomachs, and they know that reform needs to happen. We're going to see it. We're going to have to see it.”

However the recent findings of the grand jury are examined and interpreted, they are testing the patience and faith of the church's parishioners. Advocates, church officials and clerics are calling for wish lists of ideas to solve the problem, including a demand that each church diocese publish the names of abusive priests, while others have called for zero-tolerance policies.

Some people are experiencing a severe crisis of faith. Some are leaving.

“During an individual's life, there is a reason for a crisis of faith, and nine times out of ten, it's trust that has been broken, and love and respect has been wounded,” Rogers said. “We have to make distinctions between our faith and the report. The body of Christ is is not well within the Catholic church. What are those parts and why are they not well, and why is this happening?

“We are having a crisis of faith, but the crisis is not in faith itself, but in the lack of the practice of it,” he added. “It is evident that priests and even any man who is worth his salt does not do what has [been written about in the grand jury report], but this has been done, repeatedly. Part of the crisis is not only calling it forth, but identifying the 'Why.' Is there anything the structure that has fed that? The answer is, 'Yes.' That's where the reform is needed.”

Juxtaposed against the backdrop of worldwide concern, all five of the Sunday masses at St. Patrick on Aug. 19 were full. It's an encouraging sign, Rogers said, that the faith of the parishioners has not dwindled in the wake of the grand jury report, but held steadfast in prayer.

But is prayer alone enough?

“Prayer alone is not faith,” Rogers said. “St. Paul says that faith is love and action. As a pastor in this community and priest of the Catholic church, I tell the people of the congregation who want something to do that prayer is part of it, but it has to lead to action. Prayer is lousy if it's not leading to action. The church will be stronger if their members are living in the charity of their faith.

“As we see how far [this scandal] has gotten in its darkness, in its total disregard for human life, I pray to God that there will be action taken.”

Abate said that although the findings of the latest grand jury report have been difficult to endure, she leans toward her faith in order to heal, which she said is in the form of confronting the problem through positive action.

“The only way to repair this is to hit it face-on, not sit and wait for things to happen,” she said. “It's being proactive. It's being a visible presence. It's protesting. It's writing letters.

“We want our church back,” she said. “We want our church as it was established by Christ. If anything, I feel like a soldier for Christ right now. I know what my faith is about. I feel so strong and secure in that foundation. We have been given a mission to help heal the church, and our biggest action is to help root out that evil.”

As the time approached noon and a ray of sun lightened the gray stone on the old church, Hearn led Abate in a short prayer. Four hands were upturned toward the blue sky.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email