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Bishop Hears Catholics’ Anger, Sadness and Hope

Seven listening sessions held on abuse crisis

By Denis Grasska

SAN DIEGO — Following through on his commitment to promote transparency and lay involvement in the workings of the local Church, Bishop Robert W. McElroy spent the month of October attending seven listening sessions, one in each deanery of the diocese.

At the sessions, the bishop answered questions and gave area Catholics a chance to make their views known about key issues affecting the Church. These included revelations in the Pennsylvania grand jury report and questions about the abuse of minors and adults by former Cardinal and retired Washington, D.C. Archbishop Theodore McCarrick; priestly celibacy; and the treatment of seminarians.

In remarks delivered at the beginning of each session, Diocesan Chancellor María Olivia Galván noted that the bishop had already issued several statements about the scandal, but these sessions represented “a time for him to listen to you and to respond to your questions.”

Sessions were held from Oct. 1-18 in each of the seven deaneries, or geographical clusters of parishes, that comprise the diocese. One final session is scheduled to take place on Monday, Nov. 5, at the University of San Diego; it will be held at 10 a.m. in the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice.

Interest in these unprecedented sessions was high. That the faithful appreciated the bishop’s willingness to make himself available and to solicit their input was apparent from the high turnout.

Some 350 people attended the first session at Our Mother Confidence Parish in University City, only to have people turned away when the room reached the maximum capacity established by the fire marshal. In the later listening sessions held at Nativity Parish in Rancho Santa Fe and at St. Gabriel Parish in Poway, overflow areas were created where parishioners could listen to the sessions.

In total, nearly 1,700 people are estimated to have attended a listening session.

Dubbed “Time to Listen” and facilitated by Galván, who also serves as diocesan director of pastoral ministries, each listening session essentially followed the same format. There was a gathering song and an opening prayer, followed by a Gospel reading, a reflection on that reading by Paulist Father John Hurley or a local deacon, and a brief overview of the crisis and the Church’s response presented by Bishop McElroy.

“We are in a terribly wrenching moment in the life of our Church because three great storms have come together at the same exact time,” the bishop told attendees.

He was referring to the Pennsylvania grand jury report that exposed 70 years of clergy sexual abuse against children and the covering up of that abuse by bishops in six of the state’s dioceses; the revelation that former Cardinal McCarrick was not only rumored to have sexually abused seminarians, but also credibly accused of sexually abusing minors; and the release of a letter from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó, former nuncio to the United States, which accused Pope Francis and other Church officials of allowing Archbishop McCarrick to continue to wield influence in the Church despite being aware of his scandalous behavior.

On the grand jury report, Bishop McElroy stressed that it is “really ... two reports.” On the one hand, it recounts a “deeply troubling” history of abuse in the last century, he said. But on the other, it shares the “very encouraging” news that the reforms put in place in 2002 have been effective; only two cases in the report dealt with abuse that occurred after 2002, and both were immediately reported to civil authorities and the offending priests removed from ministry.

The 2002 reforms introduced nationally and in the San Diego Diocese included fingerprinting and background checks for all priests, church workers and volunteers around children; Safe Environment training for all staff and students in Catholic schools and religious education; and a “zero tolerance” policy to remove from ministry and strip the faculties from any priest credibly accused of abusing a child.

“We must face these issues head on,” Bishop McElroy said, urging attendees to “always remember that it is Christ who our faith is in.”

“Our faith is not in any priest, nor ultimately is it in the Church,” he said. “It is in God and in the person of Jesus Christ.”

“Amen!” an audience member shouted, and attendees broke into appreciative applause.

After the bishop’s opening remarks, any priests in attendance left the parish hall and retired to the parish church, where they prayed together while the laity engaged in spirited discussions at their tables. Over the course of 20 to 30 minutes, each table came up with at least one question that would be posed to the bishop by the table’s spokesperson.

After each table had asked its question, the evening concluded with intercessory prayers for the Church and victims of sexual abuse, a closing prayer and a final blessing.

One of the major takeaways from the discussions was the bishop’s pledge to push for greater lay involvement in the process of rooting out sexual abuse in the Church and preventing future cover-ups, including the creating of a separate Independent Review Board to investigate and make recommendations to the bishop regarding credible accusations against priests involving adults.

When the U.S. bishops meet this November in Baltimore, Bishop McElroy said he intends to support a plan for establishing an independent lay review board at the national level, “which has teeth to it and investigative power” to keep bishops accountable for personal misconduct or the mishandling of abuse cases.

He explained that the Diocese of San Diego’s own process for handling abuse allegations, like those of other U.S. dioceses, involves an Independent Review Board. Abuse claims are immediately reported to law enforcement and the diocese’s victim assistance coordinator, who is a psychologist and therapist in private practice independent of the diocese. The Review Board then employs an investigator who looks into the case and reports to the board on whether the allegation is credible. If credible, the priest is permanently removed from ministry.

“We must make sure that we take every effort that we can to ensure that the abuse of minors in the life of the Church is eliminated and that, whenever it rears its hideous head ... we move quickly, and powerfully, and clearly to end it,” the bishop said.

Bishop McElroy also acknowledged that, while he felt the Church has made great strides in how it responds to the sexual abuse of children, much more work remains to be done in dealing with the sexual harassment and assault of adults.

Deacon Jim Vargas of Mary Star of the Sea Parish in La Jolla attended the first listening session and has been actively praying that this diocese-wide discussion might prove to be “productive on all sides.”

“I think my prayer for these sessions is that it’ll be the beginning of a source of healing for us,” the 62-year-old said, and “that people just can relay their anger, can relay their disappointment, can relay their wounds and, in the whole process, have the Church listen and ... put in place processes and procedures that will ensure that this never happens again.”

Joe Quiroz, a 34-year-old member of The Immaculata Parish, expressed hope that these sessions would provide the bishop with “an unfiltered understanding of what thousands upon thousands of the local faithful actually care about and how we are hurting.”

Ian Mascarenhas, the youth minister and coordinator of young adult ministries at Our Mother of Confidence Parish, said, “I am glad that many questions/perspectives were shared and I am hopeful that some good progress is in our future.”

The 55-year-old added, “I heard recently, ‘There’s nothing wrong with the Catholic Church that can’t be fixed with what’s right with the Catholic Church.’”

Some attendees, while appreciating the opportunity to be a part of the discussion, were taken aback by some of the negativity they witnessed.

For Lauretta Monise, a 66-year-old member of St. Agnes Parish, the “hostile comments” occasionally directed at the bishop were hard to bear, and she felt that “many people came unwilling to listen.”

Echoing those sentiments was Lucia Yandell, 62, who attends Mass at various churches.

She said she was “a little sad” and “a little angry” at the divisiveness she felt at times during the session she attended.

“I felt sometimes that people were commandeering the process ... to further their own questions,” she said.

However, she left the session with confidence in the Church’s future, secure in her faith that “Christ isn’t going to let His Church down.”

Several attendees reported frustration with the bishop’s responses during the question-and-answer portion.

“I was not satisfied,” said Irma Shute, 38, a member of Santa Sophia Parish. “I feel that the bishop dodged questions and gave diplomatic answers.”

Colleen Maalouf, a 55-year-old St. Didacus parishioner, said many of those answers “just felt soft.”

Fred Hall, 77, attended a listening session with his wife, Bonnie, 75. Though feeling like some questions weren’t adequately addressed, he said, he was grateful for the opportunity to discuss the scandal with fellow Catholics and to discover that many of them shared his perspective.

“The format was positive,” said Hall, a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish. “It gave the people a venue to discuss serious issues within our Faith.”

For any San Diego Catholics who are not entirely satisfied with their experience at the recent listening sessions, Galván encourages them to be patient.

“The listening sessions are just the initial step toward a more expansive process that will take place within our local diocese in the weeks and months that follow,” she said. “The feedback, questions and comments that were collected at the end of all the listening sessions will be carefully reviewed and reflected upon as the diocese moves forward in its efforts to address the issues and concerns that were brought forth.”

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