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The Church’s Crisis

Madeline Buckley and Sarah Mervosh | Monday, April 26, 2010

Since sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic Church were brought to the public eye, it has been more difficult for Fr. Kevin Russeau, director of Old College, to go out in public.
“Most places I go I’m dressed in a robe and collar. People know I’m a priest,” Russeau said. “You kind of have a sense that people are watching you differently.

“You get this sense that maybe you’re doing something wrong even if you are just buying a gallon of milk for dinner.”

The scandal exploded in the United States between 2001-2003, largely propelled by The Boston Globe, whose reporting on the subject earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize.

Lawrence Cunningham, a theology professor and former head of the department, said the “big story” was that Church officials hid signs of abuse for years.

“Bishops would hear about these situations and remove the priest from the parish, send them off a Monastery to do penance or psychotherapy, and then reassign them to a parish,” Cunningham said.

Now, as controversy surrounds Pope Benedict XVI and his role as bishop of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising in the early 1980s when a priest was accused of sexual abuse, some Notre Dame students and faculty say they are disturbed by the stories of abuse scandals.

Yet others defend the Church despite news reports of clerical abuse.

“I’ve been edified by a lot of the students who have written to me saying we need to pray for the Pope, we need to pray for our priests,” Russeau said. “For some people this has been kind of a rallying point to say hey, let’s try to be supportive.

“I’ve actually experienced more of that here on campus.”

University President Fr. John Jenkins said Notre Dame’s role as a leading Catholic institution is to look forward toward preventing further abuse.

“We cannot change the past, but we in the Church must do everything we can to prevent such abuse from happening in the future,” Jenkins said in a written statement. “Notre Dame must do all it can to make sure it holds itself to the highest standards and toward this end, we have put policies and procedures in place.”

Jenkins also said the University affirms support for victims and prays for their healing.
“Our thoughts are with victims who have been so damaged psychologically and spiritually by sexual abuse by clergy and religious,” Jenkins said. “Faith and prayer are particularly needed that we do not succumb to negative emotions, but seek healing, hope and constructive reform.”

Theology professor Fr. Richard McBrien said he is concerned about the abuse scandals that have continually surfaced in the news in recent months — especially those regarding the Pope.

“He should be completely open and truthful about what happened in Munich when he served as its archbishop, and what happened during his time as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which also had responsibility for sexual abuse cases involving priests,” McBrien said.

“Most people would be understanding and forgiving if he admitted some mistakes in judgment. What people resent is being lied to,” he said. “This controversy will not go away unless and until the pope himself speaks out.  His allies have not helped him thus far.”

Cunningham said he believes some of the “finger-pointing” at Pope Benedict for allegedly not removing a priest accused of sexual abuse from contact with children is unfair.

“I think in a way he’s getting a bad rap for it,” Cunningham said. “I think he was in fact someone trying to do something for the situation.”

He said many of the cases surfacing in the news are decades old.

“Today there are very clear procedures set up,” he said. “I think the widespread plague of child abuse generally is a symptom of something that is really wrong with society as a whole.”

Senior Lee Marsh has contemplated going into the priesthood, and said the possible stigma of clerical sex abuse has disturbed him.

“That is one thing my mom always brought up when I would talk to her about the priesthood ministry,” he said.

Although he is unsure about pursuing priesthood, Marsh said he wants to devote his life to Catholic ministry in some way, and he is undeterred by the Church’s scandals.

“It’s like a doctor and malpractice. It’s always there but shouldn’t stop you from exercising your ability to help people,” he said.

But Marsh said he still has a lot of trust and faith in the Church.

“I think when we look at the bishops who have made poor decisions, we are looking at a small part of the human portion of the Church,” he said. “It’s much bigger than that.”

Fr. Paulinus Odozor, a theology professor, also recognized the positive contributions the Church has made in the world.

“Do you know how many hospitals the Church is running?” he said. “Do you know the millions of pupils enrolled in Catholic school today being taught by Catholic men and women?

“I don’t want this to sound triumphonistic. I am simply saying we must put these things in balance.”

While sexual abuse by priests is a “serious problem,” the Church is “not the monster roaming the streets trying to get people,” Odozor said.

Russeau said there are steps the Church can take to prevent such abuse from happening again and that the focus should be on keeping children safe.

“We redesigned the reconciliation room [at my former parish] so there is a mostly see-through glass door,” he said.

“We tried to take a way some of the privacy … just to be more transparent in that way.”

Russeau also said the process for admitting priests into the seminary is very specific.

“We have a psychological battery of tests that every candidate takes. They have a lot of interviews with psychologists, priests, with the layperson,” he said.

“We try to be very careful about who we let into the seminary.”

Odozor said he believes the Church has already begun to take action to address the problem.

“One of the gains from this situation, if you can call it that, is the fact that [the Church] has put in place better rules for oversight. To be able to catch these things and take adequate and appropriate action,” Odozor said.

Despite the negative media attention, Odozor said Catholic parishioners have still been receptive to him as a priest.

“Catholics generally reach out to you,” he said. “They are not expecting you to keep away from people.”

“In fact, sometime ago after Mass, a kid came to me to hug me and the mom was standing there,” Odozor said.

Odozor initially hesitated, but the mother encouraged him to embrace her daughter.
“She said, ‘Father, please give her a hug.’

“They realize that the bulk of priests have the intention of serving the Church,” he said.
Odozor, who has been a priest for 26 years, said despite its current difficulties, priesthood is “a happy profession.”

“In spite of everything, I wouldn’t be anything else.”