Moving beyond the Scandal

Merrick Herald [Merrick NY]
Downloaded March 21, 2003

Should married men be allowed to become priests?

The answer from Monsignor James Lisante -- "I can't believe we aren't opening up the priesthood to a married clergy" -- was met with a round of applause from the roughly 130 people who gathered at Cur of Ars Roman Catholic Church on March 10 to hear Lisante speak.

Lisante, 49, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in West Hempstead, delivered a talk on "Recovery: the Church and Scandal, Moving Forward to a Brighter Future," and he engaged the audience with a mix of humorous and controversial statements.

Lisante said allowing married men to become Catholic priests could help solve the church's current priest shortage, which he believes contributed in many ways to the church's mishandling of past sexual-abuse cases.

Referring to the priest shortage, Lisante said, "The vocation crisis is the silent partner in the mistakes that have been made."

Only 300 priests now serve Long Island's 1.3 million Catholics. If there were more priests, Lisante believes, questionable priests would less likely have been stationed in local parishes.

Lisante peppered his talk with the word sex and sexuality many times, seemingly in an attempt to help attendees feel more comfortable hearing the words spoken aloud. The monsignor said many Catholics believe sex is "dirty, sinful, something nice people may do but not talk about." He said the Catholic Church has a "culture of secrecy" surrounding sex.

Lisante, though, said of the recent abuse scandal, "You can't talk about this problem without discussing human sexuality. We serve no one by being silent. By speaking up, we help the oppressed."

In certain cases, such as the Catholic sacrament of confession, or reconciliation as its now called, secrecy is "holy and wonderful," but with human sexuality, secrecy is damaging, Lisante said.

The monsignor implored parents to open communication lines with their children about sex. He said he's spoken with many sexually active teenagers who would rather have an abortion than speak with their parents about an unplanned pregnancy, even though the teens oppose abortion.

The monsignor asked attendees whether they saw sex as a "holy moment?" He believes that it is in the context of "committed love."

Lisante also said that "bad management, but not necessarily evil management," on the church's part led to the current scandal. The monsignor said that, during the 1970s, '80s and early '90s, psychiatric professionals provided therapy for priests who were accused of abuse and pronounced them capable of returning to the ministry. "Now," Lisante said, "we know they can't be cured."

Lisante admitted to being part of the problem by not doing enough when he suspected a priest of having problems. The monsignor said he requested that the priest, whom he believed had issues but was never accused of abuse, be removed from a school, when now he realizes that was only a "Band-Aid" approach to the problem. The priest, Lisante said, should have been removed from the ministry entirely.

Referring to sexual abuse, Lisante said, "It's an illness. It must be addressed as an illness and not an ideological problem."

He also said that the media didn't create the church scandal. "We gave a scandal to the media," Lisante said, "and they reported it," adding, "I'm not sure that it would be fixed by the church unless it was put in the light of day."

Lisante said the church must now admit "as an institution, as a body of Christ, we have failed to protect our children as we should. This is not a once and only once sin that has been committed."

Catholics, Lisante said, must be willing to politely disagree with the church hierarchy to effect change. And he said that it's equally important "we don't assign priests without input from regular folks with kids."

Lisante also spoke about forgiveness. The Catholic faith, he said, is based on the belief that any sin, including adultery and murder, can be forgiven. But Catholics, Lisante said, seem to draw the line at touching a child.

He said he understood that people might accuse him of speaking about the need to forgive sexual abuse because he is a celibate priest, without children of his own. He refuted the assertion, saying that if anyone touched his 13-year-old Godson, he would want to murder the person, that feelings of revenge are normal in humans, but that the Catholic faith tells believers they should forgive.

"I'm not saying we tolerate it," Lisante said. "I'm not saying we allow it to happen again. I think it can be forgiven, I just don't think it can be tolerated."

Lisante spoke of the Voice of the Faithful, an advocacy and support group that is seeking to reform the church's practices regarding sexual-abuse cases. The group, which formed in Boston, Mass., has now formed chapters on Long Island. "We should probably open the doors to the Voice of the Faithful," Lisante said.

Lisante believes that William Murphy, bishop of the Rockville Centre

Diocese, should meet with the group, which to date, he has not done.

Lisante has been a priest for 22 years and received the honorary title of monsignor 12 years ago for extraordinary service to the diocese.

Since the abuse scandal broke, Lisante has spoken on national television news shows and at conferences and parishes throughout the country. Lisante is also host of the syndicated television show, "Christopher Closeup," and author of three books, the most recent being "Personally Speaking, Celebrating Out Catholic Values and Ideals."

Rev. James Mannion, pastor of Cur of Ars, said Lisante was asked to speak in Merrick because "his credentials for speaking, for trying to promote a message, are well known and well established."

Cur of Ars parishioner Loraine Ranelli said of Lisante, "He covered everything that I thought about." Since the scandal, she said, "I have not wavered one bit in my Catholic faith because of it."

One audience member at Cur of Ars, who did not wish to give her name, said of Lisante, "I think he's an excellent speaker. He made me feel there is hope." She said many of her family members have left the church because of the abuse scandal. She hopes that, in relaying some of Lisante's message to them, they might return.

Other audience members said that what Lisante said should "be brought to the bishop, be brought to whatever committee it needs to be brought to," with the hope that lasting change will take place in the church.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.