Priests Call for Compassion and Change

By Mary Jo Dangel
Downloaded June 9, 2003

Two priest leaders empathize with victims and call for changes in the Church.

According to a recent report by The New York Times, 1,205 Catholic priests were accused of abusing minors in the United States over the last 50 years. That's 1,205 too many and a few of those accused have been exonerated, but the guilty represent a small number of the 45,713 diocesan and religious priests The Official Catholic Directory says were assigned in U.S. dioceses last year.

Innocent priests are as shocked as laypeople, even if many of them haven't been very outspoken. Two priests in leadership positions reveal their reactions and explain how the Church can begin to heal. St. Anthony Messenger interviewed them by telephone and e-mail.

Father Robert J. Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils (NFPC), was ordained in 1965 for the Diocese of Stockton, California. NFPC ( provides ministry resources for 124 councils of diocesan and religious clergy.

Father Ted Keating, S.M., is the executive director of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM) and a provincial councilor for the Atlanta Province of the Marist fathers and brothers. CMSM ( ministers to priests and brothers of 317 Catholic religious communities of men.

Feeling Betrayed

"I was horrified on behalf of the people who had been abused," says Father Robert Silva, whose experience includes being a high school teacher, pastor, seminary formation faculty member and administrator, coordinator of continuing education of the clergy and rector of the cathedral of the Diocese of Stockton, California. In addition, he was adjunct professor at the Vatican II Institute for the Continuing Education of the Clergy in Menlo Park.

"Over the years, I have been very close to many young people for whom I have a deep love and affection. At this point, they have children of their own. To think that it might be possible that one of them or one of their children might be abused by a priest that they loved and trusted makes me very protective of them and also very sad. What a betrayal "I also get angry with the abusers," he says. "I hope the crimes of these priests do not cause people to second-guess the many good and loving relationships they have had with priests."

He is "baffled by the numbers of priests who did these things. I am even more confused by the fact that bishops did not act more aggressively to take action against them, for the protection of the children and for the protection of the Church." The bishops "could have consulted legal as well as psychological professionals to determine what would have been the appropriate action to take."

Sadly, Father Silva realizes that all priests are under suspicion. "I am a little uneasy when I am with people who do not know me. Do they see me as another priest who is a wolf in sheep's clothing? I try hard to have confidence in my own sense of integrity so that I can be a good priest with people."

Father Silva says, "Professionally, this has challenged me to examine the system of formation as well as the system of personnel administration that allowed for this kind of tragedy to occur over the years. It has changed the focus of my work considerably and made me aware of an even more urgent need for the ministry of the NFPC.

"This has caused me to examine my own priestly commitment, to reflect on the depth of my own relationship with God and to resolve to be as good and upright a priest as I can possibly be-for the sake of our people, the Church and my own salvation."

Sense of Loss

"I ache for the young men and women who were hurt," Father Silva says. "I am pained by the suffering being experienced by the priests who were predators. And I am deeply saddened at what is happening to the bishops, especially to bishops whom I know personally."

He feels "a deep sense of terrible loss that can only be healed by time" and finds some consolation and peace through "prayer, and the fidelity of good Catholic people who come to Mass each Sunday with their children."

Amidst such a bleak picture, Father Silva can see a hopeful and healing future: "I know the Church needs to be purged of such a scourge. I know the Church will be the stronger for it. I know that the priesthood at some time in the future will be a richer, fuller and more fruitful vocation than ever."

How the Church Can Heal

Father Silva says the Church must review its history "to understand that the frailties of life in this world have been present in ways that have been severely challenging to the Church in the past. Yet, even in the most terrible of times, there have been men and women gifted with great holiness who witnessed to the power of God's love."

The Church needs to "adapt itself to the needs of the present day," he says. "The monarchical model of governance does not serve us well today. There is tremendous suspicion of institutions that cling to top-down models of governance that do not allow for maximum participation on the part of the governed. And there is ample evidence to show that abuses can be severe in a monarchy. Today, we know that father does not always know best."

People need to hear the "Good News of the Gospel," he says. "If the way we are governed gets in the way of people being able to hear the invitation of Christ, 'Come and see!,' then we need to change it.

"I do not mean that we change our teaching. I mean we change the way that we, as an institution, govern and manage ourselves so that contemporary men and women can have the benefit of the great tradition and sacrament that the Church offers and is."

Father Silva is grateful for the Second Vatican Council: "If it had not happened, there would have been no way to respond to the kind of crisis in which the Church finds itself today. Thus, the bishops are no longer sole monarchs, but are called 'brothers.' And priests are no longer lords over their communities, but leader/disciples called to make it possible for the community of disciples to accomplish the mission of the gospel.

"Authority is not 'over others' but 'service of others.' Together-bishops, priests and laity-we are People of God sharing in the baptismal call to ministry."

He believes that "integrity and transparency are gospel virtues that must permeate the entire faith community from top to bottom....The entire system by which the Church orders itself must be one whose principal characteristic is gospel integrity."

Father Silva stresses that "those who are serving in ministry in the Church today in the United States are good, wonderful and holy people who are doing good, holy and wonderful things."

Catholic Core

He explains why leaving the Church is not an option for him: "I am Catholic to the core of my being. I am priest to the core of my being," Father Silva says. "Catholic and priest are not something I do, but who I am. I can get frustrated, angry, disturbed and offended by the Church, but I cannot leave it because that would mean abandoning my very self....I find the God of my life in the Church. I find a vision for a way of living in this world in the Catholic Church."

Father Silva stresses the many rewards he has experienced as a priest: "It is my deepest faith that somehow my life finds its meaning opening up for and with people an experience of the glory of God: in Baptism, in Eucharist, in the Sacrament of the Sick, in Reconciliation, in Marriage. Nowhere is this more evident than when preparing someone for death. God's glory is life in the fullest, beyond death. For me, this is a great vocation. I know it in the heart of the Catholic Church. What a mission!"

Religious Orders

To appreciate Father Ted Keating's reaction to the clergy sex-abuse crisis, it helps to understand his background. For many years, he was a consultant to the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. In addition, he has met with representatives from victims' groups.

Referring to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and Essential Norms that were approved by the U.S. bishops at their June meeting in Dallas, Father Keating says, "I was there as the Charter was being drafted and was there in Dallas working with the bishops."

Summer became more hectic as he finalized details for CMSM's August assembly, where a statement was approved regarding religious-order priests and sex abuse.

Father Keating explains that CMSM was in agreement with the bishops' Charter, except for one point: While the Charter encourages bishops to initiate the judicial process for expelling any priest or deacon who has ever abused a child, "We would permanently remove them from ministry, bring them into community, put them under supervision and hold them accountable," says Father Keating, "as long as they are willing to cooperate with treatment and supervision."

Although religious orders were not covered by the Norms that were adopted in June, the revised version that was approved by the Vatican in December includes "diocesan and religious-order priests or deacons." Father Keating subsequently met with Vatican officials to discuss how CMSM is addressing the issues.

Empathy for Victims

When charges of clergy sex abuse began making headlines in early 2002, Father Keating says, "I was simply shocked that it reemerged. I thought it was being well handled around the country." As coverage increased, he wondered, "Is this a much more gigantic problem than I ever imagined? Is there something terribly wrong in the Church today that I have missed all these years?"

After CMSM's assembly last August, he says, "I didn't want to hear about it anymore. I didn't want to see any more newspaper articles. And I knew that I was being called to deal with it more at a feeling level."

He says that resulted in his becoming increasingly sensitive to "the impact it had on victims. This was more than simply a bureaucratic bungle." Through prayer and talking to people, Father Keating was able to see "the Church as a place where I am called to deep faith in the midst of loss."

For his own healing, he realizes that he needs to continue to engage people who have been victimized, to see their faces and acknowledge the real pain of people's lives. He sees the danger in not interacting with victims, simply focusing on "an abstract work of organization and getting policies together and finding ways of dealing with allegations."

Although Father Keating says he sympathizes with victims and believes that perpetrators need to be held accountable, he doesn't believe "dehumanizing the perpetrator" or attacking innocent priests is beneficial. "We have to deal humanely with one another," he explains. The sex-abuse crisis "calls me to a much deeper level of living a true, authentic life of love and understanding for others."

Power Structure

For the Church to begin the healing process, we all need to get beyond the "rage and anger and blaming," Father Keating says. "I think it's going to call the Church into a much deeper experience in reconciliation than we have yet reached."

But the other issue connected to healing, he says, "is that question of power in the Church." Father Keating notes that Jesus' "power came from the strength of who he was, not from institutional structures or political power."

He asks, "Can we be more sensitive to those who are too frequently victimized by large institutions and organizations in the Church?...The ability for all of us to deal with power in the Church in a more reflective and gracious way may be the grace at the heart of all of this."

The Catholic Church's power has been weakened, he admits, but the Church "has weathered storms for 2,000 years and has a profound theology of the cross that can help us through times like this. There would be nowhere else to go: It is the answer....The Church as an institution and structure and organization may have been through some crises, but the Church is more than that: It is the suffering face of Christ."

Mary Jo Dangel, an assistant editor of this publication, is a mother and grandmother.


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