Bishop Joseph Gerry’s recent letter regarding the removal of the two St. John Valley priests was the most balanced and thoughtful writing I have read so far about this unfolding tragedy. His message was on target. He conveyed sensitivity to the priests, their parishioners and to the boys, known and unknown, who have endured the pain caused by the sexual misconduct of some of his brethren. I was encouraged by his message.
I was disappointed, however, by the commentary published from the four parishioners (BDN, March 20), who have demonstrated uncommon forgiveness and compassion for their wayward priests. I grew up in the St. John Valley, and believe that the people there are as fine as they come. Hard working, honest, friendly, I could go on. And they did not deserve this mess. Their loyalty, mercy, compassion and forgiveness for their priests tells a lot about their outstanding character. But in their commentary, they attack the “hungry press” for what they feel was overly aggressive reporting of their priest’s misdeeds, and they insult the diocese by implying that while they have demonstrated mercy and compassion to their priests, that the diocese has not.
I realize the abuse happened long ago, but, the practice of the Catholic Church reassigning priests after they’ve been caught abusing boys is nothing new. This scandal has broken open in Texas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, California, Washington, New Jersey and other states. It’s been the practice of the church to send their offending priests to counseling, and then after believing the priests had been rehabilitated, putting them back into the community. The church has learned a painful and costly lesson. Rehabilitating sexual offenders has been an elusive and largely unsuccessful effort. Hopefully the two priests in this case were successfully rehabilitated, and only had one victim, but that would be the exception rather than the rule. Most offenders have more than one victim, and, as we’ve learned recently from neighboring Massachusetts, some priests have many. The bishop knows it. More than he probably ever cared to know.
I first became aware of the reassigning of offending priests while doing research on child abuse in 1985. I undertook that research effort t to educate myself to be better able to protect my children. To be more alert so that if, God forbid, they were exposed to abuse, I would be able to see the signs and intervene. It was reported back then that four priests in the parish of Lafayette, La., had been caught abusing minors, were reassigned to other parishes, and then continued abusing other victims. We are now witnessing the results of the well-intentioned but failed efforts of the church leadership in solving the seemingly intractable problem within their ranks.
Like most people, I was surprised when I learned that one in 10 boys and one in four girls are sexually abused by the time they reach age 18. Also surprising was learning that 44 percent of the women incarcerated in our prisons claim to have suffered sexual abuse as children. And I have a theory that a fairly good number of youngsters who commit suicide or fall into alcohol or drug abuse have been subjected to some form of abuse. That’s a lot of people. I really had no clue of just how widespread the problem of abuse was, and is, in our society.
I believe that when it comes to abuse, any kind of abuse, than more knowledge is better than less. And, conversely, when it comes to the abuse itself, obviously, less is better than more. The bishop is trying to educate the flock and eliminate the abusers.
I called him to tell him that I thought he was doing the right thing by reaching out to the victims to offer aid, by advancing the education of the community, and by doing his best to prevent any further abuse of the children. I didn’t expect to be able too speak with him as I suspected he would be quite busy, and I was told that yes, he is very busy.
But Sue Benard, a spokesperson for the church, and I talked for almost an hour. I learned about some of the positive steps the church has been undertaking for some years now in trying to effectively deal with their abuse problem, and I was encouraged. The church is on the right track. Now, if the good people in the Valley can extend the same understanding and compassion to the bishop as they have to their priests, our little world will be a better place indeed. And, I suspect everyone will heal from this a lot sooner.
Roland C. Jandreau lives in Presque Isle.