success stories

Priests vow to help each other find healing

The Rev. Kenneth Brown, pastor of St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church, was so shaken by news of St. Louis priests being removed from their parishes for sexual abuse of children that he almost changed a typical blessing practice among priests - touching the head of a child too young to receive Communion.

"It is hard to regain people's trust," he said.

But Brown and other area Roman Catholic priests said they were feeling better after attending a 90-minute meeting Tuesday afternoon between nearly 370 priests and St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali at St. Raymond Maronite Catholic Church south of downtown St. Louis.

For weeks, priests across the nation have been bombarded with almost daily announcements of clerics being removed from parish assignments here and in Boston, Providence, Maine, Pittsburgh, Jefferson City and Los Angeles.

Then last week, Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell of Palm Beach, Fla., who like many of the men at Tuesday's meeting graduated from Kenrick Seminary in Shrewsbury, resigned after admitting sexually abusing a seminary student in Hannibal, Mo.

Priests here and across the nation have said the have been wrestling with feelings of anger, embarrassment, shame, betrayal and disappointment. Some blamed the media.

Many priests said they felt better after what they described as a candid, emotionally charged but respectful discussion Tuesday that strengthened their sense of solidarity and fraternity.

Some priests left the closed meeting vowing to help each other become better, stronger and healthier priests.

"Instead of being bitter, I want to become better, so I am asking how can I use this to become a better priest," asked the Rev. Gary Braun, director the Catholic Student Center across from Washington University. "We are not going to get back to normal, again. We don't want to go back to business as usual again."

During the meeting, about half a dozen police officers patrolled the church parking lot entrance. The meeting included 20 minutes of prayer, a 20-minute address by Rigali and an address by the Rev. Michael J. Lydon, president of the archdiocesan priests' council. Then, Rigali opened the floor for questions, comments and complaints.

According to priests interviewed after the meeting, concerns ranged from not having enough Catholic priests to perform daily parish work to questions about why priests weren't the first ones informed about the dismissals of the Rev. Joseph D. Ross of St. Cronan Catholic Church and the Rev. Michael A. Campbell of Our Lady of Sorrows Church.

Rigali also temporarily removed a third priest, the Rev. John Hess of Sacred Heart in Florissant, after his computer was removed as part of a federal investigation of child pornography. Rigali didn't address the media gathered outside. He left through a side gate. Bishop Timothy Dolan hitched a ride in the back of a police car.

Many said they entered the meeting with a sense of sorrow. After making a hospital visit last Friday, the Rev. James J. Benz, pastor of Little Flower parish in Richmond Heights, said he dashed into Crestwood Mall, passing scores of teenagers. He wondered if the recent news accounts of sexual abuse of minors by priests gave them negative ideas about the priesthood.

"Since my ordination in 1974, I have never ever thought negatively about the Roman collar, and I can still remember how happy I was the first time I got to wear one," he said.

On the other hand, the Rev. Timothy Cook said many of his parishioners at Visitation-St. Anne parish in St. Louis made a point of telling him that they supported him and that they were praying for him. Others said they experienced similar support.

Many priests said after the meeting that they wanted more support from the diocese.

"The archbishop wants to make sure priests are getting the kind of help that they need," Brown said. "The vast majority of priests are trying to do a good job . . . We think it would be a good idea for priests to receive more oversight, especially for mental health."

Some priests said they needed to focus on their parishioners and their jobs to weather the controversy. Rev. John Dempsey, 63, an associate pastor at St. Sabina Church in Florissant, said, "We just concentrate on what we were ordained to do."

Some said they were searching their hearts to help themselves and their brother priests.

The Rev. Matthew O'Toole, associate pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in University City and chaplain at Christian Brothers College high school in Clayton, said the recent controversy was making many of the clergy better priests.

"When you are put in the oven, you rise to the occasion," O'Toole said. "Some would say this would cause guys to bail, but it really doesn't . . .

I don't deny that it has taken its toll on our morale. Like any family going through trouble, you lean on each other."

The Rev. John Jay Hughes of Christ the King Church in University City holds a similar view. He, like many other priests, shared his views with parishioners on Sunday.

"My own experience of priesthood, and what I observe in my brother priests, has taught me that we priests are weak, fallible sinners like everyone who has ever been born," Hughes told parishioners Sunday.

"If we are healers, we are wounded healers. In other words, any healingwe have to offer comes not from us but from the One we serve, whose uniform we are happy and proud to wear, though we wear it unworthily."