success stories

A Pastor’s Response to the Church Crisis

This column was taken from Father Hynes’ home
during Mass April 7 at St. Catherine of Siena Parish
in Wilmington, Delaware where he is pastor.

Catholics and many other people all over our country are in pain, grief, anger and confusion because of what has been disclosed about clergy sexual abuse and its concealment by some church authorities.

I have strong feelings about this, including all of the above. For nine years before I was a priest I worked with children in Scout camps and summer camps. For the first seven years as a priest I spent more time with children and teens than I did with adults; CYO, sports, dances, hayrides, summer Bible school, high school teaching, coaching and, finally, overnight retreats, where I was awed by how deeply some teens value God, parents and friends.

Even after my responsibilities drew me deeper into adult ministry and parish leadership, I still was aware of the young. To this day I am regularly awed by the mystery of God that I see in a child, in a fifth-grader, a teenager, an 18-year old. And I am not ignorant of the frustrations, anxieties, ecstasies and fierce passions that are part of a parent’s life.

I am also awed by the mystery of man and woman. By the mystery of suffering and death. By so much more. Being a priest has drawn me into a capacity for wonder and for loving that I cannot imagine coming to me in a position to “father” many persons. It also allows me to be friend and brother in far more capacities than I could have been in lay life.

As a pastor I sense I have my own marriage and my own spouse, this parish. I love her even when I disagree with her. Sometimes I think I understand a mother’s heart and a woman’s sense of life very well. At times I feel like a tribal chief — not democratically elected, but related to everybody in a far deeper way, my destiny one with yours.

Priesthood is spiritual parenthood. Like flesh-and-blood parenthood, it can be denied or betrayed. Certain priests have done that, and the shock and the pain for us is overwhelming. We have just gone through Holy Week, our faith’s central story of betrayal and denial. Some priests denied their spiritual Fatherhood, some betrayed it. We have to live with that, yes, but we also have to respond to it.

First, we must call sin by its right name. The sexual abuse of a child or a young person is an unspeakable crime and sin. There is forgiveness for every sin, but forgiveness doesn’t happen until the sinner confesses his sin, recognizes its evil, accepts the consequences of it, and makes reparation.

The greatest harm done by sexual abuse is that it has made some persons’ lives a living hell, htat it has made it almost impossible for some victims of it to believe in the church or to feel good about themselves. If we didn’t know that 25 years age, we know it now.

The most important response the church — especially the authorities in the church and we priests — must make is to help in the healing of the victims of sexual abuse. Any person who has had to endure this violation has the absolute right to speak out to the authorities about it and deserves our encouragement. He or she deserves healing, peace, redress.

And healing is possible. I urge anyone who has had this experience, or who knows someone who has, to seek this road to peace.

As a priest, I want to help in that. I’m not going to wear the Roman collar less; I want people to know who I am. If someone is angry or hostile, they probably have a reason for it, and I’m ready to hear it.

So tell people who suffer — there is healing. The problem is not you. It’s in the person who did it to you. Some priests who preyed on children were good men who were weak; others acted out of self-centered malice.

The risen Christ appears to us today, and he has wounds in his hands and feet and side. They are glorified wounds, no longer horrifying but the opposite. “At the sight of the Lord,” it says, “the disciple rejoiced.”

What Jesus showed the disciples was that the worst atrocities that human beings could commit could become the sign and cause of glory. That included betrayal by one-twelfth of his apostles and abandonment by all but one of the others.

In fact, Jesus not only forgave them but gave them the power to forgive sin. And forgiving sin doesn’t just mean rattling off the words “I forgive you.” It means the whole painful process of identifying sin, sorrowing, changing our life, admitting it and making reparation. It’s an ongoing process. The apostles were so transformed by their sin and its forgiveness that they carried out that mission and passed it down to us.

Forgiveness, reconciliation and healing are the task of the church — all of us. We’re going to go through some more pain as the sin is identified. We’re going to go through purification. But we’re going to shed so much light on this darkness of sexual abuse that it will never happen this way again.