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Posted December 6, 2004

Head of NFPC sees need to change
clergy image in wake of abuse crisis

By Michelle Martin
Catholic News Service

In regard to clergy being united with the laity, readers of the Silva talk might want to search through the writings of Yves Congar on our website, and also to consult the following article “Coping With a Church and Priesthood That Seems To Be Coming Apart At The Seams by Father Eugene Hemrick

In the wake of the clerical sexual abuse crisis, the Catholic Church must find a way to move forward, but perhaps with a different view of the priesthood, said Father Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils.

"We see a world in need of evangelization," Father Silva said. "It's a multiethnic world, a multigenerational world, it's a transgenerational world. It's a world that yearns and struggles. We need not be afraid. We need to go forward with hope."

Father Silva's Nov. 15 presentation was the third of six installments of Loyola University Chicago's chapel series. This year, speakers in the series offer an afternoon lecture about their work, followed by an evening reflection in the context of a prayer service.

To go forward, Father Silva said, priests must see themselves as belonging to the communities they serve, rather than as "men set apart."

"If you live in this world where it's you and Jesus, you and God, and you're not like the rest of men, you're setting yourself up for a big fall," Father Silva said.

That sense of separateness dominated the church until the Second Vatican Council, the priest said, when a more pastoral, ministerial model came into being. That set up a tension, both within individual priests and within the church as a whole.

As priests began to identify themselves more with their communities, some of the old boundaries fell, and they began to interact more with parishioners.

Now, some of the most popular programs the federation offers are workshops and retreats about appropriate boundaries, he said.

Father Silva found himself caught up in the clergy sex abuse crisis as a spokesman for priests, fielding up to 50 media calls a day at the height of the crisis. As one who had ministered to children, he said, his first reaction was a stomach-churning shock, followed by disbelief and anger.

"It was really hard for me to understand why so many priests had credible allegations against them," he said. "After all, they were configured to Christ. ... I knew many of these priests that did these things. That I didn't see anything terribly amiss with them began to burden me."

As angry as he was, Father Silva said, his job was to serve the priests, whether by giving accused clerics referrals to canon lawyers or advocating for changes in the U.S. bishops' 2002 "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" and norms for the handling of sexual abuse cases.

While the charter was "absolutely necessary," Father Silva said, many priests believe it should be modified. They want the charter and norms to impose sanctions on bishops who knowingly covered up abuse, he said.

They also want changes to the zero-tolerance policy, which allows bishops no discretion under any circumstances, he said, and want due process for any priest who is accused and a right to appeal. Under the zero-tolerance policy, any cleric who admits to child sex abuse or is found guilty through an approved process is removed from ministry.

Perhaps the most pressing failure of the bishops' charter is that it does not seem to have led to healing for victims, Father Silva said.

"Until we as a church are able to deal with that appropriately, well, lovingly, caringly, we won't get to the rest of it," he said. "That's got to come first."