This Lent, the faithful in the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania, will read and reflect upon stories such as that of a 10-year-old boy from a devout Irish-Catholic family who was rewarded for doing well on a math test by being sent to the parish rectory to help a beloved priest count the Sunday collection. From that moment on, that priest sexually abused the boy more than 24 times.
“We’re all affected by this crisis. This gives everyone an opportunity now to talk about this,” said Mary Fran Hartigan, the secretary for Catholic Life and Evangelization in the Diocese of Allentown.
Hartigan told Our Sunday Visitor that over the six weeks of Lent, lay Catholics will be meeting in small groups in their parishes to discuss, reflect and pray about the clergy sexual abuse crisis as part of a new program created by Renew International, a New Jersey-based apostolate. Called “Healing Our Church,” the program is designed to aid healing in the Church by encouraging participants to share their feelings about the crisis, to embrace their role as members of Christ’s body, to discern and commit to concrete actions they can take.
“Our bishop had been hearing from some of our parishioners around the diocese that they were interested in having some type of parish-based program to help them talk to one another about the abuse crisis and do that in a church setting,” Hartigan said, adding that Bishop Alfred A. Schlert of Allentown “thought about and reflected on that prayerfully.”
“He really wanted people to be able to express their thoughts, their feelings and their concerns about the clergy sexual abuse, but to do this in the prayerful comfort of their own parish environment,” Hartigan said.
‘A process of healing’
In a prepared statement announcing the “Healing Our Church” program in his diocese, Bishop Schlert said he hoped it would offer local Catholics the opportunity to prayerfully reflect on their path forward as “a Roman Catholic family of faith.”
“My hope is that those who choose to attend these small-group discussions will find them helpful, and will use them as part of the process of healing,” Bishop Schlert said.
The clergy sexual abuse crisis that again has been roiling the Church in the United States was triggered in large part last August by a Pennsylvania grand jury report that uncovered credible evidence that 301 priests in that state sexually abused more than 1,000 child victims over a 70-year period.
Following a nearly two-year investigation into how local Church officials handled child sex-abuse allegations, the grand jury concluded that the Catholic bishops in Pennsylvania had conducted a decadeslong “systematic” and “sophisticated” cover-up to protect the alleged predator-priests.
The grand jury report documented the allegations against priests in six of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses, including Allentown, where 31 accused predator-priests were named.
New diocesan programs
In the months since the report’s release, the Diocese of Allentown has taken several steps aimed at addressing the crisis; these include establishing a compensation and reconciliation program to assist victims and survivors, which will be overseen by a retired federal judge and has an expected timetable for payments to begin. In January, the diocese created a new cabinet-level leadership post to strengthen its abuse prevention and child safety programs.
Bishop Schlert said he encouraged Renew International to develop “Healing Our Church” for use in his diocese and elsewhere. In 2003, a year after news of the crisis first broke, the Allentown diocese teamed with Renew International to offer a similar program called “Healing the Body of Christ.” Jennifer Bober, a spokeswoman for Renew International, said the apostolate updated the program to reflect everything that has happened and been learned since that earlier crisis, which led the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 to adopt The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
“We wanted to do something that was going to be direct and really take things head-on,” said Bober, who added that Renew International is working with other dioceses about offering “Healing Our Church.”
Participants in Allentown will follow “Healing Our Church” with another parish-centered Renew International program aimed at spiritual renewal called “ARISE Together in Christ.”
For the hurting laity
The neighboring Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, which was the subject of an earlier grand jury report that detailed decades of child abuse there, began the ARISE program last fall. In a prepared statement, Bishop Mark Bartchak of Altoona-Johnstown said his diocese “still has many wounds” from the sex-abuse scandals, and he added that the grand jury report last summer had “brought much to the surface.”
“In the small groups, people in our diocese are coming to a better appreciation of why the hurt has returned,” Bishop Bartchak said. “But there is something different when they realize that they are in a good space through a common sharing of faith.”
In “Healing Our Church,” lay leaders who are trained by Renew International lead the small-group discussions in their own parishes. Each week during Lent, the groups will meet for 90-minute sessions, with no clergy present, where they read a synopsis of a sex abuse survivor’s story.
“It’s some time for prayerful reflection where people then get to discuss their thoughts and their feelings,” Hartigan said, adding that “Healing Our Church” is geared to those in the pews, not necessarily to sex-abuse survivors.
“The diocese has processes in place that we are offering and engaged with those victim-survivors,” Hartigan said. “This is an opportunity for the lay faithful now who also may be hurting. We’re hurting as a Church, so it’s an opportunity for the lay faithful in the pews to also begin a prayerful reflective dialogue as a process of healing.”
Brian Fraga is an Our Sunday Visitor contributing editor.
Each week’s session of “Healing Our Church” is organized around a specific theme, such as “Facing the Truth,” “Healing Our Wounds,” “Rebuilding Our Church,” “Why Do I Remain Catholic?”, “We Believe” and “The Way Forward.”
Along with reading survivors’ stories, participants pray and reflect on a Scripture passage and commit to a specific action item that week to assist others in healing before ending with a healing prayer.
“Because of the dying and rising of what we experience as Catholics during Lent, we thought this would be a good time to offer this program,” said Mary Fran Hartigan, the secretary for Catholic Life and Evangelization in the Diocese of Allentown, adding that there will be a final gathering after Easter for participants to gather for a meal and unpack all they learned and reflected upon.
“We have an opportunity as the lay faithful to enter into Christ’s passion and suffering, and then we have the Resurrection,” Hartigan said. “We have hope. This is just a beginning for people, really, as far as the healing process. This is just a beginning step.”