Priests, parishioners stand up, speak out about church scandals

On a recent Sunday afternoon, more than 60 parishioners at St. Andrew Catholic Church skipped the coffee-and-doughnut pleasantries typical of post-Mass gatherings for a more sobering topic Ñ sex, specifically the sexual misconduct of certain priests around the country.

In a small room adjacent to the Northeast Portland church, a therapist guided the diverse group through an intense, one-hour discussion during which they expressed, among a range of emotions, anger at the response from leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.

When it was over, the group decided to plan a course of action.

'The people in this parish are saying this is an issue that affects all of us as it is hurting all of us, and we need to talk about it,' said Jerry Deas, 55, a member of St. Andrew's parish council. 'As we see it from the pews, more and more people are standing up and speaking up.'

As accusations of sexual abuse continue to rock the church and the Portland Archdiocese, local Catholics are finding themselves in the unusual role of potential leaders of reform.

Some are experiencing a renewed sense of faith and activism; others are questioning their allegiance to the church. But in unexpected ways, they are openly talking about their feelings toward the church and its latest scandal.

The Tribune spoke with several Portland area priests, parishioners and students about how the scandal has changed their Catholic experience. Here's what they had to say.

Guarded embraces

The Rev. James Mayo has 25 years of pastoral experience, yet none of it has quite prepared him for the past six months.

Mayo, who heads St. Patrick Catholic Church in Northwest Portland, has struggled with rage that a fellow clergyman could be a sexual predator, abusing children. He has experienced frustration with the response from church leaders in other parts of the country.

And he has felt people watch him when he interacts with youths and wondered, 'Do people think that of me?'

With some trepidation, Mayo dealt with the issue in the pulpit during a Lenten Mass in March. The response was overwhelming. Parishioners were relieved that he broke the silence first. They thanked him afterward.

Still, he feels changed. He returns hugs from children, but they're guarded embraces. He takes pains to make sure he's not alone in the sacristy, a back room in the church, with young people.

Mayo has met with other priests in informal support groups to share ideas for how to respond to questions from parishioners as well as attacks from the public.

Several area priests, including Mayo, have received hate mail and hostile telephone messages. One priest who wore his collar in public was spat on and called an expletive for a homosexual.

Mayo, like several other priests interviewed, said he was pleased with the way the Archdiocese of Portland, under Archbishop John Vlazny's leadership, has responded to local accusations of sexual abuse.

'This is a difficult time, but I don't think any of this is without reason,' Mayo said. 'This is going to make us a better church Ñ but not without pain, embarrassment and sadness.'

Who's responsible?

St. Andrew isn't a typical Catholic church.

For starters, it openly welcomes gays and lesbians, although the prevailing view among the nation's leaders is that homosexuality is 'unnatural.'

Parishioners proudly describe the church as 'left of center' in its practice of Catholicism. And it is among a few churches in the Portland area to have held parish forums on the sex scandal.

Although St. Andrew, like most of the archdiocese's 125 churches, has not dealt directly with clergy sexual misconduct, many parishioners thought that it was important to use the painful experience as an opportunity to improve the church.

At the forum, parishioners aired their frustrations with a number of issues: the lack of racial diversity in the church; its inability to discuss sex, homosexuality and celibacy in a way that would make sense to most of the laity.

They talked about their anger and disappointment with the church Ñ but also with themselves for not being greater advocates for change.

Gayle Bache of Lake Oswego chose to stay with the church more than 30 years ago, which 'wasn't easy,' she said, given its positions that limit the possibilities for the advancement of women.

'But I ignored the hierarchy and abdicated my responsibilities,' she said. 'I think that if women had not given up and had been a part of the church, this (scandal) may not have happened.'

Those at the forum plan to follow up with a meeting that will outline a course of action to share their thoughts with Vlazny before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in mid-June.

'There's enough anger in the church right now that maybe something will come out of it,' said the Rev. Robert Krueger, church pastor for 12 years.

Encouraging openness

Most laypeople and clergy members said they doubted that a priest could sexually abuse children nowadays without being immediately discovered and punished.

'With the current policies and procedures that are now in place, we're probably not going to see this happening,' St. Andrew's Deas said. 'Priests who are accused are not going to be summarily slapped on the hand and then moved to another parish.'

Indeed, men interested in the priesthood today must go through a more rigorous screening and training process than their counterparts 20 years ago.

The Portland archdiocese tries to get a sense of a person's background, Catholic life, education and interests even before considering him as a seminary candidate.

Interested men attend monthly meetings of prayer and a weekend retreat with Vlazny as a way to form a spiritual support group, said the Rev. Tim Mockaitis, the archdiocese's vocations director.

Once in the application process, candidates are required to undergo four psychological tests and a one-hour interview with a psychiatrist. The archdiocese also requires each candidate to submit an autobiography and three letters of recommendation, as well as have an interview with five priests, a nun and a dean at Mount Angel Abbey & Seminary.

Upon acceptance, candidates enter Mount Angel, which provides a disciplined, holistic approach to the development of a priest. In addition to academics, educators focus on the student's human, pastoral and spiritual development.

In human development, a relatively new program in seminaries during the past 20 years, educators address a candidate's prayer life, commitment to a celibate lifestyle and his ability to be a decisive yet respectful leader in proclaiming the word of God, said the Rev. Richard Paperini, Mount Angel's president and rector.

Seminarians have spiritual directors with whom they could discuss more personal matters that are confidential. If, however, someone is believed to be a danger to others or to themselves, that confidence can be violated.

The issue became more challenging for the seminary when two priests living there were sued for sex abuse that allegedly occurred when they served at churches in Gervais. The priests, the Revs. Louis Chariot and Kenneth Jacques, have been removed from their duties as the case proceeds.

Paperini addressed the students in his weekly conference and invited them to ask questions.

'The best way for us to deal with this is to talk about it and be open,' Paperini said. 'Parents have the right to know their children are safe in church. The church must do everything we can to assure that.'

Strength or weakness?

Administrators at Jesuit High School, where six priests are in residence, took a similar approach.

Dick Gedrose, president of the school, called a faculty meeting to reiterate the school's policy on sexual abuse and encourage discussion among teachers, priests and administrators.

'As an educational institution, this issue has provided us an opportunity to talk with each other and with kids about human strengths and weaknesses,' he said. 'While it has not been a pleasant topic, it has been incredibly constructive.'

Gedrose suggested that teachers address the subject directly in class, in a way that was most comfortable for them. Students studying second-year religion will be able to discuss it at length in a 'problems of faith' class.

Students who produce the school paper, The Crusader, devoted an entire page to the subject, inviting two priests to share personal essays. In a conversation with the class, several students said they supported their priests.

For most of the Catholic students interviewed, the experience has opened their eyes to the weaknesses of the church.

'The church is the most sexist part of my life,' said Rachel Dunlap, 18, a senior. 'There is a danger of losing younger women. It seems like events like these should bring up issues of sexuality and equality, and still they're not.

'That is so discouraging.'

Contact Cristine Gonzalez at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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