Archbishop Walsh Academy, Olean
June 29, 2019

Attendees & Process

About 70 people attended.  Among the clergy in attendance were Father Patrick Melfi, pastor of St. John Parish and pastor/rector of the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels (Olean), Father David Tourville, basilica parochial vicar and Father Larry Ford, OFM, a graduate of Archbishop Walsh.

Stephanie Argentine, Movement to Restore Trust (MRT) member and moderator of the Listening Session, reiterated that we are all “learning as we go,” but encouraged all participants to express their heart-felt concerns directly to the bishop, with the expectation that he will offer his thoughts and reflections, and then respond. Stephanie then informed the group the structure is designed to maximize the number of people to speak and be heard by the bishop. She mentioned changes made to the structure as a direct result of feedback and requested input on ways to further improve the sessions while meeting the goal of allowing as many people as possible to be given the chance to express their concerns, hopes and requests to the bishop.

Ms. Argentine noted the purpose is to give the bishop a chance to hear from all of us (verbally or in written form) and for him to take what he learns and use it as he works on the issue of sex abuse by the clergy. She said these sessions came about as a result of MRT recommending the bishop go to parishes across the diocese to listen to parishioners to inform and influence the bishop going forward.

Attendees were asked to work in groups, by table, to discuss and summarize thoughts from the group on sheets provided on the tables. Each table would have a couple of minutes to share the group’s thoughts, while trying to be cognizant of time. Once each table shared their thoughts, the facilitator would continue to go around the room until out of speakers in the hour timeframe.

Participants were encouraged to record initial thoughts on post it notes before starting discussion at their table. They were provided with three table discussion starters:

  1. How do you feel about the Church right now? What concerns you?
  2. What do you wish for? Do you have hope? What fills you with hope?
  3. How can your church, and this bishop in particular, best help or assist us collectively with this crisis?

THEMED REPORTS FROM THE TABLES

Issue of Church Hierarchy:

  • How did the local clerical hierarchy miss this abuse problem?
  • Where is their morality? The lack of moral clarity within the hierarchy – needs to change
  • The focus for repair, restructuring of the clerics’ perspective, has to be on building virtue.
  • The Church does not give parishioners the opportunity to question the morality, behavior of priests, clergy.
  • Church administration is closed and breeds dysfunction.
  • Increase role and participation of laity in parishes, diocese and formation of priests. The bishop needs more laypeople in his inner circle to advise him, with the lay people being elected not selected, to counter concern the bishop is surrounding himself with people who prevent appropriate response(s)
  • Why aren’t there more laypeople from the Southern Tier in that inner circle?
  • A bishop should be selected, rather than elected
  • Another suggestion: let’s let the women of the Church, in all professions, heal us. Women have been relegated to the back room by the Church hierarchy for much too long.

Recognize we can’t change the past but want to change the future through training and education

  • Open up more and provide help so that parents can help protect children
  • Make VIRTUS training available to all parishioners, families
  • The mother of a victim of abuse said, “Never leave a child alone with an adult.” She supports the bishop in his appearances around the diocese.

Investigations & Confidentiality

  • There was consensus that there needs to be a mechanism to report problems, to turn to for advisement.
  • Include laity and law enforcement when applicable
  • Keep records confidential and secure to protect from media
  • Devastating effect on Catholic education enrollment and funding

Consideration of Victims and their Families

  • Families of victims need to be healed as well as victims
  • Families feel guilt for trusting the offender
  • Are children safe today from predator priests? Are they listened to?
  • Shame on the diocese’s slow, erroneous response to local victims and their families.
  • Children should never be alone with priests – Boy Scouts of America have instituted this practice
  • The Church didn’t give the parents of victims a chance to protect their children and those parents will feel that pain until they stop breathing.
  • One suggestion for aiding parents, grandparents and guardians to become better listeners and sensitive counselors to their children is a program called “Protecting God’s Children,” online training by certified facilitators on the prevention of child sexual abuse, conducted by VIRTUS, The National Catholic Risk Retention Group, Inc.
  • Victims don’t want money; they want to hear “sorry” and they want changes to ensure this never happens again!!!
  • What input do parishioners have in victim compensation? We don’t want to give our hard-earned money to pay for the bishop’s mishandling of those cases.
  • We must acknowledge that this sexual misconduct issue is not just a Catholic Church problem. For example, an alarming number of cases of pedophilia occur within the family.
  • The mother, who had earlier spoken, elaborated on her heart-breaking story: her son, an altar server at 10, began acting out, refusing to return to the church, failing in his school studies. In his teens, he started drinking, then doing drugs. Despite multiple attempts at rehabilitation, he couldn’t get straight. At 34, he committed suicide, taking with him the secret of abuse at the hands of a priest when he was 10. The mother’s advice: don’t let the Catholic Church hierarchy get away with this cover-up and protection of sexual predators. Most victims of abuse don’t want money, they want apologies; and that the perpetrators ask for forgiveness.
  • A victim of abuse at the hands of her uncle has been able to move on to survivor! She has also been accused and noted we need to watch false allegations.

Concerns on fracturing of the Church and lack of trust

  • One person stated, “This sexual misconduct issue has brought the Church to its knees.
  • A closed system, as is the Catholic clerical hierarchy, is anathema to transparency.
  • Lack of trust – people vote with their feet – don’t show up. What do we do to bring back trust
  • How to reach families with children that have lost trust?
  • Youth ministers want to know how to reach out to the families of young children.
  • Concern over future growth of the church and moving on from this – some are coming into the Church. Many are leaving.
  • Anxiety over where to put contributions – no one wants their money going to settlements, but they want victims to be compensated. At least one diocese has created a fund that is exclusively for settlements – in recognition that some donors only want their money to go to victims.

Priests

  • What is the current screening process for enrollment in a seminary? How does the diocese supervise, mentor seminarians, novices?
  • Media coverage over false allegations ruins lives; second group of victims are the good priests who have been unjustly lumped in with the criminals. “All priests suspected of sexual misconduct should be considered innocent until proven guilty.”
  • Severe shortage of clergy
  • Why can’t priests marry? Consider allowing priests to marry.
  • Ongoing, when men and women join the clergy, what will supervision and mentoring look like? Will there be annual checks?

Ideas for the Church Going Forward

  • Today’s we’re living with consequences of abuse experiences from over 20 years ago; abuse of power – need systemic changes to make a difference.
  • “We need transparency in all aspects of this diocese. The current involvement of laypeople is good. I accept that what has happened is bad, but it cannot be changed. We must move on. I am here to urge the bishop to implement the transparency he claims to want but has not yet established.”
  • There needs to be more contrition, apologies for the abuse of hierarchical powers from twenty years ago to the present. What penance is going to be demonstrated by the Church world-wide to signal sorrow for the past wrongs and a promise that this will never happen again? The Church will never regain credibility, if this is not done.
  • One woman said, “In my family of good Catholics, my husband and I are considering leaving the Church because this current lack of credibility has occasioned a crisis in our faith.” She plead that the Catholic Church has a global obligation to show remorse and penitence and read from a letter that her brother had sent to Pope Francis recommending the Church do Penance to demonstrate the pain we share. It would be a simple act – it should not be about money because our credibility is so damaged. Her brother’s suggestion was that for one year, every Catholic Church altar around the world should remain stripped of ornament, as it is during Holy Week. This no-cost gesture would speak volumes about the penitence, contrition of the Church hierarchy worldwide.
  • Bishop currently getting guidance from lawyers vs. laity. The Diocese and Church needs to change the language and find better language. For example, payoff versus payout; are we using of language of business or pastoral nature?
  • Use “sorry” as an empathetic term vs guilt
  • Transparency is a big thing – improve channels of communication for people to learn other than through the media

General Comments

  • People came seeking hope.
  • We need something systemically new from this
  • There are lots of positives in our Church
  • It’s hard to imagine so much pain and joy can be experienced by people side-by-side – someone who experienced nothing but joy and good in their experience with the Church finds it hard to comprehend and feels great pain over all of this.

BISHOP MALONE’S RESPONSES AND COMMENTS

  • “Of the four Listening Sessions I have attended, all designed for me to listen to the parishioners, this is the most powerful.”
  • People who should have been trusted have betrayed their commitment to Jesus. But we must continue to be hopeful. This is a crucifixion of victims, of good priests, of all of us. I am feeling vulnerable. I continue to ask for forgiveness; I could have done better but did not.
  • From my heart, I want to apologize to the woman whose son was abused.
  • The bishop reiterated the importance of protecting children by enrolling them in Catholic schools, where he said he feels that they are safest. Absent that, programs like VIRTUS also are highly effective.
  • All adults have been called to involvement in protecting the young.
  • The seminarians’ preparation has been strengthened. They are evaluated by psychological evaluation, as well by the faculty, and finally submit to review by the bishop.
  • A notable feature at Christ the King Seminary is that seminarians are in class with and are evaluated by lay men and lay women.
  • At the U.S. Conference of Bishops, everyone was appalled at the accusations against Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal. The U.S. bishops have demanded an explanation about this case from the Vatican.
  • For his diocese, the bishop has proposed including professional laypeople to review cases of sexual misconduct. On the Diocesan Review Board (DRB), there is one priest, and the bishop just listens.
  • The bishop promises to continue change in the diocesan leadership culture. He acknowledges the role that MRT has played in bringing these issues to his attention.
  • When a woman attendee charged that the MRT did not include anyone from the Southern Tier, it was noted that that two residents from the Southern Tier have been part of the MRT since the beginning session.

Nancy Nielsen, of the Movement To Restore Trust, spoke about the objectives of that group: to create a Central Reporting Committee for reporting abuse and other problems directly; to make a commitment to co-responsibility, in which lay Catholics work hand-in-hand with ordained Catholics in an equal partnership; new transparent structures for bishop accountability; openness and transparency, addressing leadership failure and replacing outdated and secretive management practices based on respect for the competency of the laity. Nancy urged all of us to listen to the victims and heal with them.

Father Melfi delivered the closing prayer. The meeting was adjourned after two hours.

Upcoming Parish Listening Sessions:

  • Saturday, August 3, 9:30am – 11:30am – Sacred Heart Social Center (Batavia)
  • Saturday, August 10, 9:30am – 11:30am – Nativity of Our Lord (Orchard Park)
  • Saturday, August 17, 9:30am – 11:30am – Holy Trinity Parish (Dunkirk)

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