Holding Out for a Shepherd: Heartfelt Responses From Priests and Bishops

Amid widespread disillusionment over clergy sexual abuse, encouraging examples emerge.

Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell of Los Angeles at Mass at the Aug. 31 Southern California Renewal Communities convention. Shortly after this photo was taken, the bishop grew emotional  over the clerical crisis during adoration.
Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell of Los Angeles at Mass at the Aug. 31 Southern California Renewal Communities convention. Shortly after this photo was taken, the bishop grew emotional over the clerical crisis during adoration. (photo: Courtesy of Southern California Renewal Communities)

During the healing service for the Southern California Renewal Communities convention at the Anaheim Convention Center, Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell of Los Angeles held aloft the monstrance containing Jesus in the Eucharist. But attendees heard the bishop weeping in the silence and saying the name of Jesus over and over.

Mary Rashid, a member of the Orange County Magnificat group, told the Register that she had never experienced anything like the Aug. 31 event in her life. The rays of light off the monstrance placed on the altar seemed to pierce every heart present, and the convention center became so quiet as they heard the bishop crying as he knelt before Jesus in the monstrance.

“You could have heard a pin drop,” she said. “He just sobbed.”

As the Catholic Church reels from revelations about the role of bishops and chanceries in the cover-up of the sexual abuse of minors and adults, two central questions have been in the minds of many Catholics: Where have all the good priests gone, and where are all the bishops?

But the faithful are starting to see heartfelt responses from some priests and bishops that give them hope for shepherds who will work with them for the dawn of renewal in Christ’s Church.

Rashid said the heartrending experience of Eucharistic adoration with Bishop O’Connell felt like she was with Jesus in Gethsemane, weeping for the Church. She said Bishop O’Connell did not act like the priests that “beat around the bush” — but said honestly, “I’m sorry, and this sincerely hurts.” The retelling made Rashid break down in tears.

Others also had a powerful experience of feeling Christ’s presence among them that day.

Anthony Lilles, the academic dean of St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California, told the Register in an email that Bishop O’Connell repeated Jesus’ name and asked, “How can we console your heart?” He said many people began to weep with the bishop, priests fell to their knees, and many stayed in adoration for a long time.

Theresa McWeeney, another member of the Orange County Magnificat group, said the moment was hard to describe.

“We all know people who have been really affected by this,” she said. But McWeeney emphasized it was no pious exaggeration to say something like “a visitation occurred.” The prayers and tears of the people united with the bishop’s felt like a cloud of incense rising to the Lord, she said.

“We were in the heart of Our Lord that night,” McWeeney said. “It was like Our Lord came to be with us and was crying with us.”


Priest: Follow Christ

The deeds and examples of priests have also been making the rounds as people look for true shepherds.

Father Michael Niemchak, an associate pastor at Santa Maria de la Paz in Santa Fe, New Mexico, wrote an open letter to seminarians on his blog that went viral, inviting them to be like the apostle John, who remained with Jesus and Mary at the foot of the cross.

Father Niemchak wrote that now is the time to “be the saints God invites you to become,” with no room for “mediocrity, for settling, for compromise.”

While many priests may feel the crimes of their brother priests are cast upon them, he reminded seminarians that Jesus took on the sins of the world he did not commit, and they must follow his witness as future priests.

“I can say, I never did anything to deserve this, but you know what? Those kids didn’t do anything to deserve what happened to them either. The victims — those members of the Church hurt in unspeakable ways by those who were ordained to care for them — they didnt deserve what happened to them, and the burden they carry and pain they experience are incomparably worse than being judged for the sins of another,” he stated. The young priest said those who wish to defend the Church must first “defend the victims.”

“Never forget that before the Church is an institution, it is a believer. And thousands of believers have been wounded,” he said. “The Church’s reputation has been wounded. So have so many of her children. Shed your tears for the children rather than the reputation, and, by the grace of God, both may be healed.” 


A Victim’s Perspective

Some priests have gone public with their own stories of being adult victims of clerical sexual abuse.

Father Brendan McGuire, the pastor of Holy Spirit Church in San Jose, California, told his congregation at five weekend Masses Sept. 8-9 that a priest had groomed him as a teen and then sexually attacked him when he turned 18, “so I could not call it child abuse. He said this as he attacked me,” Father McGuire said in his Sept. 9 homily

He called on priests to express sorrow for the sins of brother priests. And he asked bishops to say they were sorry for the sins of brother bishops, perform an act of repentance like refusing to wear the mitre for a year, and “tell us the whole truth of the past now.”

The pastor said the bishops should agree to an independent “attorney general-like investigation” before they are made to do it and work with the Pope to reform the Church’s governance to include the voices of others in decision-making.

Father McGuire told Catholic News Service that the parish responded with something he never experienced at homilies: “thunderous applause” and “three standing ovations.”

But he added that, since then, 45 men have come forward telling him they were sexually abused, including five of them as priests and nine of them as seminarians.

One of the victims was 95 years old and had not spoken about it for as much as 70 years.


Prayer and Penance

Many bishops have offered Masses of reparation, publicly prostrating themselves in their cathedrals while setting aside the symbols of their office.

But other bishops have tried to go further in their own prayer and penance, inviting the faithful to join them.

Boston Auxiliary Bishop Robert Reed told the Good Shepherd parish cluster he serves as pastor that he would spend 24 hours in prayer, fasting and Eucharistic adoration at St. Ann Church, which is part of the parish cluster, starting with the 9am Mass Sept. 24 and concluding with the 9am Mass Sept. 25.

Bishop Steven Lopes of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, in a letter to ordinariate Catholics, said he would be offering up a personal penance for the sins of bishops on Ember Friday, Sept. 21.

The bishop had described the crisis in an Aug. 26 homily as a failure of apostles to act and said that the faithful “have every right to be angry, have every right to be asking, ‘What are these apostles set over us supposed to be doing?’”

He invited the lay faithful to join him by praying for a different intention: the renewal of the Church.

The ordinariate observes the traditional “Ember Days,” which are three days of penance in each of the four seasons (winter, spring, summer and fall).

The crisis has seen two dioceses (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Madison, Wisconsin) begin to revive these days, while other bishops have called for parishes to restore the St. Michael Prayer after Mass. 

Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, New York, one of the first U.S. bishops to call for an investigation into the sex-abuse cover-up involving ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and who described as “incestuous” priests and bishops who sexually abuse their spiritual children, asked his priests to join him in renewing their promises at the Sept. 22 Eucharistic Congress at the Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine in Auriesville, New York.

The bishop told the Register the Eucharistic Congress’ timing is “providential” in renewing the priesthood on the land where North-American martyr St. Isaac Jogues carved the name of Jesus in the trees and which actually gave birth to Native-American martyrs and saints among the Huron and Iroquois nations, who model for the Church a “practical family-to-family evangelization, rooted in their personal Eucharist-centered faith.”

“We’ve been allowing our Church to be co-opted by demonic forces,” Bishop Scharfenberger said.

The Albany bishop said that he and his priests are going to declare to the People of God, “We’re going to be the fathers they expect us to be.”


Worst, and Best, Day

When The Boston Globe began to expose the magnitude of clerical sexual abuse, Father Matthew Williams, the pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, was a newly ordained priest for the Archdiocese of Boston, which was at the epicenter of the 2002 revelations.

More than 15 years later, at Sunday Mass Aug. 19, he read aloud from the pulpit Cardinal Seán O’Malley’s letter on the new sex-abuse crisis, which had been reopened by the revelations about ex-Cardinal McCarrick’s alleged sexual predations on minors and reported sexual misconduct with numerous seminarians.

“It was probably the worst weekend of my priesthood,” Father Williams told the Register, explaining that it reopened the sadness, anger, hurt, discouragement and betrayal that he was feeling — and which he knew the congregation was feeling, too.

But Father Williams said that Sunday also become the “best day” of his priesthood, which he credited to “a visitation” from the Blessed Mother.

That day, the parish was hosting a missionary image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and he chose to preach about St. John Bosco’s dream about the Church being a tossed ship, but navigating the stormy seas through two pillars, devotion to Our Lady and the Eucharist.

During Holy Communion, a man Father Williams knew as a popular speaker to youth and a “true disciple of Jesus” approached him for the Eucharist. Sobbing in line, the man told Father Williams, “I’m a survivor, Father, and I need to address the community.”

Father Williams never knew this, and when the man insisted, begging him that the Holy Spirit was calling him to speak now, not later, the priest realized he could not do otherwise if the Holy Spirit was at work.

“I didn’t know what he was about to share with me,” he said.

The man explained to the congregation his own story of sexual abuse by a priest, but he shared that it was also through a priest that he experienced healing.

And while a number of priests have hurt children and others, he said a great many more priests are real shepherds. He asked the congregation to remember those holy priests.

“He went back to the cross and said it is the Lord who is the inspirer and perfecter of our faith and wants to heal our hearts,” Father Williams said. “He was just preaching the cross.”

Another person, recounting the story to the Register, said the man pointed to Father Williams as a good priest, gave him a bear hug, and kept telling him that he was loved over and over again.

The man asked the priest to speak again, because he said the Holy Spirit wanted him to sing a song. It was Bless the Lord, O My Soul, known also as 10,000 Reasons.

The priest said, “His Gospel voice filled the whole church. He returned to his seat, and there was barely a dry eye.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.