Pittsburgh Priest: Catholics Angered by Abuse Reports Deserve a Hearing

Father Nicholas Vaskov, executive director of communications for the Pittsburgh Diocese, shared current feelings of faithful in the pew.

(photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

PITTSBURGH — Catholics who are demoralized, angered or scandalized by revelations about sex abuse must feel free to talk to clergy and other Catholics, and other Catholics must reach out to them, a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh has said.

“I would invite those who are wavering to be open about their concerns — their anger, their frustration, their questions — so that someone can respond to them,” Father Nicholas Vaskov, executive director of communications for the Pittsburgh Diocese, told CNA.

“I would also encourage them to stay close to God in prayer so that he can hear their calls to him and respond with his compassion and love.”

Father Vaskov, who is also administrator St. Mary of Mercy parish in downtown Pittsburgh, reflected on the tendency of some people scandalized by abuse allegations to stop going to Mass. He encouraged Catholic clergy and laity to “be patient with those who are scandalized by the reports.”

“Listen attentively as they share what is on their heart,” he said. “I would also suggest that clergy and laity reach out to those who they know are particularly troubled by what they have learned. Thoughtful conversation can be such an effective way to process what is troubling us.”

On Aug. 14, a Pennsylvania grand jury released its report claiming to have identified more than 1,000 victims of 300 credibly accused priests from 1947 to 2017 across six Pennsylvania dioceses. It presented a portrait of efforts by Church authorities to ignore, obscure or cover up allegations, either to protect accused priests or to spare the Church scandal.

Approximately two-thirds of the accused priests have died. Due to laws regarding the statute of limitations, nearly every abuse allegation cannot be criminally prosecuted, although two indictments have been filed. One priest named in the report was convicted of sexually assaulting a student in the early 1990s.

Before the report’s release, Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh confirmed that some of the priests named in the Pennsylvania grand jury report into sexual abuse remain in active ministry, but he stressed that none faced substantiated allegations of child sexual abuse.

Responding to the report, Bishop Zubik emphasized that “the Diocese of Pittsburgh today is not the Church that is described in the grand jury report,” and “it has not been for a long time.” Data from the diocese showed that more than 90% of abuse incidents took place before 1990.

The bishop apologized to victims of clergy sex abuse and to “any person or family whose trust, faith and well-being has been devastated by men who were ordained to be the image of Christ.”

The Catholic response is ongoing. The grand jury report could affect the future of Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, a previous bishop of Pittsburgh. Cardinal Wuerl is already a center of controversy, as critics ask what he knew of allegations of sex abuse and sexual exploitation against his predecessor, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick.

On Aug. 20 National Public Radio and its member stations had sought comment from listeners, asking, “Have you stopped going to Mass as often, left your church or left the Catholic faith entirely because of these revelations or ones that were previously reported?”

Pittsburgh-area couple Andy and Courey Leer were among those who had responded to NPR about their reaction.

“So it goes beyond just the priests and their superiors,” Courey, 31, told NPR. “It leads me to question entire Catholic communities. Who knew what? And not only why didn’t they expose them, but, how long have people been turning the other way?”

Courey attended part of Mass with her 2-year-old daughter after the report was released, but they didn’t stay.

“I think a part of me was thinking, ‘I’m going to go to Mass, and I’m going to get an okay to leave and not come back,’” she said. “And, of course, that’s not going to happen. Part of me just wanted someone to say, ‘We really messed up; it’s all on us. And you guys use your own moral discretion to decide what’s best because we have no moral authority.’”

According to NPR, she said the priest acknowledged the report and “offered little more than prayers.” She stood up with her daughter and left after the homily.

“And I’m thinking, ‘Is this our last Mass?’ And it’s hard. I can’t fathom when she’s 8 years old saying, ‘No, we don’t go to church. Sorry — you can’t receive Communion, even though your mom and dad did, your grandparents did; you don’t get to do that.’”

The Leers told NPR that they will miss the sacraments, community dinners and the music ministry. They said they want to see Church leaders push for more investigations into sex abuse in dioceses around the country.

“They don’t need to be worried about our spirituality right now,” said Andy, 32. “They need to be worried about dealing with the corruption and dealing with the priests that are out there that need to answer for what they’ve done and the people that have potentially covered up and withheld information.”

Andy was a teenager when decades-old claims against his priest, Father Joseph Pease, surfaced. He thought the “bad apple” had been removed. He later watched the movie Spotlight, about sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston, but he said the issue “doesn’t really hit until it’s in your backyard.”

The Leers said they don’t know what it will take for them to go back to church.

Father Vaskov cited his experiences with churchgoers who went to Mass in the wake of the latest news. He thought there was an upturn in attendance for the Aug. 15 feast of the Assumption, a holy day of obligation that came a day after the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report.

He also reflected on what churchgoers told him, such as one woman at Mass last Sunday.

“She said that while it was difficult for her to go, she knew that she couldn’t be anywhere else because it is only in the Eucharist that we can be renewed,” the priest said. “Another conversation with a recent convert to the Catholic faith revealed the depth of his love for Christ and his Church and his desire to stay close to the sacraments when he felt his frustration was getting the better of him.”

Father Vaskov said that in response to the abuse scandals, many parishes had organized Holy Hours, days of Eucharistic adoration, discussion groups and listening sessions. He said he has had “beautiful moments” praying with people for “strength in their lives and in the lives of those who have been harmed by abuse.”

“I have also had some very fruitful conversations with parishioners, friends and strangers over the past weeks because they were willing to open up about their concerns,” the priest said. “That doesn’t mean that every issue is resolved or every suffering is healed, but it is the beginning of an important discussion that needs to happen.”

Participation in Mass on Sundays is “at the heart of the Church’s life,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, and “participation … in the Sunday Eucharist is a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church.”

By attending Sunday Mass, the faithful together “testify to God’s holiness and their hope of salvation. They strengthen one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” according to the Catechism.

Participation in the sacrifice of the Mass is the means by which “we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life” and render worship to God.

The Catechism adds that “the institution of the Lord’s Day helps everyone enjoy adequate rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social and religious lives.”

Father Larry Adams, a priest at St. Ursula’s Church in the Pittsburgh Diocese, told NPR that he understands the frustration of his fellow Catholics, but the struggle to confront abuse is why he became a priest.

“To a certain extent, I’m kind of a ‘Spotlight’ priest — the movie Spotlight,” he said. “When this broke, (it) was kind of the time when I was discerning what my vocation would be. And in a certain way, what has formed me is the desire to be part of this Church and be part of the solution.”