Written by Rick Rojas
When the Archdiocese of Hartford released a list this year identifying 48 priests accused of sexual abuse, five of them had served at the same church: St. George’s, in the small coastal town of Guilford. One had been a pastor there for more than a decade, baptizing children and hearing confessions.
Some in the large congregation were deeply hurt. Some fumed, saying they held onto Catholic teachings, but saw their faith in the men leading the church disintegrating amid a cascade of allegations.
And so the Most Rev. Leonard P. Blair, the archbishop of Hartford, responded to the crisis with an extraordinary gesture: He held a special Mass of Reparations. He said that he came before the congregation “on my knees as a bishop” in search of forgiveness.
“I ask forgiveness of God, of the wider community and our own Catholic community,” Blair said, standing before the packed church in flowing vestments and the red-rose skull cap worn by bishops. “I ask it especially of all the victims of sexual abuse and their families. I ask it for all the church leadership has done or failed to do.”
Bishops across the country are reeling over accusations that they are implicated in a decadeslong cover-up to protect priests who had sexually abused children. They are on a campaign of apologizing, often in personal terms, as the Catholic Church wrestles with the fallout of a scandal that has drawn the scrutiny of law enforcement officials and stirred a crisis of confidence among followers.
Some, like Blair, have held somber reparations Masses or led worshippers in special rosary prayers. They have offered conciliatory messages in homilies and in letters, like the one from Cardinal Joseph Tobin, archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, who expressed his “genuine sorrow and regret to the victims who put their trust in a member of the church only to have that trust so profoundly betrayed.”
And last month, Pope Francis decried an “evil that strikes at the very heart of our mission,” as he gathered bishops at the Vatican for a landmark gathering on sexual abuse.
It is a recognition of how the scandal engulfing the church has evolved and spread. “It’s not a clergy abuse scandal anymore,” said David Gibson, director for the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. “It’s a bishop accountability scandal now.”
The scandal mushroomed after the Pennsylvania attorney general released a lacerating grand jury report last summer, detailing not just seven decades of allegations — but also the efforts of church leaders to discourage victims from reporting abuse and steer authorities away from investigating it. It was followed by more state and federal law enforcement officials announcing their own investigations into the church’s handling of the problem.
There have been protests, and some have questioned their relationship with the church and decided to leave.
Still, some argue that the fallout of the scandal is not necessarily measurable in emptier pews or fewer envelopes left on the collection plate, but instead in the difficult-to-quantify yet palpable angst of the Catholics who have kept coming to Mass.
Some have stayed in the church with the hope of driving change from inside. Others have found that, even with their frustration with church leaders, pulling away from Catholicism was difficult, as their parish is their sanctuary and Mass an essential part of their routine. Some said they were weighing the scandal against the ways in which they see the church, through its charitable and social justice efforts, as a positive force.
“It’s a way of life, a way of being, a way of looking at the world,” Gibson said. “It’s very difficult to give that up.”
Here in Guilford, a community of around 20,000 people just two hours from New York City, four of the five clergy members accused who served at St. George’s are dead; one was removed from ministry in 2010 and defrocked last year.
Last year, Blair said he would release the names of priests accused of abuse going back to 1953, when the archdiocese was formed. Most of the alleged abuse took place in the 1970s and 1980s, well before Blair’s arrival in 2013. The archbishop during that period, the Most Rev. John F. Whealon, died in 1991. (Blair spent his early career as a parish priest in the Detroit archdiocese and was bishop in Toledo, Ohio, before going to Hartford.)
Carol Serfilippi, a longtime congregant at St. George’s, saw a name she recognized on the list of abusers. “He had two faces,” she said, noting the reputation he had built with his charity work and his peace and justice ministry. “In the meantime, he was Satan himself.”
Serfilippi stopped worshipping at St. George’s for a while after abuse allegations emerged, choosing to attend Mass at a monastery on the outskirts of Guilford. She pointed to the sacraments as a main reason she has stayed a Catholic. “The reason we’re here is because of the Eucharist, the body of Christ, which is all important to us,” she said, referring to the Catholic belief that, through prayer, unleavened bread is transformed into an actual embodiment of Jesus Christ.
“You can get the Gospel at other Christian churches,” she said. “You can’t get the Eucharist, not the true presence of Christ.”
Still, the confidence in bishops and other church leaders has been severely undermined. A Gallup poll of American Catholics released in January found that the number of people who would rate the honesty and ethical standards of church leaders as very high or high is currently at a record low.
There have been various efforts — some subtle, others less so — showing how the church is pushing to restore its relationship with its followers, in addition to publishing the names of priests who had been credibly accused of abuse as a step toward transparency and accountability.
At a regular Sunday Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, a priest led worshippers in reciting a prayer for victims of abuse. (“Hear our cries as we agonize over the harm done to our brothers and sisters.”)
Catholic TV, a network dedicated to church-related programming, broadcast a 12-hour service described as “just a tiny offering” of prayer and penance, part of a monthslong effort called “Together We Rebuild.”
It is unclear if the message is resonating, and some have expressed doubt about whether it will evolve into substantial change. For instance, many victims groups and advocates were underwhelmed by the Vatican meeting in which church leaders pointedly condemned the plague of sexual abuse but did not outline immediate and concrete steps to remedy the problem.
“People are hurting, and they’re looking to their leaders for healing,” said Nick Ingala, communications director for Voice of the Faithful, an organization of lay Catholics that was started in response to the sex abuse scandal. “But the apologies will only go so far. Where is the responsibility? The accountability? You can’t say ‘I’m sorry’ over and over and over again.”
At St. George’s reparations mass, some parishioners said they came hungry for answers. Patricia Gniazdowski said she recognized the need for healing, but her faith in the church had not been shaken.
“I feel a few bad apples can’t spoil the whole crop,” she said, referring to abusers in the priesthood. “You’re not going to stop me from believing, from going to church.” She said she had been comforted by the archbishop’s words.
In his homily, Blair described himself in humble terms, as a messenger and a man capable of failure. At one point in the Mass, the archbishop prostrated himself, his face and hands touching the carpet in front of the altar.
“I offer this heartfelt apology,” he said, “not so much as the head of an institution but as a spiritual father of a family, the wounded family of faith that is the Archdiocese of Hartford.”
The Mass was spare and solemn, with music but no choir. And the intercessions, a part of the Mass where a layperson stands at the altar and reads through a list of prayer intentions, reflected the gravity of the crisis in the church and the depth of the pain behind it.
“For those clergy and church personnel who betrayed their sacred ministry through the abuse of those entrusted to them, that they accept responsibility for their actions, make reparation and experience the restorative depths of God’s purifying mercy, we pray to the Lord.”
“Lord, hear our prayer,” the congregation replied in unison.
“For renewal of our church, that we might earnestly seek God’s way through the insights of clergy and laity, may a culture of holiness and integrity fill every desire for power, we pray to the Lord.”
“Lord, hear our prayer.”