The National Catholic Review
Camille DArienzo

St. Pancras Church in Glendale, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens, is directly across the street from where I live. I have given up counting the number of services since Sept. 11 that ended with the wail of bagpipes. They signal sorrow, a reminder of senseless destruction and irretrievable losses. Police and firefighters, workers and visitors to the World Trade Center, so many have been memorialized in my parish church. Others tell a similar story: priests have been on the front lines, offering comfort and hope.

 

Some of these priests, recent bearers of consolation and support, have now vanished from our midst. They have been named sex offenders, led away in disgrace, suspended from the priesthood. The echo of bagpipes mingles in my mind with cries of rage and grief. There is throughout our land a lamentation for the victims, children and teenagers especially, who suffered a loss of innocence and physical abuse, and for their families, whose trust was betrayed. A moral and legal drumbeat insists that the victims be helped, their safety insured, that predators be punished.

The hard question, the unpopular question, for those of us who cherish our young people has been this: what constitutes appropriate punishment in terms of severity and duration? Should a church whose crucified founder insisted on forgiveness forego extending it to anyone?

Brooklyn’s Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Sullivan was surely a minority voice at the long-awaited U.S. Bishops’ Conference in Dallas in June. His reasoned plea to remember the importance of forgiveness in our Christian creed was carried by NBC’s Nightly News. The bishops’ overwhelming vote to enforce “zero tolerance” was evidence of the majority’s inability to nuance their punitive action.

The painful pleas of victims of sexual abuse and their calls for absolute exclusion of fallen priests must have weighed heavily on the bishops, especially in the presence of the media and pollsters reflecting popular opinion. Bishop Sullivan, a social worker and pastoral presence throughout the nationwide network of Catholic Charities, did not stand a chance against the others. Still, he spoke his mind, saying that while he approved the charter to protect children, he felt it fell short of offering mercy and compassion to some fallen priests. He noted that the bishops were more lenient with their own harmful behavior, as they transferred errant priests from parish to parish to the detriment of young parishioners.

History will honor Bishop Sullivan’s wisdom, while the consequences of the one-size-fits-all punishment will needlessly deprive the church of both the evidence of sanctity—repentance in a repentant priest—and the unique quality of mercy passed on by those who have themselves experienced it. The late Rev. Henri Nouwen would describe them as “wounded healers.”

While repetitive and remorseless sex offenders have no place in the priesthood, there are cases of one-time offenders who belong there, as surely as God lets his sun rise on the just and unjust. One priest, called to his bishop’s office on a weekday afternoon, was suspended immediately from his ministry as chaplain in an all-girls high school. The nearly 20 years that he spent there have been unblemished by any suspicion of indiscretion. Always present to the students, faculty and staff, he has been loved and trusted—with just cause. The principal, alluding to the impact of the tragedy of Sept. 11 and the plane crash in Belle Harbor two months later, described the chaplain as “the glue that held us all together.”

No one knows what led to his suspension. Let us suppose that at some earlier time, perhaps a quarter century ago, he was found guilty of fleeting, inappropriate sexual conduct (exclusive of pedophilia, which requires its own response). Let us imagine, furthermore, that he had accepted censure and treatment and, most important, had experienced remorse sufficiently profound and durable to foreclose any recurrence of that behavior. If this is true, what else should be demanded of him? Does the goodness, the generous self-sacrifice of the intervening years count for nothing? Are we willing to judge another human being by the worst thing he has done, as if it were the only thing he has done? How would any one of us fare were someone to broadcast the worst thing we’ve done, as if it were the solitary expression of our life on this earth? What will this suspended priest do with the rest of his life—perhaps the 30 or 40 years that await him? What will the church do without him? Is this to be his death sentence? Will no one demand a moratorium for those who have paid for their crimes and for those who, though accused, are innocent?

We grieve for the victims of sexual abuse, for their parents, for the faith community and for innocent priests tainted by the sins of their brothers. We grieve, too, for the re-opening of cases closed long ago. This public scrutiny reopens wounds, a process that may help some and further damage others who were victimized long ago. A church struggling to reclaim credibility will have to remind victims that they, too, need to extend forgiveness. Studies of families of murder victims offer evidence of the poison that spreads when, after a time of help and healing, forgiveness is withheld.

As members of a church founded on forgiveness and certified by its belief in redemption, we regret the withdrawal of the forgiveness granted to those one-time prodigals who have lived repentant, productive priestly lives of service and salvation. The cries for renewed disgrace and punishment signal sorrow, a reminder of senseless destruction and irretrievable losses. They recall the echo of bagpipes, but this time they wail for the living.

Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M., is a past president of the Brooklyn Sisters of Mercy.

Comments

Rosemary Esterkamp, G.H.M.S. | 1/29/2007 - 10:21am
The article by Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M., “An Echo of Bagpipes,” (7/29) is a condensed, excellent description of what I and, I am sure, others, have felt about the whole sad affair of sexual abuse by clergy and other church personnel.

Thank you for publishing it.

Sally Butler, O.P. | 1/29/2007 - 10:06am
We look at things differently, Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M. (7/29) and I. After nine years of talking with victims of priest pedophiles, I am appalled at her insistence on forgiveness for one-time offenders when, in almost every case, the molester doesn’t apologize or even acknowledge wrongdoing. He has used the collar and the title “Father” to gain entry to a child’s world. The results are devastating. Even one encounter with a priest predator leaves a child shattered, the spirit destroyed.

When a murder is finally solved years after the crime, isn’t it expected that the criminal be brought to justice? Would we shrug it off as something no longer important? The crime a priest commits against a child deserves the same attention.

And Camille reflects the naive assumption of many Catholics that there was, indeed, just one crime. In reality, very few pedophiles stop after one offense. It is much more likely that the “once” is the time he was caught.

Many of us are looking to the good priests, supported by their congregations, to stop dwelling on their present unenviable position and start establishing centers to help victims of priest pedophiles. With nine centers funded for the care of priest pedophiles, it is time to even things out.

Lucy Fuchs | 1/29/2007 - 10:04am
Just when I thought I had heard all I wanted to hear about the sex scandals of the church, your July 29 issue brought new insights. I was impressed with “Cultures, Codes and Publics,” by Chester Gillis; “Collateral Damage,” by the Rev. J. Ronald Knott; as well as “An Echo of Bagpipes” by Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M.

When I was a child, we talked of the Church Militant (the church on earth), the Church Suffering (the church in purgatory) and the Church Triumphant (the church in heaven). Perhaps for too long our church has been both too militant and too triumphant here on earth. Now we are clearly the church suffering. We are all sinners and all wounded people. What we need now is more humility as well as more forgiveness. We need to forgive all those who have offended others, including the abusing priests. We need to forgive all those church leaders who turned the other way. We need to forgive ourselves too. And we all need to try to make amends. Perhaps eventually we could be the Church Forgiving. Jesus was neither militant nor triumphant here on earth, but he was certainly suffering and forgiving.

(Deacon) Don Zirkel | 1/29/2007 - 10:14am
In the midst of what may be this millennium’s most underreported story—the decimation of the diocesan press—the role of Catholic magazines becomes even more important. Fortunately, they are up to the task. Sadly, many periodicals controlled by bishops are not permitted to do their share of the work.

When I was editor of The Brooklyn Tablet (1968-85), we believed that when the Catholic press doesn’t talk about what the Catholic people are talking about, it becomes irrelevant. Why contribute to a bishop’s appeal to support a journal that is presented under false pretenses as a “newspaper” in the common understanding of the word?

Readers are comfortable with a periodical that challenges them, if sometimes it also courageously speaks for them. America has powerfully articulated the concern that the bishops are not being held responsible. I am envious of the gentleness with which Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M., (“An Echo of Bagpipes,” 7/29) and Valerie Schultz (“God in the Tangled Sheets,” 7/1) disagree with official statements.

Sister Camille’s question about zero tolerance (“100 percent intolerance”?) echoes in my soul: “Does the goodness, the generous self-sacrifice of the intervening years count for nothing?” Ms. Schultz discusses the confusing canonization of a celibate couple as a model for Christian marriage. Perhaps they were forgiven for the indiscretions that produced four children, if they and the kids promised to avoid them in the future.

The Second Vatican Council said laypeople have the right and sometimes the duty to speak up. The late Bishop Francis Mugavero of Brooklyn recommended the letters column of The Tablet as one appropriate way to do that. I am pleased to note that policy continues in Brooklyn, although not in neighboring dioceses. Amid the calls for more openness, more transparency, more trust, more listening, more dialogue and more accountability, we have more expunction and more censorship, more hugger-muggery and more Fifth Amendment silence. As the columnist Westbrook Pegler said, “No one ever proved he was innocent by changing the subject.”

Edda H. Hackl, M.D. | 1/29/2007 - 10:12am
After reading the strong letter by Thomas R. Jackson, M.D., (7/15) and the thoughtful contribution by Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M. (“An Echo of Bagpipes,” 7/29), I feel reassured that I am not alone in questioning the wisdom of the “zero tolerance” policy. By giving up the ability to decide in individual cases, the bishops have straightjacketed themselves into making decisions that appear to defy justice, mercy and even common sense. One medicine does not cure all ills, and one policy does not fit all cases. Lawyers see crime, theologians sin and physicians sickness in the perpetrators of sexual abuse. In reality, there is a complex mix of these elements in varying proportions. Furthermore, the implications and consequences of the accepted policy have not been thought through, or at least not adequately explained. The assumption that the protection of children is assured may be erroneous. Are we only concerned about the children in our schools and parishes? By laicizing priests, they are released into the community at large, and are no longer in a formal relationship with their bishops. Who will make sure of their ongoing treatment, supervision and needed care? Our prison system is not known for its intensive rehabilitation services, nor can we rely on overworked parole officers. These ousted men may find themselves in stressful situations that predispose them to fall back into abusive behavior.

Finally, demonizing fallen priests and revenge will not bring healing to the victims nor prevent further abuse.

Marie Farrant, S.S.J.<BR>Marjorie Sweeney, S.S.J. | 1/29/2007 - 9:58am
Hurray for Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M., (“An Echo of Bagpipes” 7/29). She has done many of us a great service by putting into words our feelings and beliefs. After a lifetime of being taught that all sins can be forgiven, we are finding this is not practiced by the people who wrote the declaration in Dallas. It would have been more in keeping with the teaching of Jesus if they had listened to Bishop Sullivan. The “one-time prodigals who have lived repentant, productive priestly lives of service and salvation” deserve the chance to serve again the people who need them. We continue to hope that the Lord who promised to be with us always will inspire those who care, so justice and mercy will prevail.

Mary Twomey | 1/29/2007 - 11:06am
I would like to set the record straight about the priest referred to in the column by Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M., “An Echo of Bagpipes” (7/29). I am the mother of one of the many young men who were abused by this priest while they were altar boys under his care and supervision. He was not a one-time offender, as was implied in the article. This priest was knowingly moved by the then bishop of Brooklyn from parish to parish and allowed to continue his abuse. It is criminal what many of our bishops have done to many of our children. These young men are now in their early 30’s, and their experience still causes extreme pain.

(Rev.) Bill Lugger | 1/29/2007 - 9:59am
“An Echo of Bagpipes,” by Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M., (7/29) reminded me of my former pastor, who nurtured me and prayed with me all through my seminary years. He was/is seen as a very loving and good priest, but an act of indiscretion many years ago changed all that in an instant. I preached for his 25th anniversary and told people how he built the kingdom in his 25 years as a priest. He then continued to “build” for many years after that. While I am glad that the church is getting rid of the “bad weeds” (Gospel for Sunday, July 21), I do not condone any acts that threaten our children. Our society, sadly, is not yet ready to forgive—anything, it seems. When we forgive we do not say, “That’s O.K., just don’t do it again.” When we forgive, we return dignity to that person and allow him or her to make restitution and continue on with life. Why won’t we allow my former pastor to do this? I pray for those men who have “lost all.” I pray for forgiveness, compassion and the return to them of their dignity.

Stephen Q. Giblin | 1/29/2007 - 9:47am
While a lot of the writing about the current scandal makes reference to the church’s call for forgiveness, nothing that I have read comes close to Sr. Camille D’Arienzo’s reminder (“An Echo of Bagpipes,” 7/29) that there are other victims of the crisis. Her call to acknowledge God’s grace at work in the lives of fallen priests is one well worth heeding. I fear that the bishops’ adoption of a “zero tolerance” policy not only is an overreaction in the cases of many priests who have repented long-ago transgressions, but also deprives the church of valuable ministers and witnesses to God’s redemptive power. While we most assuredly must provide support and understanding to the victims of sexual abuse and should pray for their healing, we also should pray that God bless them and us with the grace to forgive those who have trespassed against the victims and the church.

Stephen Trani | 7/30/2002 - 11:15am
I agree with Sister D'Arienza about much of her article: forgiveness is the answer. Pope John Paul II has said clearly that there can be no peace without justice and there can be no justice without forgiveness. Where we part company is on the question of justice. What is just punishment (balancing love, power, and justice) for a man who betrayed a sacred trust among the community, family, child (or teenager) and himself through sexual assault, molestation, and/or rape, even if only once? I am not sure that good works and behavior, even exemplary, meet the needs of justice. In addition, with due respect, we live in this world, not only in the spiritual world. This world has its only standards of justice. That is why a 60's radical who killed a cop thirty years ago, and lived a good life since, got jail time. That is the reason that men who had the most superficial connection with the Holocaust, and lived exemplary lives, are deported.
Stephen Q. Giblin | 7/26/2002 - 5:34pm
While a lot of the writing about the current scandal makes reference to the Church's call for foregiveness, none that I have read comes close to Sr. Camille D'Arienzo's reminder that there are other victims of the crisis. Her call to acknowledge God's grace at work in the lives of fallen priests is one well worth heeding. I fear that the bishops' adoption of a "zero tolerance" policy not only is an overreaction in the cases of many priests who have repented long-ago transgressions, but also deprives the Church of valuable ministers and witnesses to God's redemptive power. While we most assuredly must provide support and understanding to the victims of sexual abuse and should pray for their healing, we also should pray that God bless them and us with the grace to forgive those who have trespassed against the victims and the Church.

Stephen Trani | 7/30/2002 - 11:15am
I agree with Sister D'Arienza about much of her article: forgiveness is the answer. Pope John Paul II has said clearly that there can be no peace without justice and there can be no justice without forgiveness. Where we part company is on the question of justice. What is just punishment (balancing love, power, and justice) for a man who betrayed a sacred trust among the community, family, child (or teenager) and himself through sexual assault, molestation, and/or rape, even if only once? I am not sure that good works and behavior, even exemplary, meet the needs of justice. In addition, with due respect, we live in this world, not only in the spiritual world. This world has its only standards of justice. That is why a 60's radical who killed a cop thirty years ago, and lived a good life since, got jail time. That is the reason that men who had the most superficial connection with the Holocaust, and lived exemplary lives, are deported.
Stephen Q. Giblin | 7/26/2002 - 5:34pm
While a lot of the writing about the current scandal makes reference to the Church's call for foregiveness, none that I have read comes close to Sr. Camille D'Arienzo's reminder that there are other victims of the crisis. Her call to acknowledge God's grace at work in the lives of fallen priests is one well worth heeding. I fear that the bishops' adoption of a "zero tolerance" policy not only is an overreaction in the cases of many priests who have repented long-ago transgressions, but also deprives the Church of valuable ministers and witnesses to God's redemptive power. While we most assuredly must provide support and understanding to the victims of sexual abuse and should pray for their healing, we also should pray that God bless them and us with the grace to forgive those who have trespassed against the victims and the Church.

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