As the Roman Catholic Church clergy sex abuse scandal continues to generate news, the concerns of clergy and parishioners are far from being resolved.
Like Catholics nationwide, lakes area Catholics are struggling to deal with the abuse as it relates to them, asking whether it changes their relationship with their priest or possibly even their faith.
"Our leadership has let us down and hasn't dealt with the problem as properly and as effectively as they should have," said Father Seamus Walsh, pastor at St. Francis, St. Andrew's and St. Mathias Catholic churches. Walsh has served in the Diocese of Duluth, which includes area Catholic churches, since he was ordained 37 years ago.
"It's not something we like to talk about, but it needs to be addressed," he said.
'It's not something we like to talk about, but it needs to be addressed.'
Walsh said clergy and laypeople alike are working locally to discuss the issue out in the open. There are approximately 5,000 Catholics in those three Brainerd area Catholic churches.
"It's a family secret that needs to be brought out in the open ... and as it is not healthy to have secrets in the individual family, neither is it healthy to keep family secrets in the larger one, in the church family," Walsh said.
He has discussed the issue in his sermons, as well as in his writing and private discussions with parishioners, he said.
Walsh said the church abuse scandal has surprised him in its scale, but he feels it is the result of particular dioceses not adopting rules and guidelines set forth by the U.S. Council of Bishops in the 1980s.
"Going back to 1989, that was a pivotal year. That was when the dioceses of the United States saw the problem and said, 'We've got to do something about this,' and came up with a mechanism to do it," said Walsh, noting there were a few dioceses that chose not to adopt the new policies, including, in particular, Boston.
"That caught a lot of the people in the net who needed to be caught at that time. And so I'm sure 99 percent of the perpetrators were caught between 1989 and in the next few years after that, except in Boston and a few other dioceses," Walsh said.
The Diocese of Duluth, said Walsh, had developed its own guidelines before the meeting of the Catholic bishops in 1989, and had adopted mechanisms for dealing with cases of sexual abuse by clergy. Because of this, said Walsh, there have been few, if any, cases in the diocese. Walsh said he remembered one case in 1995, but that was the last he can recall. In that case, the priest was not allowed back into parish life.
Before the 1989 guidelines were set forth at the national conference, Walsh said churches and dioceses were aware of the problem, and tried to deal with each case, but at the time they were working with the best advice available to them.
"Even in the Diocese of Duluth, we used the best advice that was given at the time," said Walsh, a native of Ireland who decided to serve in Minnesota like his uncle did.
That advice included allowing the offender to go through counseling, to be rehabilitated, and in some cases to return to parish life. The advice has since changed -- offenders are pulled out of parish life immediately and never allowed to return to a leadership role again.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 put together the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which lays out the guidelines for how the church should respond to allegations, what precautions should be taken and how to help victims and their families.
"Already the procedures are very effective," said Walsh, because all the cases being discovered and publicized in the media happened more than 10 or 20 years ago.
Walsh said it is important to note that very few of the cases have taken place in the last five or 10 years. For those dioceses that have implemented the church guidelines, old cases are being dealt with and new cases are being prevented, said Walsh.
The Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul has a national role in the scandal, with Archbishop Harry Flynn a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Sexual Abuse.
Flynn came to Minneapolis from Lafayette, La., where he dealt with a case of a priest who had molested close to 30 young people. His experience with such situations has allowed him to lead Minnesota churches in making informed decisions and guidelines for abuse, said Walsh.
Though the Duluth diocese has had no allegations in recent years, there have been abuse allegations in the St. Cloud area. The Brainerd area has not seen any cases, but that does not exclude it from concern. Walsh said his parishioners, and those at other area churches, have been talking and asking questions.
Near St. Cloud, St. John's Abbey in Collegeville has handled allegations of abuse by clergy. The abbey and St. John's University held community meetings for parishioners last year to address concerns. Nothing like that has been done in Brainerd, but the priests in the area have met to discuss the issue. The solution is action, said Walsh, for the church as a whole to regain trust and credibility.
"We have a good system in place right now, let's implement it, in the letter and in the Spirit," said Walsh. "The maxim in law says that justice must not merely be done, it must be seen to be done."
Additionally, whereas in the past cases and solutions were handled by clergy, Walsh said that is no longer acceptable.
"Our laity are highly talented, very well educated, and they know far more about lots of things than we priests do. Why then do we need to be afraid?" said Walsh.
Having laity as consultants on various issues, allowing them to have a say in the decision-making process, will help restore trust in the church, he said.
For Walsh, the allegations have made him more aware of his interactions with parishioners.
"I'm certainly far more conscious of all the stories ... and I make sure my conduct is above reproach," said Walsh.
But he also said the support of parishioners has been encouraging to him and to the other priests in the area. There has been no decrease in church attendance, and parishioners have remained loyal. "One interesting thing, the man or woman in the pew judges the Catholic church from their own parish," said Walsh.
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