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Mary McGrory

Shadows On the Church

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, March 31, 2002; Page B07

No one who knows Blessed Sacrament parish at Chevy Chase Circle is at all surprised that it has provided a much-needed moment of truth in the crisis of the church's appalling sex scandal. On Palm Sunday, from the altar, associate pastor Father Percival D'Silva called for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who covered up for pedophiles infesting his diocese and paid large sums of money to purchase the silence of victims.

"He should have the common sense and even the guts to say, 'I resign,' " Father D'Silva said in his homily -- thus becoming the first priest to say publicly what millions are thinking. The congregation literally rose to the occasion: It gave him a standing ovation.

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The Vatican could learn from Blessed Sacrament and its tradition of humanity and openness. Father D'Silva and the people in the pews are not confused about the victims, as are so many of the hierarchy, beginning with the holy father. In a wholly inadequate nine-page letter to the clergy, Pope John Paul II made glancing reference to the horrendous scandal that has plunged the church into murk and slime. He extended his compassion to the good priests who suffer in the "shadow" of the revelations. A shadow is painful, but hardly comparable to the lifetime blight on the young victims of predatory priests.

The holy father washed his hands of the whole affair, which consumes believers everywhere. He contented himself with a casual show of concern. As stories surface with sickening details of predatory priests seducing their young charges with pornography and pizza, the Vatican seems to try to write it off as a bad night on a camping trip or an aberration of the American church.

The "concern" that John Paul II claims is mainly expressed in large checks given to the real victims, who reneged on their pledge of silence to the hierarchy when some of the most egregious offenders were rewarded with promotions to posts where they had equal or more access to altar boys.

At Blessed Sacrament, they can sort out victims better. I learned about their skill when I stayed for a while with one of the ornaments of the parish -- alas, now gone -- a widow of small stature and great heart named Gertrude Cleary. When she was not playing bridge, she was engaged in good works: visiting the sick, comforting the dying, making vast casseroles for soup kitchens. I heard about the men of the parish, who gave practical help to those homeless who wandered that far uptown and who helped refugees from our lamentable Central American policies fill out papers and find work.

Gertrude and the others took their lead from their pastor, Monsignor Tom Duffy, who is kindness itself. His model seems to be an early Christian community, following the admonition of St. Peter: "Bear ye one another's burdens." Monsignor Duffy is not one of those autocratic, bellowing prelates who rules with fear and the expectation of total deference. The relationship between pulpit and pews is one of partnership, an alien concept to the Vatican.

In such a strong social justice context, it was perhaps to be expected that Father D'Silva would speak out and get a fervent reception from the congregation.

The crisis is not just moral, it's fiscal. Millions of dollars have been paid out, and millions more will be needed. The most demanding cleric might find it daunting to try to persuade working people to dip into their children's college money or their own retirement nest eggs to pay hush money for the benefit of corrupt clergy.

Many Catholics remember the demands about sexual conduct that were made on them. The only recourse offered married couples who wished to avoid pregnancy was the unreliable rhythm method, which meant sex by the calendar. The contrast with the permissive treatment of ordained priests who were slaughtering the innocence of young people who had been brought up to revere them increases outrage.

The hierarchy either can't or won't understand this rage of the meek. The National Catholic Reporter, an independent newspaper that bravely tackles forbidden subjects, first published the terrible tidings about priests' sexual misconduct that were cropping up around the country 17 years ago. Editor Tom Fox, who is now the paper's publisher, was called by a pious reader "a journalistic Judas." He says nothing has changed. The hierarchy still doesn't want to know. It shows no signs of investigating underlying causes -- priestly celibacy, the shortage of vocations. It brushes off queries about what it regards as two impossible outcomes: married priests or woman priests.

Leadership is needed. A devout friend of mine suggests the Vatican sell off treasures to pay the staggering costs of this evil -- so people will know the pope regards what happened not as a passing ecclesiastical problem but as an abomination. I say the pope should pay victims' way to Rome, and in St. Peter's Square he should apologize to them in the name of God.

Blessed Sacrament can't do it all.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company