As Easter nears, priests struggle with how, whether to address church scandals

Roman Catholics say they are disappointed in the sex abuse scandal that has hit the church but they add that so far it has not shaken their faith.
By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010

For days, Monsignor John Enzler has tried to find the right words.

He has sat in his study, deep within the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Northwest Washington, with scripture in hand and the latest news on his mind, trying to figure out what, if anything, he will say to his parish about the clergy sex-abuse scandal sweeping across Europe.

It is a question playing out in parishes across the country as millions of Catholics head to church to celebrate Good Friday and Easter, the holiest days in the Christian calendar. But this year's observances will be held in the shadow of one of the darkest church scandals in modern history.

As a parish priest, the church figure closest to everyday Catholics, do you avoid the subject altogether? Do you slip it into the Good Friday bulletin? Or meet it head-on with an Easter sermon?

"The thing is, this is not exactly what people expect on Easter," sighed Enzler, whose high-profile congregants include "Hardball" host Chris Matthews and conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan. "They come dressed in their Easter finery, having gone through the Lenten season, excited about the coming joy. To hear this kind of a message would be pretty rough."

To not address it, however, could alienate those on the fence -- those with doubts, who want answers, honesty and transparency from the church. To say nothing, Enzler worried, leaves the question hanging in the air, an opening to be filled by critics and negative stories in the media.

For weeks, the Catholic Church was largely silent as the furor over cases involving thousands of children in Ireland, Germany and other parts of Europe grew and led to questions about Pope Benedict XVI's handling of such abuses during his time as a high-ranking cardinal.

Now the church is mounting a massive public relations offensive against such allegations and against the continuing barrage of media reports and investigations. This week, high-ranking officials -- including the pope's successor as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a church official who was involved in a case against a Milwaukee priest accused of molesting 200 deaf children -- have gone on the attack, challenging news reports as inaccurate and portraying them as a smear campaign against the Holy See.

The pope, New York Archbishop Tim Dolan said during a Palm Sunday homily, was "suffering some of the same unjust accusations, shouts of the mob and scourging at the pillar as did Jesus."

On Tuesday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a letter backing the pope, emphasizing his support for victims and reforms after sex-abuse scandals erupted in American dioceses. And Thursday night, Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl included a similar message in his homily.

But not all Catholics have leapt to the church's defense. The Rev. Thomas Reese, a scholar at Georgetown University, said the suffering-Jesus metaphor might be more fittingly applied to the victims of abuse. Reese, who spent the week analyzing the church's crisis and preparing a Good Friday message for his chapel, said he asked himself, "Who among us has experienced the betrayal, suffering and torture Jesus felt more than the victims?"

To drive home that point, victim advocates are planning a Good Friday event in front of the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington. "A vigil, not a protest . . . It is a sacred day, after all," said organizer Jessica Lillie. "But Good Friday is a day of sorrow, and we want the church to stop hiding the sorrow of victims."

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