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

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010; A01

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."

Meanwhile, caught in the midst of this Holy Week war of words are the rank-and-file priests who have struggled with how to address the growing scandal with their parishioners.

"It's painful to hear it all as a priest. It's a sadness beyond words," said Monsignor Robert Panke of St. Patrick Catholic Church in downtown Washington, who decided that he would not bring it up during Mass this week.

"In some ways, after all we've gone through in the U.S., it feels like by bringing it up again we are discounting all the good work and changes that have taken place the past few years," he said. "And I'm not sure if it's spiritually fruitful to focus on that during Easter."

The Rev. Gerard Creedon of St. Charles Borromeo in Arlington County came to the opposite conclusion. "Silence is inadequate in a situation like this," he said. "Trying to be as honest as we can, acknowledging the problem is what's needed to be an open church."

For weeks at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Enzler said nothing. Then on Monday, four mothers in his parish -- recent converts with 10 children among them -- asked what he thought of the scandals. You need to say something, they told him. The topic was on the mind of every Catholic across the country. It was the elephant in every chapel hall, at every Mass.

The next morning, troubled by the conversation, Enzler began thinking about referring to it in the Easter bulletin. Working with his secretary in the church's old offices, he wrote and rewrote three sentences for the Pastor's Corner segment of the bulletin.

"I wanted to be careful to say it well, to say it right," Enzler said. The first version was too heavy on apology. "You want to admit that the church isn't perfect, but the last thing you want is to add fuel to the fire."

This was the crux, he realized, in which the church found itself: It needed to admit missteps, but worried that by doing so, it would fall prey to the accusations of its critics.

With almost four decades in the priesthood, Enzler recalled that some of his most powerful sermons were ones in which he let down his guard and became vulnerable with his flock. By sharing his struggles, he thought, his parishioners could see the true heart of the church and its priests. They, too, struggle at times with mistakes. They, too, agonize over how to fix them. They, too, need grace and prayer.

In the end, he settled on this phrasing: "I think it is fair to say that the child abuse issue has not always been handled well by the church. Today I pray for all victims of abuse, their families and the Church. Amidst our shared pain, we gather in hope and prayer and, yes, the spirit of the Resurrection."

And after a few more days of reflection, Enzler has decided that he must also find a way to address the issue in his Easter homily. He knows Easter will draw one of the year's biggest turnouts -- as many as 4,500 at his large, active parish. The crowd will include Catholics he sees only once or twice a year, those at the edge of their faith, floundering and questioning the Church.

"They are the ones I worry about most," he said in his office this week. "They are the ones who most need to hear that, yes, as a Church, we are far from perfect, but there is an honest, concerted effort to address this."

And so, with Easter near, he sits in his study, deep in the recesses of the church, praying that the right words will come.

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