“There are no cheap graces”
Saturday October 20, 2007
Father Kenneth Lasch could not attend the ceremony to accept one of the Priest of Integrity Awards. His acceptance speech was delivered by Ginny Hoehne, whose son was abused by a priest in the Diocese of Cincinnati.
On March 21st, 1985, my life as a Roman Catholic priest, pastor and human being changed forever. It was the day on which Mark Serrano revealed that he had been molested and raped by one of my predecessors, James Hanley, in the very same rooms I then occupied as the pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Mendham, New Jersey. James Hanley also sexually abused at least 18 other young boys and men that we know of. I suspect there are still others who have yet to come forward.
Shortly after Mark’s disclosure, I made a preferential option for victims of sexual abuse by clergy or religious. In essence, I made a commitment to Mark and through Mark to all victims of sexual abuse that I would stand with them publicly and privately and would never act in their name or on their behalf without consulting them.
Moreover, I committed myself to data-based decisions as opposed to power-based decisions. By that I mean that all my decisions and actions would be based on hard and soft data rather than on force or fear or power. Church leaders tend to use force, fear and power rather than data and positive affirmation to enforce their teachings and decisions about the spiritual wellbeing of Catholics. But even when they accompany their decisions with data, they limit dialogue in such manner that stifles the pursuit of truth. In effect, truth is what they define as truth regardless of the facts. They have deleted the ancient notion of ‘sensus fidelium’ from their theological lexicon.
My experience as vice chancellor and bishop’s secretary and then as executive secretary for pastoral ministry in the Diocese of Paterson for almost thirteen years opened my eyes to the vagaries of the clerical lifestyle including clandestine sexual relationships and allegations of sexual assaults against minors and adults. However, it was not until Mark’s disclosure and my subsequent experience as a victims’ advocate that my eyes were opened to the depth of deceit, manipulation of facts and legal maneuverings by many bishops and their ‘advisors’ that ultimately led to the most notorious cover-up of crime by a religious institution in modern history. Incidentally, may I suggest that had more women been involved in deliberative decision-making at the highest level of church governance, this tragic scandal of sexual abuse would have had a very different history and in the words of the psalmist, justice and compassion would have been the overriding mix that would have brought this terrible chapter to closure years ago.
I would be addressing these words to you in person today but for the fact that I myself at the tender age of 70 have found it necessary to be engaged in therapy for what I will call sub-post traumatic stress syndrome. Twenty-two years is a long time even for someone as experienced and defiant as I to face a wall of silence interrupted only by periodic stonewalling and excuses by those who had the power to heal but chose instead to use that power to re-victimize those whose wounds were still raw by prevarication and equivocation.
The first general clergy meeting in our diocese following the now historic disclosures of sexual abuse in Boston was convened not to condemn the horror of sexual abuse but to inform priests of their canonical and civil rights if they should be accused. In that assembly were priests who did indeed sexually abuse young men after plying them with alcohol but because their victims were over 16 years of age at the time of the assault, they were considered ‘consenting adults.’
In a subsequent dialogue with priests at their tri-annual convocation, the bishop referred to incidents of clerical abuse as allegations or in cases of proven abuse, moral lapses. The bishop was careful to distinguish between sin and proven criminal misconduct. Priests were invited to reach out to their brother priests against whom allegations had been made as an act of charity. No mention was made of their victims.
In a confidential report addressed to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on June 9, 1985, Father Tom Doyle, OP, JCD, noted canonist and former secretary to the Apostolic Nuncio, Ray Mouton, Esquire, and Father Michael Peterson, M.D., warned the bishops that the Church in the United States could suffer losses in excess of one billion dollars if they did not address the issue of sexual abuse by clergy with integrity and transparency.
The report was ‘deep sixed’ (buried) by Cardinal Bernard Law despite his promise to introduce it at a general meeting of the bishops.
Notwithstanding the often-expressed opinion among some including bishops’ attorneys, editorial writers in the Catholic and secular press, who continue to state that victims are interested more in money than in justice, let them be reminded that from the earliest allegations until the present, victims sought an acknowledgement of the crimes perpetrated against them, a sincere apology, a full accounting of their handling of the allegations and a firm commitment that no child or young adult or any man or woman would ever be subject to any sexual assault by a priest. It was the bishops who turned immediately to their attorneys and after protracted and painful negotiations that included stonewalling and endless delays came to financial settlements that were protected by legal gag orders, ostensibly for the protection of the victims when in fact they were for the protection the Church. And of course, the bishops have disclosed little about church attorney fees.
Some may say this is all history and I say it is still the modus operandi of many American bishops and their advisors. The bishops may have followed the letter of the law in the implementation of the Dallas Charter but they have fallen far short of the spirit of the law and surely of the Gospel. As late as six months ago when I asked to speak with my bishop, his attorney said it was not in his best interest to speak with me. To which I replied, “Indeed it is not in his best interest, but it is in the best interests of the Church.”
I have used the term ‘many’ in my references to bishops because I do not want to assume that every bishop should be painted with the same brush. However, where are the ‘good bishops’ who should be holding their brothers accountable? Who are they? Where are they?
Please be clear that the majority of men and women sexually abused by priests were 16 years or older. The canonical age of majority was not raised to 18 years of age until the mid-eighties. In as much as many of the allegations were made by adults whose abuse took place prior to the mid-eighties, they do not come under the Dallas Charter and Norms. Therefore, know that there are priests who have been guilty of sexual misconduct who are still functioning as “priests in good standing!”
In the meantime, bishops issue edicts about how to wear the stole and limit the role of lay ministers at Eucharist. The world is burning and bishops are piddling in the pond.
Now that I have gotten that off my chest, again—I want to turn briefly to the positive.
I want to praise victim/survivors of sexual abuse by clergy and religious for their undying courage and say them once more from the depth of my heart, “I am so very sorry for what you have endured and continue to endure. The pain that I have endured as an advocate does come close to what your and your families have suffered. I am so very, very sorry!”
To my brother and sister advocates, do take care of yourselves. Do not resort in anger to hateful epithets or to vindictive language in your pursuit of justice. Hold our bishops and their advisors accountable but do not bash them. Remember, data-based processes are more effective than power-based processes. Do your homework. Keep abreast of the latest studies on child abuse and the most recent insights of experts in psychology. Continue to lobby your elected officials providing them with solid information on sexual abuse and arm yourselves with examples of miscarriages of justice by both church and civil officials.
To my brother priests: I know there are more of you who have stood with victims even though for whatever reason, you declined to speak publicly. While I do not question your decision to remain silent, I ask you to search your heart and soul and ask you to at least speak in private to your bishop to let him know what you know and to assure him that your loyalty depends on his accountability as well as yours.
To my brother priests who knew and still know who’s doing what with whom, it’s never too late to take a courageous stand for justice and integrity even at the risk of a loss of a few perks or worse. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “There are no cheap graces.” The clerical system is broken and clerical privilege is on the way out.
To members of the VOICE of the FAITHFUL, take the words of Bill Casey and David O’Brien in their recent article, Shared Burden, to heart: “VOTF, it is our conviction, provides [the] opportunity at a particularly critical moment in U.S. Catholic history. Since the sexual- abuse crisis exploded in 2002, the bishops have taken some significant steps to prevent future abuse, but they have failed to address what we think are the underlying causes of the worst scandal in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. Bishop are unlikely to open up the decision-making process unless there are strong, independent Catholic organizations working to make the church’s pastoral planning, personnel policies, and financial operations more transparent, honest and accountable.” [Commonweal, October 12, 2007] ( For the full text of the article, click ‘Notes, Quotes & Comments’ on my website. )
I dream of that day when our bishops will speak as vehemently against the slaughter of the innocent souls of those who have been sexually abused by a priest or religious as they do about the death of a child in the womb.
I dream of that day when bishops, priests, deacons, religious and lay people will once again consider their common baptismal call to be one people of God, sharing in the joys and pains of the entire Body of Christ, indeed of the world, as the most significant sign that Christ is indeed alive. I dream of that day when transparency will replace secrecy, when truth will be honored not by exception but by rule, when integrity will be the umbrella virtue that authenticates the gospel without equivocation.
Until that day, my words remain firm: “There will be no forgiveness and healing until there is justice; no justice until there is the full disclosure of truth; no disclosure of truth until there is full accountability.”
We are not there yet but we must not let hope die.
I am deeply grateful for and humbled by the honor you have conferred on me.
Kenneth E. Lasch
Diocese of Paterson