A gathering of priests decided Wednesday it was time to publicly apologize.
In what was hailed as the first public penance for the ongoing sex abuse scandal that has rocked the church, a dozen Orange County priests gathered at the Catholic Worker to work in the soup kitchen and listen to victims’ and others’ ideas on how to heal. None who participated has been accused.
Mary Ferrell talked, at times defiantly, her long gray hair bobbing and her back ramrod straight as she quietly but angrily told them of the pain she shared with so many others. The 54-year-old grandmother told how a priest would take her out of class when she was 7 to play on a Ferris wheel, then molest her in a deserted classroom.
Ferrell, a Lakewood nurse, asked them to intercede with church hierarchy to release records of the deceased priest who she has accused, and records involving other survivors of priest abuse.
She asked them to “not keep secrets about what they might know about fellow priests. Did any of you know and remain silent?” she asked.
Tears welled in her eyes and in the eyes of Leo Celano, an elderly monk from St. Michael’s Abbey as he reached forward to grasp her hands.
“We apologize,” he said.
“Public apology is important. It has to start somewhere,” she said.
In Orange County, at least 18 current or former priests have been implicated in sexual abuse. The scandal inspired the passage of a national sex-abuse policy ratified by the Vatican on Monday. And it led to the resignation Friday of the powerful head of the Boston Archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law.
Admitting that many priests had been more a part of the problem than the solution, The Revs. Bill Barman of Our Lady of Vang in Santa Ana and John McAndrew of San Francisco Solano Church in Rancho Santa Margarita came up with the idea in November to do public penance. They began e-mailing fellow priests to participate.
Barham told Ferrell: “It dismayed us when we found out our fellow priests had done these things. I wish I could make it better. It will take all of us doing better. And we don’t pretend this day of penance is all that is needed.”
The priests held hands and repeated the Lord’s Prayer before picking penance cards with suggestions that had been sent in by parishioners to the Catholic Worker charity. Ages-old penitential practices, designed to heal divisions or apologize, take many forms. The purpose is not to diminish life, but to enrich it.
Among the suggestions sent in was shaving hair, listening to victims’ stories, praying the rosary every Friday for a year, wearing used clothing and giving favorite garb to charity, forgoing alcohol for a year, donating any salary to victims groups.
Celano of St. Michael’s Abbey said he will travel by bus to his rounds away from the monastery. Rod Keller of Saint Boniface Church in Anaheim worked in the soup kitchen and will undertake a three-day fast beginning Christmas Eve. Barham traveled by bus to St. Joseph Hospital to visit with the sick.
“This is a sobering experience for me to see the priests did this on their own out of their pain and the pain of victims,” said Auxiliary Bishop Jaime Soto. “We can’t wipe away what happened, but this shows solidarity with victims and others in our church who are suffering.”
He decided to participate, too, and said he would talk about the scandal to teens at all the Catholic high schools
Mary Grant, a regional spokeswoman for Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, called the event a “first step.” She did not attend, and noted that some other survivors did not because “they still do not feel comfortable around priests.”
The Rev. Joseph Palacios, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., was visiting family in Southern California and decided to attend the event.
“My hope is that this become a grass-roots movement in which priests from all over do this. We as a group were responsible and have to work to make changes.”