Catholic student leadership stands with church amid scandal

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Peter Edgar

At the beginning of this year, over 200 Catholic bishops from around the nation met at a seminary in Chicago to address the series of testimonies, regarding the sexual abuse of minors by church clergy, that have emerged over the past two decades. In this article, the first of a series of articles regarding the issue, I spoke to officers of Catholic Campus Ministries (CCM) at Florida Southern College. 

Bailey Predko, a nursing major, and Lucas Blackwell, a criminology and theatre double-major, are both 20-year-old, self-described “cradle Catholics.” “I’ve been a Catholic since I was literally born,” Predko said. “I was in the choir since I was eight; I teach Catholic classes for second-graders.” 

Predko and Blackwell plan the events for CCM, which celebrates Mass every week. “It’s a sacrament to go to Mass every Sunday,” Predko said, “You have to facilitate that for some people.” They have seen students attend from Southeastern University, Florida Polytechnic University, and Polk State College.

CCM is affiliated with and receives funding from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, which casually refer to as St. Jo’s. They have different priests on campus every week, and their attendance has ranged from an average of 10-15 students per week in past years to nearing 35 or 40 recently. “Some parents weekends we even get 90,” Blackwell said. “And Danforth [Chapel] is really small, so it got hot in there fast,” Predko said. 

Investigations regarding allegations of sexual harassment and assault by members of the clergy span back at least into the very early 2000s, when the Boston Globe investigative team published a Pulitzer-Prize winning exposé detailing church leadership misconduct. A movie titled in reference to the newspaper section, “Spotlight,” was released in 2015 to critical acclaim; it won two of six Oscars for which it was nominated. 

The church’s response to the movie, at least, was positive. The Catholic News Service described it as “hard-hitting” as well as “painfully illuminating,” and Crux, an independent Catholic news outlet, reported that the “Vatican’s official radio outlet [Vatican Radio]… described the movie as ‘honest’ and ‘compelling.’”

Predko described her disgust with the ways that some priests have subverted the role of a priest, which, as she described them, are to reflect the roles of Christ, to administer the sacraments, to embody God’s fatherly attributes and to be someone to talk and confess to. 

“To abuse [those roles] was crazy,” she said.  Yet, she doesn’t feel it should be an indictment of all priests. “My friend’s mom is a marathon runner. She got one of the priests to do marathons with her and she’ll do confession with him on runs.” 

Blackwell was worried, when he became aware of the problem, that the systematic nature and cover-up of such abuse in some dioceses would become a stereotype used to stoke fear in the readers or viewers of media coverage of the events. He analogized that worry to the situation of many Muslims, who were demonized at large after the events of 9/11. 

Last year, discussions of clerical abuse were revived when a Pennsylvania grand jury released an 800-page report that included allegations against over 300 Catholic priests. Less than a month after the report was released in August, Pope Francis published a letter addressed to the entire Catholic Church body. 

“Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient,” the letter said. “Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.”

Two weeks ago, when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) met after New Year’s,  Pope Francis wrote them another letter urging them to reach a solution.

Traditionally, Papal authority stands as the final word on most issues, but Catholic literature presses in the United States have found fault with the Pope’s statements–and published their criticisms. A writer for The Catholic World Report, which is published by Ignatius Press, felt that his discussion of a need for reconciliation to return the church to a position of credibility was “exactly what led to cover-ups and protection of clerical perpetrators” in the first place. 

Blackwell and Predko felt that credibility was an individual issue. Blackwell expressed that because of his relationships with his home priest, that he would feel no fear if his 10-year-old were alone with him. “It’s not necessarily the Catholic faith [that is incriminated], it’s the priests,” Predko said. 

Blackwell felt that the biggest danger to church membership was not the scandals that various dioceses had been wrapped in, but the number of students who attend college and distance themselves from the faith there. He cited a statistic, that between 7 out of 10 and 9 out of 10 of Catholics attend college and quit attending Mass.

Predko argued that change comes from within, not from outside: that leaving a church because you didn’t like a part of it doesn’t make sense. “If you go away from [Catholicism], you can’t help it,” she said.  

However, Catholic leadership disagrees on the way to fix the problems brought to light over the past 20 years. The Vatican shut down a proposal from the USCCB that suggested the creation of layperson advisory boards to deal with intra-church issues. Blackwell speculated that this was because of the traditional top-down approach to authority in the church. “This kind of makes me question… is this the bureaucracy getting in the way of important change that needs to happen immediately?” 

“As for the USCCB, I do feel like they’re going to play a very integral role in how we address this problem,” he said. “It is important that instead of waiting for a formalized, ‘Hey, this is the worldwide approach,’ there’s a problem in America right now and it needs to be addressed.”

Ultimately, both Blackwell and Predko trust the governance of bishops, cardinals and the Pope, “to make sure that the Catholic Church represents the values that it projects onto us,” Blackwell said. “Sometimes we forget that the main purpose of the Catholic… faith is to love one another,” Predko said.

Next issue, look to Opinions for a discussion with Father LaBo of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and other comments by  Catholic students at FSC. 

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