Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Personal Reflection on the Recent Scandal

What follows was written for my parish community two weeks after the recent scandal. Apparently it has found somewhat wider circulation than I had intended and there have been requests for a wider availability. So, here it is. Just remember that this is a reflection of how I felt at the time that I wrote it and was written to deal with the pastoral needs of my local parish which was one of Fr. Pat's more recently former parishes. As always, comments are welcome under the usual conditions.

I had hoped that my internet blog entries would suffice in responding to the unfortunate situation of Fr. Pat Umberger, your former pastor. However, there are enough folks commenting, and enough of you that don’t access the internet that it seems to have become necessary to say something.
First of all, I would like to reiterate a couple of points made in my blog entries. I received the news while I was on vacation. I wasn’t looking forward to coming home and having Mass that Saturday evening. When I was a teacher and the priest abuse scandal hit in 2002, one of my students had the gall to ask me how many altar boys I had abused. He was immediately supported by a number of his classmates. At that point I had only been a priest for just over a year! I could only imagine how many of you might be looking at me and wondering what I’ve been up to. Thankfully we got through that weekend and no one has said anything to me about Fr. Pat except to say how sad they were about it and how important it will be to pray for him. Since then, you have only been supportive of me and I thank you for that. I would also bring to your attention that a number of priests in our diocese have been keeping all of us at Holy Family Parish in prayer.
I also pointed out in my blogging that we should not be so completely surprised when a priest falls prey to the temptations of this world. We live in a world that is saturated with sexual imagery. The internet has provided a whole new and largely private forum within which to indulge in these perversions. Over the years I have heard my share of confessions which included an admission to viewing pornography over the internet. Priests will, from time to time, fail. I am grateful that in the Diocese of La Crosse those failures are rare.

Priestly Celibacy At Fault?
It seems odd to me that some would suggest that priestly celibacy is at fault. Fr. Pat has stated that he is attracted to teen boys. How would marriage to an adult woman have prevented the use of child pornography in his case? In that scenario he would have just been another one of the thousands of men caught by the police whose cases are processed almost unnoticed by the public at large. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, from July 1, 2000 until June 30, 2001 some 1,700 men were arrested and charged with possession of child pornograpy in the United States. 91% of these were white males. 41% of these men were single and never married, 59% were currently married or living with a partner, separated, divorced or widowed. I am told that these numbers have stayed fairly consistant.

Have Any Of Our Children Been Abused?
Fr. Pat has been adamant on this point: he has never had sexual contact with ANY children or teens. In this case, we can be thankful that his moral failure did not include any actual abuse of youngsters. However, if you have reason to believe that any one of our children has been abused, ever, PLEASE report this to me or to the diocese immediately!

What Did The Diocese Know And When?
Fr. Pat stated that after the incident in which he was barred from the water park in Wisconsin Dells, he was spoken to by Fr. Hirsch, the Vicar for Priests, and Jim Birnbaum, the diocesan attorney. We have only Fr. Pat’s side of the story on this as the diocese is not commenting beyond Mr. Birnbaum’s acknowledgement that he had met with Fr. Umberger. My own belief is that if there had been any prior complaints we wouldn’t be talking about this today.
I personally have confidence that if any credible reports or complaints had been made to the diocese it would have been dealt with. After the experience of the last ten years I can’t bring myself to believe that anyone would be stupid enough to engage in any cover ups. In fact, my own experience of how Bishop Listecki operated is that he erred on the side of caution and safety for our children and young people.
According to news reports, the Lake Delton Police Department pressed no charges but they informed the Onalaska Police Department of the incident. It was the O.P.D. that contacted the Wisconsin Department of Justice and they began keeping an eye on him.
As I’ve pointed out before, the diocese did what it could, given the information it had: one unsubstantiated complaint which was not acted upon by the civil authorities in Lake Delton. The civil authorities did what we expect them to do: their attention was drawn and they continued to watch. They have done and continue to do their duty and we should all be thankful to them.
We might remember that the crime of which Fr. Pat stands accused is possession of child pornography. This is a crime that is, of its nature, very secretive and exceedingly hard to detect. Thus, it is unreasonable, I believe, to expect that the diocese should have known anything or could have done other than what it did.

Will Funds From The Diocesan Annual Appeal Be Used To Defend Fr. Pat Or Otherwise Deal With This?
The short answer is “no”. First of all, when a priest is personally in trouble, he is responsible for his own legal defense. The diocese does not provide for this. If necessary the diocese will provide for its own defense should the need arise.
However, we should remember that the Diocesan Annual Appeal is bound by the “case statement” provided at the beginning of each campaign to fund those, and only those, things which have been put forward in the case statement. There has never been a line item in the diocesan annual appeal for a legal defense fund of any kind.

What is the Catholic response to such scandal?
I think that Bishop Callahan said it best when he said that at times like this we can only fall on our knees before our merciful God. I know that many people will be angry. In this anger some will want to lash out at Fr. Pat, the diocese, the priesthood, or the Church.
I suppose it is natural to be angry and to demand answers, even a sure “fix” to make sure that this never happens again.
While anger may be a reasonable first response, it cannot be held onto. It is, after all, one of the seven deadly sins (along with lust). To hang on to anger is to hang on to the self-righteous attitude that we are not sinners “like those others”. Unfortunately, we are all sinners and deserving of punishment. It is only through the self-sacrificing love of Jesus Christ that we are made righteous and fit to be called sons and daughters of our Father in heaven.
And so we fall on our knees and pray. We pray for Fr. Pat. It is obvious that he is in need of our prayers regardless of his eventual judgement of guilt or innocense. We also pray for the people of St. Patrick’s – Onalaska. If some of us are in shock and running the gammit of feelings, we can only imagine what they are going through. We must pray too for all of those who are affected by this terrible scourge on society – victims and perpetrators. I pray in a special way for those who will be scandalized and challenged in their faith because of this. I also pray for those who will hold this as “proof” that the Catholic Church is corrupt and not to be trusted, believed, or followed.
In addition to prayer it is important that WE do acts of penance for this latest outrage. Yes, WE. While we may not be personally responsible for this scandal we are all members of Christ’s body – each of us, including Fr. Pat. And, like any body, when one part of the body is hurt or in pain the whole body is in need of healing, not just the part or parts injured.

The Safe Environment Program
The Diocese of La Crosse has been a leader in properly responding to the failings of its employees in this arena. That is why it has been a relatively rare problem in comparison to others around us. When the abuse crisis hit the United State ten years ago many of the response procedures were already in place. What was not in place were the preventative measures which are just another tool, though not fool proof, for furthering the safety of the environment in which our children and young people are taught to call God their Father, and the Body of Christ their family.
The Safe Environment program of the Diocese of La Crosse is able to be accessed on the internet at: On the front page the information is clearly marked on the left hand column about 2/3 the way down the page. This information can also be obtained in the parish office. All you need to do is ask. We will gladly provide it to you.
The basic elements of the Safe Environment program include criminal background checks of all volunteers who will be working with, or in the vicinity of children and young people. Also, all paid personel, even those who have no regular contact with children, are checked out in this way. These are re-checked every three years.
There is also a review board, made up mostly of lay people who are expert in law enforcement, psychology, education, and related fields. This board assists the bishop in assessing the information available when a complaint is made and an investigation undertaken. There are also personel who walk with alleged victims through the process of seeking justice and healing.
Another element is the training of all volunteers and paid staff with regards to safe environment. This includes “boundary issues”, signs to recognize abuse, signs for recognizing abusers, and how the safe environment program works once a complaint is made.
So, when you volunteer and are asked to fill out the criminal background check and accompanying questionaire, please remember why we do this! We have lost a number of volunteers over the years because they didn’t want to undergo this scrutiny. Yet, as you can see by the statistics quoted above, this is not a problem of celibate priests. This is a societal problem. And just because the vast majority of perpetrators are men this does not rule out women as we have seen in the news in recent years.
Remember! While our Safe Environment Program is an excellent tool for the protection of our children and young people, it can only work when rules, boundaries, and procedures are followed and suspicious behavior is reported.

Finally, please remember that ultimately only prayer, penance, and a life of virtue on the part of every member of the Body of Christ will heal the wound that has been inflicted. Our virtue and example of holiness does much to strengthen those who may be weak. Our understanding and love, shown in how we confront those tempted by these issues, can do so much to lead those who are weak to seek the help they need. May the Mother of God, Our Mother of Perpetual Help, St. Joseph, guardian of the Body of Christ, and St. Michael the Archangel pray for us, and guard and protect us always.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Father!
    You write well.
    The victimization of children, of any of the innocents, is a horrible crime; no doubt about it.
    It is especially horrid when a priest, who is charged with such responsibility and respect, is someone who "violates" the trust that all the faithful have a right to entrust to their shepherds.
    May our good Jesus, Mercy Incarnate, heal these wounds, and give the grace for all who care for the young that they may not violate their trust.


Comments are most welcome! As always, be charitable and remember the 8th Commandment (Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor).