Catholics grapple with reported abuse

Parishioners enter St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Omaha on a recent Sunday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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November 8, 2018 - 6:45am

Reports of sexual abuse have rocked the Catholic Church. In Nebraska, church leaders and parishioners are grappling with how to respond.

It’s Sunday morning -- time for the 10:45 Mass at Omaha’s St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. In his homily, Fr. Dan Kampschneider asks a simple question he says almost everyone’s asking: “What is happening in the Catholic Church?”

Fr. Dan Kampschneider with parishioners at St. Vincent de Paul Church. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

That was in August – the week a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report detailing the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children, by 300 priests, over 70 years.

It came in a year that has seen Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. resign amidst charges he sexually abused minors and seminarians for decades. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano called on Pope Francis to resign, charging he knew about McCarrick’s abuses. Pope Francis has promised a thorough study of Vatican archives on McCarrick.  

In Nebraska, Lincoln Bishop James Conley has apologized for how he handled allegations of improper behavior by priests. Omaha Archbishop George Lucas said the church’s system had failed after a priest was removed from ministry at St. Wenceslaus Church, and four months later that removal was linked to sexual abuse allegations.

Kampschneider says many parishioners have been saddened, frustrated and angered by the reported abuse, and especially by bishops who either seemed to do nothing or just transferred offending priests to another parish.

Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt (Photo courtesy Diocese of Grand Island)

Grand Island Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt says reforms from 2002, after revelations of sexual abuse in Boston, have helped protect children. But the reforms didn’t address bishops themselves.

“I think everybody needs accountability in their work, and I don’t think bishops are any different than anybody else,” Hanefeldt said. 

Hanefeldt says reforms are on the agenda when the bishops meet this month in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, the reaction among parishioners has been mixed.

“There are people who want the issue to go away. They don’t want to hear about it. They’re very loyal supporters of the church, but it’s hard to hear. And for them, it’s really ‘Can we just get past this?’" Hanefeldt said.

Others feel differently.

“They want accountability, and many want this not to die and go away as an issue until there are strong, clear policies, procedures and reassurance that it’s going to be different going forward,” Hanefeldt said.

Conversations with Catholics not in the hierarchy reveal a similar range of views.

“To me, it’s not a faith shaker. My faith is not in these people, my faith is in God,” Jean Timmerman of Lincoln said

Jean Timmerman (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Timmerman says none of the alleged misbehavior by priests or other church officials is O.K.. But she looks on the church as family.

“If I have some bad relations or relations who have done bad things, it doesn’t make my family bad,” she said.

Barbara Freeman of Omaha says reports of abuse are taking a toll.

“It’s breaking my heart. I love the Catholic Church. But I think what they’re doing now – even when they’re trying to address it - isn’t working,” Freeman said. 

Freeman says the church needs to do a better job reporting suspected abuse, and be more open with members about what’s going on. She says the lack of information for four months hurt St. Wenceslaus.

“There were so many rumors going around that, had we been told whether it was a male or a female, pretty much exactly what he did, and the age of the person, it would have damaged our parish a lot less,” she said.

At St. Vincent de Paul in late October, it happened to be priesthood Sunday, a day to celebrate priests in the United States. It was also the week after the revelations at nearby St. Wenceslaus. Lector Michael Smith read from the Bible’s Letter to the Hebrews:

“Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God to offer gifts, sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and arrogant, for he himself is beset by weakness,” Smith read.

Fr. Kampschneider says he needs to keep trying, even though when people see him in his priestly collar, some assume he’s an abuser.

“They don’t know me. They just see my collar. And more importantly, I should represent something about Jesus, something about the church that’s good,” he said. “And if there’s something bad about the church, and that some priests or bishop have done, we just have to say that was wrong, that was bad. But I gotta still try my best – because I’m not a perfect priest but I gotta keep trying -- to be a better priest.”

Grand Island Bishop Hanefeldt says justice for victims needs to be at the forefront of the church’s efforts.

“A clergy person who abuses a minor needs to be sorry, needs to repent. Needs to themselves come to terms with this with God. This is wrong, this is sinful, it’s criminal, and he has to pay (a) civil justice penalty, court, incarceration, whatever it is,” Hanefeldt said.

At the same time, Hanefeldt also believes the church needs to hold out hope to priests and anyone else guilty of abuse.

Information from the attorney general about reporting abuse.

“As we work for justice, especially for victims, that we also ask God to bring about conversion and change in those who perpetrate these crimes, so that there could be forgiveness and mercy. I think that’s a balanced look at the Gospel,” he said.

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson has asked Catholic officials for disciplinary records dating back 40 years. Kampschneider endorses the investigation. 

“That is a good thing. Because it finally addresses the issue…is the Catholic Church hiding something else?” he said.

No date has yet been set for the releasing the results of the investigation.



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