For almost two years, members of CCA have been increasingly engaged on the issue of clergy sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, specifically as it impacts our Appalachian dioceses. We have acted as individuals, as CCA state chapters, and as an organization. This article explains the origin of this work and some of the things we have been doing.
In November 2017, CCA published a statement on sex abuse in the Catholic Church, available online and in the Summer 2018 issue of Patchquilt. Part of that statement focused on abuse in the church in Appalachia and called on civil and church authorities to issue a clarification on unresolved allegations against then-bishop Michael Bransfield (WV) that he had abused minors in Philadelphia in the 1970s. Then in March 2018, in light of Bransfield’s impending retirement as bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston (DWC), CCA wrote a letter to Pope Francis, the Apostolic Nuncio, and the Congregation for Bishops with a long list of criteria for what many West Virginia Catholics are looking for in a new bishop for the diocese. Since then, the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report affected Catholics nationally and worldwide. But because most of the dioceses contained in report fall within the Appalachian region, the report also implicated a number of the region’s bishops and dioceses. Shortly after the release of the PA report, Bransfield’s resignation and the immediate launch of an investigation into alleged sexual misconduct compelled CCA to further our efforts to help protect the vulnerable in our region and to work for church reforms necessary to address the roots of the problem.
The launch of the Bransfield investigation prompted Jeannie and me to write an open letter to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston which was published in five WV newspapers in September 2018. The letter called for the release of a list of credibly accused clergy and for various measures to be taken during the investigation, and it expressed concern about the appointment of Archbishop William Lori as overseer of the investigation due to his previously existing relationship with Bransfield. The piece drew the interest of groups and individuals who have since come to us with their own stories of sexual, spiritual, and emotional abuse by clergy as well as by lay officials of the DWC. This work of listening has been, in my view, some of the most meaningful and important work CCA has been called to do during this time, but also some of the most difficult, as it is evident how deeply this abusive culture has taken root in the church. These stories, combined with our own following of events in the DWC for the past several years, led us to initiate dialogue with Bryan Minor, the layperson appointed by Lori as Delegate of Diocesan Affairs. Through face-to-face meetings, phone calls, and emails, Minor has done his best to respond to questions that we bring to him.
In order to work for reform, laypeople need to stay informed. To that end, we have added a page to the CCA website titled “Abuse in Appalachia” as a resource for tracking news about the abuse crisis in our region. The page collects news articles, opinion pieces, and analysis on the various aspects of the situation in West Virginia, as well as various legal documents pertaining to specific clergy abuse cases. It also contains links to lists of credibly accused priests published by the dioceses of Appalachia.
One of those lists is the one finally published by the DWC in November 2018. Once the list was published, Bryan Minor solicited CCA’s feedback. We gave them credit for the amount of detail contained in the list, but promised that we would continue to analyze it. Our study of the list has so far resulted in publication of an article co-authored by CCA member Michael Barrick and I on the case of Fr. Charles McCallister published at the Appalachian Chronicle website. Staying on top of the diocese’s website also enabled us to catch the DWC quietly adding nine names to the list without publicizing the fact that they did so. CCA and SNAP issued a press release about the added names, and only then was the news widely reported in WV newspapers and acknowledged by the diocese. We continue to study and raise questions about the DWC list, and encourage local CCA chapters to do the same in your dioceses. The North Carolina chapter, for example, wrote to Bishop Peter Jugis of the Diocese of Charlotte upon hearing that he was delaying the publication of list of credibly accused priests. Jugis subsequently announced that a list would appear by the end of the year.
As the situation in West Virginia continues to unfold, Jeannie and I, as well as other CCA members, have published a number of additional op-eds and letters to the editor in various publications in West Virginia and beyond, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Associated Press, and the Washington Post. (All of them are available on the “Abuse in Appalachia” page.) CCA members have also been interviewed by various media to speak to these issues. Jeannie and I have been in regular contact with local media as well as with the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and National Catholic Reporter to comment on the news as it unfolds. CCA has also done our best to network with various groups and individuals around the state who are concerned about the crisis, most notably Lay Catholic Voices for Change which emerged among the parishes of Morgantown. A number of CCA members have been part of LCVC, which has so far organized a prayer vigil, letters to Archbishop Lori, and a campaign to withhold financial contributions to the diocese.
CCA has also been persistent in requesting a meeting with Lori to discuss the investigation and the state of the DWC. After months of attempts, Bryan Minor convinced Lori to meet with us in March, but the offer was withdrawn at the last minute. In response, CCA members joined other Wheeling area Catholics with similar concerns to organize a prayerful witness during and after Lori’s Chrism Mass in Wheeling. During the sign of peace, two CCA members entered the sanctuary to offer a sign of peace to the Archbishop and concelebrants as an assertion of the dignity of the laity and a sign of cooperation between laity and clergy. Nearby priests offered handshakes, but Lori did not. The pair then joined other demonstrators outside the Cathedral after Mass. Lori did not engage the demonstrators after the Mass, though several priests and parishioners affirmed our presence.
Following the action, the group released a statement which Jeannie and I mailed to Lori with an accompanying letter on April 29. The statement reads, “Our presence today is not fundamentally protest, but rather a promise to remain engaged in spite of the temptations to cynicism and despair. We call on the clergy to reject attitudes of defensiveness and secrecy surrounding abuses of the past and present, and to give an honest account of the failures of the Church so that all may grow together in holiness.”
In response, Jeannie and I received a letter of reprimand from Lori on Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston letterhead. The letter, dated May 15, states, “The Mass should never be used as a moment for demonstration or the expression of individual opinion, especially during Holy Week and I ask you, as the concerned Catholics you are, to avoid such actions in the future. […] [P]lease know that I have heard your concerns….” We were taken aback to receive such a reprimand, in part because this letter literally represents the only communication or acknowledgment CCA has received from Lori after months of polite invitations for dialogue. We also take issue with the Archbishop’s characterization of a sign of peace as a “protest,” for it completely disregards the statement that was sent to him and the solemn liturgical character of the action conducted at the Chrism Mass.
A note at the bottom of the letter indicated that a copy was sent to CCA’s Episcopal Adviser Bishop John Stowe. When we reached out to Bishop John to discuss the matter, he said he never received a copy of Lori’s letter, but affirmed the respectful and prophetic tone of the witness action, writing: “As you know, I believe there is a necessary place for prophetic action in the Church and there are often consequences for those actions. […] I see that your voices are needed now more than ever.”
A narrative is emerging within the national coverage of the Bransfield story that suggests WV Catholics have been largely passive in response to Bransfield’s behavior. CCA’s work over the last two years, including our participation in the witness action at the Cathedral, flies in the face of that narrative. And in our continued media engagement we insist that Catholics have been resisting the abusive church culture that enabled Bransfield all along and that we will continue to raise up the voices and actions of Catholics who have been so engaged for many years.
This is a critical time in our church, and every sector of the church must pause and discern ways to become part of the solution in ending abusive clericalism once and for all. We believe CCA can make, and has been making, important contributions in our region. It has been important to Jeannie and I to have the backing of the Board of Directors in doing this work, and this focus was indeed affirmed by the Board at its meeting in May.
We believe CCA can make significant contributions because of our long-held commitment to lay empowerment. CCA knows that if any change is to happen in our church the laity will be at the center or it simply will not happen. And we believe we can make contributions that are credible because they are grounded by listening closely to victims of sexual and spiritual abuse by clergy and by participation in dialogue among different sectors of the church. Listening to these stories of abuse and acting for change is another way of living out our pastoral letters’ call to see, to judge, and to act. In doing so, we become “living pastorals,” creating a church where “everyone’s story… [is] welcomed and honored in its telling.”
West Virginia was given a new bishop in August, and members of our state chapter are eager to meet with him to share CCA’s story and to take our place in the work of reform in the local church. As we wrote in our open letter to the DWC in September 2018, “Together with other concerned Catholics, we raise our voices in faith and in hope for truth, transparency and accountability in the church we love, and for the justice and healing of her abuse survivors.”