RVA Catholics gather for atonement Mass in light of Pa. scandal

Bishop of the Diocese of Richmond, Barry Knestout, leads Mass. Photo by Shayla Bailey
Bishop of the Diocese of Richmond, Barry Knestout, leads Mass. Photo by Shayla Bailey

Rezvan Egi
Contributing Writer

Members of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart celebrated a Mass of Atonement Friday to recognize the people affected by decades of sexual abuse recently uncovered in the Pennsylvania Catholic church system.

In August 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury reported thousands of cases of sexual abuse by more than 300 “predator priests” had been covered up by the Pennsylvania dioceses’ “wholesale institutional failure that endangered the welfare of children.”

As the issue of sexual misconduct has been infamously associated with the Catholic community, a great deal of Richmond members conversed about hope and progress for their church.

Some members believe the church’s administrative operations and lack of accountability — as opposed to the teachings of the faith — are what continuously lead to the issue of sexual misconduct by clergymen.

“The Catholic religion is about the people and there [are] always going to be problems in governing bodies where there is no democratic voice,” said Katie Dickens, a Richmond local and new member of the church.

In a letter published by Barry Knestout, bishop of the Diocese of Richmond, Knestout highlighted that the church has recognized the agony of the victims. Titled “From Tragedy to Hope,” the letter discusses the revelations of the “brutal ugliness and perverse nature of crimes by some clergy.”

“We are a community in which trust has been broken and we hear calls for resignation of Church leaders and implementation of transparent and effective mechanisms of accountability,” the bishop wrote in the letter. “I am vividly aware of my own limitations to address the open wound within our Church. But, I will do all within my power to work with other bishops to learn the full truth and to share the full extent of the problem with the Church.”

Knestout also stated the names of the priests from the dioceses in question in the Pennsylvania report will be revealed to the public, saying this will be key in helping the survivors of the abuse heal. A complete audit and examination of clergy files, Knestout said, will be done by a separate entity of the church to disclose as much truth to the public as possible. Funds have also been prepared to further assist survivors in counseling and grief aid.

Accountability is not a new concept to the Sacred Heart community, according to Patrick Golden, Rector of the Church.

“All of our priests get fingerprinted and background checked frequently,” Golden said.

Golden said he believes priests and bishops involved in the Pennsylvania controversy did not understand the difference between the consequences of sinning and criminal behavior.

“We forgive sins but, if those sins are criminal, they have to be prosecuted and priests failed to recognize that this behavior is against the law,” Golden said.

Golden has attended masses with Pennsylvania survivors, meeting them to understand their anger and address their concerns with the church. Since the church is dealing with crimes that happened many years ago, priests and bishops like Golden said they are assuring members the future will be very different from what the past has shown.

Transparency from the church to the public was the main focus of the bishop’s message during Mass. Knestout acknowledged that in the past the church kept too much truth away from the public, which is what has led to so many issues in this community. The Pennsylvania survivors were mentioned numerous times and the Knestout called on the hundreds of people in attendance to help guide them through this difficult time through prayer and song.

Even as the church tries to lay new groundwork, some members in the community are still not pleased — it is not lost on some that this is not the first time the Catholic community has battled the issue of sexual misconduct.

“Nothing concrete ever seems to be done in the Catholic community when it comes to sexual abuse allegations and it’s hard to believe that anything has changed now,” said VCU student and former Catholic Liza Hazelwood. “Instead of repeating thoughts and prayers when abuse has taken place, the Catholic community should deal with these issues in a more sustainable way so the trend can finally stop.”

A confidential victim assistance reporting line is available at 1-877-887-9603 for survivors of abuse from a member of the church.

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