'Beyond Anger': Pittsburgh Priest Says Sex Abuse Report 'Shook' Parishioners

Aug 18, 2018
Originally published on August 18, 2018 3:58 pm

The release of a massive grand jury report into sexual abuse in six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania is posing a challenge for priests who will address the report to their parishioners this weekend. The roughly 900-page report includes horrid reports of of "predator priests" that conducted "criminal and/or morally reprehensible conduct" — often covered up for decades.

In response, the Diocese of Pittsburgh has requested all their priests read a letter at weekend masses addressing the report. It reads, in part, "We cannot bury our heads in the sand. There were instances in the past when the Church acted in ways that did not respond effectively to victims." The letter also outlines some ways the Diocese plans to improve how it addresses and reports abuse, including hiring a former state prosecutor to review their policies related to child protection.

Father Lou Vallone says the grand jury report has certainly been on the minds of people in his congregation. He is the priest at St. John of God, a gothic-style Catholic church in McKees Rocks, just outside of Pittsburgh. He's been at the church for 15 years, but has been a priest in Western Pennsylvania for 45.

The investigation alleges 99 former priests in the Pittsburgh Diocese have credible child sexual abuse allegations against them. The report also alleges leaders in the Diocese covered up abuse to protect priests.

"When the abuse crisis first broke big in the 2000s, people's hearts were broken by the abusers, but people were angry at the people in authority who covered it up," Vallone said. "Now, it's gone beyond anger and it is rage."

Vallone said these feelings are justified.

"It's very disheartening, things that have come out in the report," he said. "The things that have been said have really shook people up."

The grand jury investigation named Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik as someone who covered up abuse over the years. After the report was released this week, Zubik called upon the church to listen to victims.

"We all must take this report to heart," Zubik said. "It's a story of people's lives, people who need to be heard, people who need to be healed."

Zubik is the signatory of the letter the priests are supposed to read this weekend.

Prayers for the victims, abusers, and parishioners

Vallone of St. John of God said he's prepared his own way to address the report. He has added four petitions to the Prayers of the Faithful which will be said during mass. One prayer asks for the victims and their families to find peace. Another prays for the abusers and a third is for the clergy in power who covered up the crimes to find humility and justice. The last one is directed at parishioners.

"For all of us, as the severely wounded body of Christ. With faith, open love, that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the holy church, but rather we commit with courage to take action so that justice and mercy will somehow meet in this crisis," Vallone read.

These prayers will be prayed at every mass at St. John of God this weekend. Vallone is retiring in two months, and said the biggest challenge for whoever takes over for him will be figuring out how to draw more young people to the church, a problem that existed even without this week's grand jury report.

LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

As usual, Catholic priests in Pennsylvania will celebrate Mass this evening and tomorrow. But this will be the first weekend since the release of a grand jury report into sexual abuse in six Roman Catholic dioceses in the state. From WESA in Pittsburgh, Kathleen Davis reports on how one priest plans to talk to his parishioners about the report.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPENING DOOR)

KATHLEEN DAVIS, BYLINE: Father Lou Vallone is the priest at St. John of God, a Gothic-style Catholic Church in McKees Rocks, right outside of Pittsburgh.

LOU VALLONE: The church was built in the 1890s. This was a German parish, and so this church is a one-fifth scale model of the pattern of the cathedral in Cologne.

DAVIS: Vallone has been at St. John of God for 15 years, but he's been a priest in Pittsburgh for 45.

VALLONE: Our congregation's an older congregation - aging, dying. We have about 120 funerals a year.

DAVIS: Vallone says the grand jury report has certainly been on the minds of people in his congregation. The investigation alleges 99 former priests in the Pittsburgh diocese have credible child sexual abuse allegations against them. The report also alleges leaders in the diocese covered up abuse to protect priests.

VALLONE: When the abuse crisis first broke big in the 2000s, people's hearts were broken by the abusers. But people were angry at the people in authority who covered it up. Now it's gone beyond anger, and it is rage.

DAVIS: Valone says these feelings are justified.

VALLONE: It's very disheartening - things that have come out in the report, the things that have been said have really shook people up.

DAVIS: He says he's heard this rage and sadness from not only parishioners but also fellow clergy members.

VALLONE: And so I am getting much from them. And the battery on my phone wears out about twice a day.

DAVIS: The grand jury investigation named Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik as someone who covered up abuse over the years. After the report was released this week, Zubik called upon the church to listen to victims.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID ZUBIK: We all must take this report to heart. It is a story of people's lives - people who need to be heard, people who need to be healed.

DAVIS: The diocese has requested that all Catholic priests in the Pittsburgh area read a letter at weekend Masses addressing the report. It says, in part, we cannot bury our heads in the sand. There were instances in the past when the church acted in ways that did not respond effectively to victims. The letter also outlines some ways the diocese plans to improve how it addresses and reports abuse, including hiring a former state prosecutor to review their policies related to child protection.

Father Lou Vallone of St. John of God says he's prepared his own way to address the report. He's added four petitions to the prayers of the faithful, which will be said during Mass. One of them...

VALLONE: For the victims and their families that our true contrition and purpose of amendment may bring them some solace in healing.

DAVIS: Another prays for the abusers. A third is for the clergy in power who covered up crimes that they find humility and justice. And then there's this one.

VALLONE: For all of us as the severely wounded body of Christ with faith, hope and love. But the gates of hell will not prevail against the Holy Church. But rather we commit with courage to take action so that justice and mercy will somehow meet this crisis.

DAVIS: These prayers will be prayed at every Mass at St. John of God this weekend.

Vallone is retiring in two months. He says the biggest challenge for whoever takes over for him will be figuring out how to draw more young people to the church - a challenge that would exist even without this week's grand jury report.

For NPR News, I'm Kathleen Davis in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUFJAN STEVENS' "SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.