Opinion

He was a priest. She was a nun. What they say about the priest scandal.

More than 1,000 children identified in priest abuse case, PA grand jury finds

A Pennsylvania grand jury says its investigation of clergy sexual abuse identified more than 1,000 child victims. The grand jury report released August 14 says that number comes from records in six Roman Catholic dioceses.
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A Pennsylvania grand jury says its investigation of clergy sexual abuse identified more than 1,000 child victims. The grand jury report released August 14 says that number comes from records in six Roman Catholic dioceses.

The news about a Pennsylvania grand jury’s devastating report on decades long sexual abuse by hundreds of Catholic priests will shake the faith of some Catholics and deepen the distrust of the church by some non-Catholics.

But for Sylvia and Roderick O’Connor of Raleigh, the response is especially complicated. The couple, married 43 years, each had a previous marriage. They were married to the Catholic Church.

Roderick, originally from Scarsdale, N.Y., is a former Catholic priest who served mostly in the Raleigh diocese for 18 years. He left the priesthood in 1974, but continued to serve the church as a social worker. He left because he wanted to do more than guide people’s spiritual lives. He wanted to help people directly. At 90, he remains a faithful Catholic who attends Sunday Mass and counts priests among his friends.

Sylvia, 74, originally from Baltimore, is a former Catholic nun. She entered the convent of the Sister Servants of The Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1962 and left in 1974. As a nun, she taught at a Catholic school in New Bern, but she has since left the church entirely. She was dismayed by the church’s treatment of women, a feeling she said was confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI’s move to investigate American nuns for being too liberal on theological and social justice issues.

In conversations by phone and around a table at their North Raleigh home, they shared their unusual perspectives on attachment and estrangement from a church rocked by scandal that keeps arising out of the past.

Roderick said the extent of sexual abuse by priests has stunned him from the time the first incidents surfaced more than 15 years ago. “I was astonished. I didn’t see anything like this in the seminaries. I didn’t know any priest personally that had been involved,” he said, but he added that he has recognized the names of some priests who have appeared in news reports.

Sylvia said the problem went unnoticed or unreported because Catholics extended their faith to include a blind reverence for all priests. “They had these priests on a pedestal. That’s why they entrusted their children to them,” she said.

Roderick agreed. “As a seminarian, I visited a family in Ireland,” he said. “It was embarrassing. They were treating us like we were the pope or something. They did put (priests) on a pedestal.”

The revelations of sex abuse by Catholic clergy have cracked or toppled that pedestal. Roderick thinks that’s a positive thing.

“The priest should not be above the people,” he said. But Sylvia worries about the damage having too broad an impact. “I think it’s tragic. There are a lot of good things the church has done” — Roderick interjected “is doing” — and Sylvia continued, “The church is doing tremendous good and I think it will suffer from this.”

One area where the scandals could take a lasting toll is vocations. But Sylvia said the loss can be countered by widening the door to the priesthood. “The call is still there and it’s going to women and married men. All the church has to do is open its eyes to it,” she said. “People are being deprived of spiritual care by a shortage of priests and the church could solve that problem, but these old men don’t want to do it.”

Roderick said loosening the male-only and celibacy limitations on the priesthood would be a balm for the wounded church and could reduce the chances of a future scandal. “I think everything would work better,” he said.

The scandal has hurt the church, but its members’ faith will carry it, Sylvia said: “The Catholic Church has suffered, but I think (the church) will continue. I respect the people who have chosen to stay and deal with this, especially the women.”

But Sylvia herself is done with churches. “Anytime you have a large organization you are going to have a certain amount of problems. That’s why I haven’t joined

a new church. I just do my own thing,” she said.

And Roderick still does his, no matter how bad the news.

“The reason I go to church is because of the people. I feel the soul

of the church is still there somewhere among the people,” he said. “I feel I shouldn’t leave because we need to work make it whole again.”

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