Learning hope from Mexico

Archbishop Aquila

This past week Pope Francis visited Mexico. As I read his messages, it became clear to me that his insights also apply to the United States, in particular, his reflections on hope amidst great difficulty.

How often have we heard in our political discourse these last several months, ‘Our country isn’t what it should be.’ or ‘We don’t win anymore.’? We’ve also experienced the tragedies of Kalamazoo, San Bernadino, Newtown, and the list goes on. In other words, the struggles that we face in the U.S. are more similar than they are different. That’s why the Pope’s focus on hope and its true source is something to which all of us should pay attention.

The first thing that he did upon arriving in Mexico was to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which he said was the central point of his visit. Reflecting back on his visit, the Holy Father said on Feb. 21, “To remain in silence before the image of the Mother was what I intended first of all.”

After 20 minutes of quiet prayer, he celebrated Mass before the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He preached about how the same Mary who walked the paths of Judea and Galilee to help her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, also made herself present to the suffering people of the Americas through her appearance to St. Juan Diego.

When Mary appeared to him, she brought hope to a person who regarded himself as “worthless.” “On that morning,” the Pope said, “Juancito experienced in his own life what hope is, what the mercy of God is. He was chosen to oversee, care for, protect and promote the building of this Shrine.”

We usually think of a shrine as a building, but the Holy Father expanded that idea, saying, “God’s Shrine is the life of his children, of everyone in any condition,” including, for example, the youth, the elderly, and families in need of healing. Our Lady of Guadalupe says to each of us as she did St. Juan Diego, “Am I not your mother?”

When I think of young people who have become disillusioned with the empty promises of materialism and feel alone, of the elderly who feel abandoned or like they are a burden, or of families that are in need of forgiveness, I hear Our Lady saying, “Am I not your mother? Am I not here?” This is the source of our hope. We know that Mary is our mother and is ready to lead us to Jesus her son.

At his meeting with young people, the Pope heard about how many young Mexicans feel like they don’t have a future, like they are condemned to a life filled with violence and crime, one where dreaming is not possible.

Their essential message to him was: “all of us can live, but we cannot live without hope.”

We, too, are hit with the ravages of violence. Most places in the U.S. don’t experience drug cartel violence like Mexico does, but we are plagued by other forms of violence like mass shootings, acts of terrorism, crime and a society that supports the drug industry.

Pope Francis responded to the youth’s request for a word of hope by saying, “the one word I have to give you, which is the foundation of everything, is Jesus Christ.”

“When everything seems too much, when it seems that the world is crashing down on you, embrace his Cross, draw close to him and please, never let go of his hand, even if they are dragging you; and, if you should fall, allow him to lift you up.”

So many of the problems our country is faced with today could be solved if Jesus Christ was truly the Lord of each of our lives. Faith in Christ gives us hope and from that hope comes charity toward one another. Only Christ, who made us for himself, can bring about true conversion and peace in society. He is the cure for the isolation, indifference and coldness that are so common today.

As he was preparing to leave Mexico and fly back to Rome, Pope Francis made a comment that I have not heard him make anywhere else. He said, “I assure you, that on some occasions, as I passed by, I felt I wanted to cry on seeing so much hope among people who suffer so much.” Hope was visible on the suffering faces of the Mexican faithful who gathered to bid him farewell.

From the gift of faith comes hope and from those two virtues grows charity – the love of God and neighbor. At the center of the faith of Mexico stands the miraculous appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who sowed the virtues of faith, hope and love in its soil. Let us pray that through her intercession God will increase our faith, so that we can have hope in him, even though we might suffer, and allow God who is love to fill our hearts so that our land may be transformed!

Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, pray for us!

COMING UP: Opinion: There is cause for hope amid dire reports of clergy sexual abuse of minors

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By Vincent Carroll

This Dec. 13, 2019 opinion column was originally published by the Denver Post.

When will it end, many Catholics must wearily wonder. And not only Catholics. Anyone who reads or listens to the news must wonder when the Catholic church sex scandals will ever be over.

But in one major sense, the crisis already has passed and what we’re witnessing — and will continue to witness for years — is the aftermath.

To see what I mean, go to Appendix 4 in the report on sexual abuse of minors by clergy in Colorado issued in October by investigators led by former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer. There’s a bar graph highlighting the “number of victims by decade the abuse or misconduct began.” Towering above all other decades for the archdiocese of Denver is the bar for the 1960s, representing 74 victims. In second place is the 1970s with 25 victims, and the 1950s is third with 14. The 1990s had 11 victims and the 1980s three.

As the report observes, “Roman Catholic clergy child sex abuse in Colorado peaked in the 1960s and appears to have declined since. In fact, the last of the Colorado child sex abuse incidents we saw in the files were 1 in July 1990 and 4 in May 1998.”

In other words, nearly 70 percent of all the abuse documented in the attorney general’s report within the Denver archdiocese occurred a half-century or more ago.

Denver’s history differs somewhat from the national experience, but not wildly so. Researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice concluded in 2004 after examining the national data on accusations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy between 1950 and 2002 that “more abuse occurred in the 1970s than any other decade.” The 1960s were also atrocious years for Catholic youth and so was the first half or so of the 1980s.

It appears that accusations in the years since have held to the same chronological profile. Mark Gray, a survey researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, reported recently that CARA has analyzed 8,694 accusations of abuse made between 2004 and 2017 (compared to 10,667 earlier allegations studied by John Jay researchers). The result: The distribution of cases is “nearly identical to the distribution of cases, over time, in John Jay’s results.”

In other words, a large majority of the accusations of abuse that have surfaced in this century are also dated to the horrible era of 1960 to 1985.

This pattern even holds for incidents in last year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report, although news coverage often left the impression that it recounted a fresh flood of new incidents. The report’s scope and details were certainly new and devastating, but most (not all) of the incidents and perpetrators were old (or dead). Those accused of abuse in the Pennsylvania report, for example, were on average “ordained as priests in 1961,” according to Gray.

Given this context, it’s hardly surprising that “the most prolific clergy child sex abuser in Colorado history,” according to the special investigator’s report, namely Father Harold Robert White, was also ordained in 1961.  His depredations “continued for at least 21 years,” the heyday of sexual abuse and church complacency, during which time he “sexually abused at least 63 children.”

Chilling.

I am perfectly aware that the Colorado investigation hardly exhausts the number of victims of clergy sexual abuse. It covers diocesan priests but not those who served in religious orders. Records are likely incomplete and some perhaps destroyed. And the actual number of victims certainly exceeds the number who have come forward.

There is also the question of a reporting time lag — the fact that victims often don’t muster the courage to come forward for years. But if this had been a major factor in the reduced number of incidents after 1985 at the time of John Jay College’s 2004 report, that number would surely have seen a disproportionate surge by now. And yet it has not.

The authors of the state investigation emphasize that they are unable to reliably say that “no clergy child sex abuse has occurred in Colorado since 1998,” and warn against concluding that clergy child sexual abuse is “solved” given ongoing weaknesses they outline regarding how the church handles allegations.

Their caution is understandable given the church’s history in the past century (in the report’s words) of “silence, self-protection and secrecy empowered by euphemism,” and their recommendations to strengthen the diocese’s procedures are for the most part on point. But it is also true that child sexual abuse will never be “solved” in the sense of it being eradicated — not in religious denominations, and not in schools, daycare centers, scout troops, youth sports, and juvenile social service and detention facilities, to cite just some of the venues that predators unfortunately exploit and where an accounting for the lax standards of the past has not been undertaken.

John Jay College researchers also released a followup study in 2011 in which they noted, “the available evidence suggests that sexual abuse in institutional settings . . .  is a serious and underestimated problem, although it is substantially understudied.” Meanwhile, “no other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse and, as a result, there are no comparable data to those collected and reported by the Catholic Church.”

Early this month, Bishop Richard J. Malone resigned from the Buffalo Diocese over gross mishandling of sexual abuse claims. He likely won’t be the last. Meanwhile, Catholics still await the Vatican’s promised explanation for how defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who allegedly preyed on seminarians for decades, could have been promoted time and again. Is there any credible defense?

So the bad news hasn’t stopped. But behavior in the priestly trenches actually is much improved, and that is surely cause for hope.

Email Vincent Carroll at [email protected]