Priests are hurt by crisis, but remain resilient and faithful

Aaron Lambert

When the news of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick broke and thus opened another wave of scandals within the Church, one thought went through Father Bert Chilson’s mind: “Not again.”

“When I heard this, my heart just sank,” Father Chilson, pastor of St. Stephen’s Parish in Glenwood Springs, told the Denver Catholic. Father Chilson was ordained a priest in 1978 and recalls living through the Church scandals that broke in 1992 and then again in 2002.

“[It] really gets you down and has you looking over your shoulder a little bit, because you don’t know how people are going to react or respond,” he said.

With the current crisis in the Church unfolding more and more every day, it’s clear that the lay faithful are hurting and looking for answers from the Church’s leadership.

But how are our priests holding up?

For priests like Father Chilson, it hasn’t changed who they are as priests, or what they do in being Christ to their people. And the same can be said for the majority of priests.

“It might get me down for a day or two, but then [I’m] refocusing on what I’ve always done,” he said. “Who I am as a person, who I am as a priest…adelante, as they say in Spanish: moving forward, being who you are, being your authentic self.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that priests aren’t hurt by it. Ordained in 2016, Father Mason Fraley, parochial vicar at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, told the Denver Catholic that this scandal evokes a few different reactions in him simultaneously.

“On the one hand, I am a baptized Catholic too — another son of the Church, and seeing priests betray Christ and the Church by betraying their vocation causes sadness,” Father Fraley said. “On the other hand, I am a fellow priest, and these men are my brothers. I must admit I feel more anger in this respect.

“Their betrayal of their vocation is also their betrayal of my vocation. I love my priesthood, and so naturally I am inclined to see someone who brings shame upon it as a threat.”

Priests of the people

When the scandals broke in 2002, Father Chilson remembers that some of his brother priests withdrew from the people, stopped taking appointments and even stopped hugging people in response to what was going on. In such a time of uncertainty, they were afraid to extend pastoral care to their parishioners, for fear of giving the wrong impression.

Although he said that his heart sank with the current wave of scandals of sexual abuse in the clergy, Father Bert Chilson has not stopped engaging people to bring them to Christ and show them the goodness of the priesthood. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

Father Chilson said that he doesn’t think this behavior is healthy, especially as a priest.

“We are still priests of the people, we need to engage with them and be genuine and authentic,” he said. “I still try to be the engaging person that’s present and available and reaching out, as the More Than You Realize conference talked about, [and using] those touchpoints.

“We need to be more present than ever and not be afraid to show people the goodness of the priesthood.”

Neither Father Chilson nor Father Fraley have experienced any ill-willed behavior toward them while wearing their clerics in public. They also say that, thankfully, Catholics tend to be very loyal to their own parish priest, and they’ve received nothing but support from their parishioners.

Doing better

Both priests agree that the crisis has shaken the trust of the faithful in the pews and see this as an opportunity to re-evaluate their own priesthood and see how they can better be the servants the Lord has called them to be.

“I am hardened in my resolve to be a good priest, and more determined to maintain those disciplines which will keep me from being a bad one,” Father Fraley said. “Priests are poor sinners too, so we are of course in desperate need of your prayers, penances and personal support.”

Father Fraley also offered a request to the faithful to help priests remain resilient and faithful: “Demand that we be very holy.”

“As a priest, I feel so blessed, so honored, so grateful for my vocation, for the opportunities to receive and to use all the Gospel virtues of love and care and service unabashedly and without holding back, even despite this blow,” said Father Chilson. “It’s a moment to stop and re-evaluate, do better and regain the confidence and trust of the people.”

COMING UP: Seeking justice, transparency and accountability, archdiocese voluntarily enters agreement with Colorado attorney general

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Seeking justice, transparency and accountability, archdiocese voluntarily enters agreement with Colorado attorney general

Initiatives include independent investigation and independent reparations program

Mark Haas

With a desire to “shine the bright light of transparency” on the tragedy of sexual abuse of minors within the Church, Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila has announced that the three Colorado dioceses have voluntarily partnered with Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser to conduct an independent review of the dioceses’ files and policies related to the sexual abuse of children.

In a joint news conference on February 19 at the attorney general’s office, it was also announced that the three dioceses will voluntarily fund an independent reparations program for survivors of such abuse.

“The damage inflicted upon young people and their families by sexual abuse, especially when it’s committed by a trusted person like a priest, is profound,” said Archbishop Aquila. “While this process will certainly include painful moments and cannot ever fully restore what was lost, we pray that it will at least begin the healing process.”

It is well known that child sexual abuse is a societal problem that demands attention and action,” said Weiser. “I am pleased the Church has recognized the need for transparency and reparations for victims.”

Discussions for these two initiatives began last year with former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, and then finalized recently with Weiser. Both Coffman and Weiser praised the dioceses’ willingness to address this issue.

“It is well known that child sexual abuse is a societal problem that demands attention and action,” said Weiser. “I am pleased the Church has recognized the need for transparency and reparations for victims.”

Coffman added: “Childhood sexual abuse is not specific to one institution or to the Catholic Church. The spotlight is on the Catholic Church, but this abuse is indicative of what has happened in other institutions. We want to shine a light on what has happened.

“[The dioceses] demonstrated their commitment to acknowledging past abuse by priests and moving forward with honesty and accountability.”

The independent file review will be handled by Robert Toyer, a former U.S. Attorney for Colorado. His final report is expected to be released in the fall of 2019 and will include a list of diocesan priests with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of minors, along with a review of the dioceses’ handling of the allegations. The report will also include an evaluation of the dioceses’ current policies and procedures, something that was not included in other states’ reviews, such as the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report.

“We in Colorado have found our own way in the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report,” said Weiser. “We have a set of dioceses here who came to the table to develop appropriate solutions that are collaborative, committed to transparency and put victims first.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, alongside Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, speaks during a press conference announcing a comprehensive joint agreement with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office to conduct an independent review of the dioceses’ files and policies related to the sexual abuse of children at the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center on February 19, 2019, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Archdiocese of Denver)

“This is not a criminal investigation. This is an independent inquiry with the full cooperation of the Catholic Church,” said Weiser.

Since 1991, the Archdiocese of Denver has had a policy of mandatory reporting of all allegations to local authorities. The procedures were further strengthened by the 2002 Dallas Charter to include comprehensive background checks, zero-tolerance policies, safe environment training, and training for children as well.

“This independent file review presents an opportunity for an honest and fair evaluation of the Church in Colorado’s historical handling of the sexual abuse of minors by priests,” said Archbishop Aquila.  “We are confident in the steps we have taken to address this issue and that there are no priests in active ministry currently under investigation.”

We have a set of dioceses here who came to the table to develop appropriate solutions that are collaborative, committed to transparency and put victims first.”

The independent reparations program will be run by two nationally recognized claims administration experts, Kenneth R. Feinberg and Camille S. Biros, who will review individual cases and make financial awards to victims who elect to participate. The victims are free to accept or reject the award, but the Colorado dioceses are bound by what the administrators decide.

The program will have oversight provided by an independent committee chaired by former U.S. Senator Hank Brown. More details will be announced in the coming months, and the program will officially open closer to the release of the final report.

This is similar to a program instituted by former Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput in 2006. Archbishop Aquila said it is important for local Catholics to know the program will be funded by archdiocesan reserves, with no money being taken from ministries or charities at parishes, annual diocesan appeals, or Catholic Charities.

“With humility and repentance, we hope the programs announced today offer a path to healing for survivors and their families,” Archbishop Aquila said.

And acknowledging how painful this has been for everyone in the Church, Archbishop Aquila said he hopes this is step towards restoring confidence among the faithful.

“Helping people to restore their trust, to live their faith, that is essential,” said Archbishop Aquila. “And to help them have a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ, so that is my goal in all of this. I know that healing is possible in Jesus Christ.”

For a copy of the full agreement and a detailed FAQ, visit archden.org/promise.