National Child Abuse Prevention Month: Safety Should Be an Everyday Issue

By Sarah E. Murphy

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Fall River – Sarah E. Murphy/Falmouth Style

Here in the United States, April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Meanwhile, in Vatican City, and around the world, Pope Francis continues his publicity tour of denial and deflection on the topic of clergy sex abuse. His words, no matter how vehemently stated, continue to contradict his purported beliefs and supposed measures of action, most recently in a statement to The Guardian on February 20. The day after the Pope began his highly-anticipated summit to address the issue – which can easily be described as a global safety crisis – he equated those who question the Church’s handling of the issue as “friends of the devil,” who want to see “100 priests hanging in Vatican Square.”

In a letter to the four members of the Papal Summit Committee, Ending Clergy Sex Abuse (ECA) addresses what they describe to be the Pope’s “disturbing pattern of disparaging survivors who question his handling of the issue.” A worldwide organization of clergy sex abuse survivors and supporters spanning 21 countries and six continents, ECA was at the forefront of the summit and met with the Papal Committee, spearheading a vigil for survivors and a march in the streets of Rome to demand zero tolerance of abuse and cover-ups. Additionally, ECA is calling out the Pope for actions since the summit that they believe reverse his commitment to zero tolerance, specifically in regard to removing abusive priests from ministry, holding bishops accountable for cover-ups, and reforming church procedures in the handling of abuse cases.

Here in my hometown of Falmouth on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, residents are at odds over potential zoning for substance abuse treatment centers, which is the result of a recent controversy regarding the proposed siting of a needle exchange program across from St. Anthony’s Church in East Falmouth. Monsignor Steve Avila, pastor of St. Anthony’s, attended a December 2018 meeting of the Falmouth Board of Selectmen to speak against the project, citing safety concerns for children who attend Mass and other programs at the Church, including Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. When I contacted Father Avila to give him the opportunity to offer a message to Dan Sherwood, who recently shared his story of being sexually abused at St. Anthony’s for nearly a decade while he was an altar boy, I received no response. Rather than focus on hypothetical harm to children at the Church, Father Steve should be addressing the historical harm which has occurred within the walls of St. Anthony’s for generations.

This past Sunday, I attended a Mass of Atonement, Prayer, and Penance at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fall River (the diocese of which Cape Cod comprises) to commemorate Child Abuse Prevention Month. Fall River Bishop Edgar da Cunha was the celebrant, and offered special intentions for victims of clergy sex abuse. I was there in support of all victims, but especially the men and women who have shared with me their most private confessions in recent months, long-buried memories they have kept to themselves due to shame and misplaced guilt. I approached the Bishop at the conclusion as he was blessing parishioners to inquire if he had a message I could bring back to Dan, who is still waiting for his pain to be acknowledged by St. Anthony’s.

“I want to say that I feel sorry for what happened to him. In the name of the Church, I want to ask for his forgiveness and apologize,” Bishop da Cunha said. “I hope he finds God’s grace in his heart to give him healing and peace. Whatever way we can help him continue the journey of healing and forgiveness, I’ll be happy to help.”

I pressed the Bishop on how to follow-up, since I recently tried to reach him and was unsuccessful. He suggested Dan reach out to the Diocese’s Office of Safe Environment, which is where I called, however I thanked him and passed along the message anyway. Perhaps we’ll take him up on the offer…

For more information, visit Ending Clergy Abuse.

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