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.

Taking Back the Church: Clergy Sex Abuse Survivor Aims to Prevent Abuse on Cape Cod

Clergy sex abuse survivor Dan Sherwood isn’t waiting for the Catholic Church to change. Instead he’s joining the fight to prevent future victims.

Dan and I met for several months beginning last fall before he eventually asked me to share his story in February. His motivation was twofold – a desire to pursue an authentic, shame-free life at age 51, and to help others who have endured similar suffering. His began shortly after he moved to Falmouth at age nine and became an altar boy at St. Anthony’s Church in East Falmouth on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

After going public about the decade of sexual and emotional abuse inflicted upon him by Monsignor Maurice Souza, Dan continued his journey of truth by traveling to Vatican City. There church leaders from around the world had gathered for the Pope’s much-anticipated summit on clerical sex abuse. Although the abuse crisis was the top agenda item at the November 2018 meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, at the Vatican’s request, no action was taken, with the promise the issue would be discussed on a global level in Vatican City.

In a letter from Massachusetts bishops to parishioners dated February 15, a week prior to the papal summit in Rome, the gathering was described as a way “to seek to create a strong consensus throughout the universal Church of zero tolerance for sexual abuse.” It goes on to state that in 2018, the primary attention of responsibility for the abuse crisis shifted from priests to bishops, to include accountability for bishops and cardinals. U.S. Bishops subsequently announced the need for establishing a method to report both cardinals and bishops implicated in the cover-up of sexual abuse, in addition to a review committee to include “appropriately-credentialed lay leadership.” The letter was signed by Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston; Mitchell Rozanzki, Bishop of Springfield; Robert McManus, Bishop of Worcester; and Edgar da Cunha, Bishop of Fall River. O’Malley also serves as president of the pope’s Commission for the Protection of Children.

Pope Francis concluded the four-day meeting of the minds on February 24 with hyperbole rather than action. Although he declared an “all-out battle” against the abuse of minors, calling it an “abominable crime” he promised to “erase from the face of the earth,” he failed to offer concrete measures for doing so.

For survivors like Dan, the lack of action, and what he believes to be the height of hypocrisy, only add insult to injury. “The Pope is the one person with the authority to enforce zero tolerance into Church law. He had an unbelievable opportunity to do that, but I think he screwed up and he’s hiding behind the bishops,” Dan said. “The Catholic Church is so quick to preach against abortion, but at the same time, many of these church leaders have either been abusing kids themselves, or shuffling predator priests from one parish to another while turning a blind eye as more children are victimized.”

Each day, the headlines continue to validate his point. Just this week, the Pope refused the resignation of French cardinal Phillipe Barbarin of Lyon, who was found guilty on March 7 of failing to report allegations of abuse of boy scouts committed by a priest dating back to the 1970s. Barbarin, who is appealing his six-month suspended sentence, said the pope, invoking the presumption of innocence, instead told him to do whatever he felt necessary for the good of the archdiocese.

Dan believes it’s time for parishioners to take back their church by demanding transparency from their diocese, and he is hopeful Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey will join states across the country currently launching investigations into abuse and cover-ups.

“If you’re concerned, the best thing to do is talk to your parish priest. Ask him what he knows. Tell him you want answers from the Diocese. Demand a complete list of names of accused priests. Not just some of them, all of them,” he said.

Falmouth Style reached out to Monsignor Stephen Avila of St. Anthony’s Church for comment. In a return call, Avila stated in a voicemail that “stringent” safety protocols have been in place since the mid-1990s, and thorough investigations are conducted in response to “credible” accusations of abuse, citing the website of the Diocese of Fall River (which comprises Cape Cod & Islands) for further information. A follow-up call to Msgr. Avila was not returned. Calls to Father Tim McGoldrick at St. Patrick’s Church in Falmouth, and Father Arnold Medeiros of St. Elizabeth Seton Church in North Falmouth and St. Joseph Church in Woods Hole were also not returned.

“To me, that doesn’t show much ‘pastoral care’ from a monsignor in the local parish. That kind of attitude would make survivors, or people who want to report abuse, feel very disenfranchised,” Dan said. “They probably would go elsewhere, or maybe never come forward, allowing the abuse to continue. That response seems pretty out of touch with the issue.” 

For information about the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, and to report abuse, visit Bishopaccountability.org.

Taking the Message to Rome: Clergy Sex Abuse Survivors Demand Transparency

Clergy sex abuse survivor Dan Sherwood recently shared his story with his hometown of Falmouth. Now he has shared it with the world. He and Sarah brought his message to the papal summit in Vatican City in February, where they met clergy sex abuse survivors and supporters from all over the globe. Read all about it here…