The Eucharist. CC0 Creative Commons

Priests in New York

Catholicism in the US is going through one of the hardest moments in history, with the many priests accused of sexual abuse. But this is only one side of the coin. The positive experiences of some priests: Fr. Rich Veras, Fr. Sansone, and Msgr. Albacete.
Marco Bardazzi

It had been a hard day, a very hard day for Fr Rich. It is not easy being a Catholic priest in the America of 2002, in the midst of the media offensive which has introduced the suspicion that every man wearing a Roman collar may be a sexual predator. The sensation, to those wearing the priestly habit, is like that of the plague-spreaders in Manzoni’s The Betrothed, with fingers pointed at them as the bearers of a plague that is mowing down victims among children and adolescents.

And yet, something positive is making its way and emerging in the stories of priests who, in the midst of the troubles of one of the most difficult moments in the history of Catholicism in the United States, continue to look to a Presence made tangible by a companionship.

On that day in late April, Fr Rich Veras had participated with dozens of other New York priests, at the invitation of Cardinal Edward Egan, Archbishop of New York, in a meeting to bring the pastors of the diocese up to date on the situation of the sexual abuse crisis. This was inevitably a sad event, devoted to examining new courses of action being evaluated by the authorities of the American Church in order to deal with the situation.

With his mind and heart weighed down by that meeting, Fr Rich and Dino (a high school teacher) went that same evening to another meeting of those responsible for ecclesiastical activities in Staten Island–the slice of the Big Apple where they live–without expecting very much from that gathering. They had been invited to explain why their parish, from the moment when the barely known student youth group that calls itself “GS” had appeared on the scene, was different from the others. The mother of one boy had told others about something that aroused the curiosity of the committee of representatives of the various parishes that assists the Archbishop’s Vicar in Staten Island: “I do not know anything about pastoral work with young people, but what is happening between Fr Rich and Dino and some of the high school kids is surprising.” With all the fears connected with the alarm about sexual abuse, which by now is poisoning all the relationships between priests and teenagers in America, it is likely that some of the members of the pastoral committee may have come that evening burdened by concern. But it was enough to see those two as they spoke to dispel all fears.

The response to the scandal
Fr Rich and Dino were supposed to talk no more than half an hour, but after more than an hour spent describing the history of CL and their experience, they were deluged with questions and enthusiasm. At the end, Msgr Dorney, Vicar for Staten Island, took the floor, visibly moved. “Fr Rich and I,” he said, “today lived a day in which all the weight of the problem of the ‘scandal’ seemed almost impossible to bear. But this evening, after listening to you, everything takes on meaning again, and I feel full of life and full of hope. We always talk about doing, doing, doing, but these two men have chosen simply to be. Their hearts are on fire and, looking at them, I catch fire myself. I wish every parish had priests like this, true disciples of Christ.”

Thinking about that evening afterwards, Fr Rich is still amazed at how the Mystery succeeds in showing a positivity in reality, resembling a patch of blue sky breaking through in the middle of a storm. “Giorgio Vittadini told us that the Resurrection, the presence of Christ, is the answer to the priest scandal,” he explained, “and that event has illustrated this point in a way that could not be any clearer. When I started describing my experience, everything changed. The amazement on their faces reminded me of the grace granted to me to live in the midst of miracles, of the miracle of Christ present.”

Talk shows and newspapers
Fr Rich’s experience is not isolated. The ecclesiastical environment in America seems, on the priestly level, often disoriented by the media offensive about the sexual abuse scandal, and anyone who brings reason and hope–the fruits of an education to the faith unknown to most people in the United States–immediately becomes the object of authentic interest. This is true also within the ranks of the same media that, tired of the lack of results in the war on terrorism and waiting for new attacks on America, have made the crisis in the Church a topic for talk shows and magazine covers.

Msgr Lorenzo Albacete is familiar with this, since he published in the New York Times Magazine an impassioned defense of celibacy, inserted into an account–devoid of hypocrisy–of his own personal “struggle” with this aspect of priestly life. After demolishing and sweeping away the simplistic theories which claim that the entire problem of sexual abuse of minors can be traced to celibacy (i.e. if priests had their own sex life, they wouldn’t go about molesting children), Msgr Albacete outlined its real meaning. “Celibacy has more to do with poverty than with sex. It is the radical, outward expression of the poverty of the human heart, the poverty that makes true love possible by preventing it from corrupting into possession or manipulation. That is why child abuse by priests is so shocking, so horrible, so destructive. It places celibacy at the service of power and lust, not of love.”

Recognizing Christ
In the depressing panorama of the aridity and vacuity of the various comments made on the scandal, this was an article that made history in some ways, read by millions of people. This became clear from the number of invitations that first CNN and then other TV stations extended to Albacete to participate in their talk shows. But it was evident also from the letters to the editor of the Magazine published in subsequent issues. “It was great to read something positive,” wrote Karen Ard from New York, “after everything the press has written lately. I am not Catholic, but if I knew there was a priest of your caliber in a parish near me, I might even go to church.” Steven Yap, from Chicago, sympathized with Albacete: “It is very sad that many fine priests today feel like they have been accused of a crime and have to prove their innocence.” Fr Damian Richards, a priest in Atwood, Kansas, was surprised to find himself “nodding his head yes” as he read each line of the article.

A few days later, Msgr Albacete happened to hold a retreat for Hispanic priests in New York, and the topic, once again, could not help being the scandal in which they are all immersed. “I said to them,” he recounts, “that these things go beyond my understanding of what is a sin, and I decided to break it off. I pulled out Fr Giussani’s Recognizing Christ and proposed it as our working text. All kinds of explanations are being given for what is happening in the Church: homosexuality, women, celibacy, and so on. But the real problem is the absence of Christ. This is why we must go back to ‘recognizing Him.’” From that retreat, a new School of Community was born in New York; thirteen Hispanic priests take part, led by Albacete.

School of Community
School of Community, now more than ever, seems to be crucial for those who wear the priestly habit. This was well put, in surprising words, by Fr Antonio Sansone, a relatively new friend of CL. His church in Brooklyn has become a meeting place for a School of Community and an adult Fraternity group. Fr Sansone has been the parish priest a little over a year, after earlier working alongside another priest who has a long-standing friendship with the Movement, Msgr Ronald Marino. In his new parish, he immediately opened the doors to CL and began participating in School of Community. He also spoke about it to the faithful several times in the parish bulletin. In one of the most recent bulletins, he enclosed copies of John Paul II’s letter for the anniversary of the recognition of the Fraternity, explaining that he wanted the people of the neighborhood to find out what the Movement that has appeared in their church is, directly from the Pope’s words. And in one of the most recent School of Community meetings, talking about the terrible moment that the American Church is now living, Fr Sansone surprised and moved everyone with his words: “I realize that I am afraid to get close to the children in school because of what is happening. The friendship with you is the central point of my life right now. If it weren’t for you, today it would be hard for me to be a priest.”

Only an experience that does not censor even the ugliest aspects of reality succeeds in overcoming the prevailing climate, which in this period is intimidating a large number of American priests. Fr Rich questioned himself at length about how to approach the topic of sexual abuse with the GS kids in Staten Island. “I went more than once to School of Community thinking about how I could bring up the subject,” he said, “but every week, the work on At the Origin of the Christian Claim and the experiences that came out of it were so rich, the kids were so involved and struck by the way we were discovering Christ’s presence in concrete ways in our lives, that it seemed to me in some ways out of place to bring up the problem of the scandal. It appeared to me like having to insert something unreal, theoretical, and abstract into a discussion about reality.”

Without screens
Then, one day, the talk centered around At the Origin of the Christian Claim touched on Jesus, who did not put up any “screens”–political, social, or cultural–between Himself and His complete embrace of the human. Fr Rich offered his kids the example of a New York high school run by religious who decided, in the wake of the scandal, not to do any more one-on-one tutoring with individual kids, for fear of possible accusations. This decision disconcerted some of the parents, including one of Fr Rich’s parishioners, who told him how important one of the priests’ private lessons was for her son. “I told the kids it was sad to see that, as a result of the scandal, a social barrier had been raised between the priest and that boy.

At that point, the topic of sexual abuse was on the table. One of the girls in the group, Tiffany, immediately voiced her concern: “Fr Rich, you have to be careful! A teacher in my school was unjustly accused of something like this a few years ago, and his career was seriously damaged.” Fr Rich remembers this as a beautiful moment, one of those that drive away all fears and suddenly make clear what seemed difficult and mixed-up. “I cannot allow,” he said to his kids, “these scandals to set up a screen between me and all of you. If being careful means that I have to stop spending time with you, then I cannot be careful. If being with you means putting myself in danger, then I will put myself in danger, because what matters is discovering and recognizing Christ.”