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Priests in O.C. Plan a Day of Penance

They want to show victims of sexual abuse by clergy that Catholic Church is sorry. Public is asked to submit ideas for acts of contrition.

November 30, 2002|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

Dusting off a spiritual tool popular 19 centuries ago, two Orange County priests are organizing a group of clerics to perform a day of public penance in mid-December to show victims of sexual abuse that the Roman Catholic Church is sorry.

The priests will take suggestions for the acts of contrition, which could range from eating at a soup kitchen to listening to molestation victims, from the public for the next two weeks.

"Whatever I need to do that day, I'll do," said Father Bill Barman, one of two organizers who sent e-mails this week to fellow priests in the Diocese of Orange asking for their participation. Before the messages were sent, eight clerics already had committed to the service. "This isn't a mental exercise like prayer, but a visible, incarnate act."

The public penance -- thought to be the first by clerics in the United States since the scandal broke in January -- is needed because bishops and priests have failed to make amends for molestation committed by the clergy, the priests said. Their hope is the idea will spread among the rank-and-file priests at dioceses across the country.

"We have up to this moment been perceived as part of the problem rather than part of the solution," said Father John McAndrew, pastor of San Francisco Solano Church in Rancho Santa Margarita.

"[This] is to humble ourselves and show people that we get it," he said.

The leader of a victims support group applauded the idea, saying steps like this can bring healing.

"I think that's exactly the right approach," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Words alone are nice, but I think what most survivors are looking for are really practical, tangible steps taken by church leaders."

Barman and McAndrew came up with the idea a few weeks ago after they started to complain about the lack of contrition shown by Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and other church leaders who have been implicated in the church's sexual abuse scandal over the last year.

"We realized we were really good at telling others what they should do," McAndrew said. "But what about us? We want to show an openness to conversion, a willingness to be changed, to be more attentive."

The priests decided that two rules would govern the penances: They won't be for show, and they won't be for blame.

"I'm not doing this for Cardinal Law," said Barman, pastor of Our Lady of La Vang in Santa Ana. "This is to show solidarity with and empathy for the victims."

Though they haven't told their boss about their brainstorm, Bishop Tod D. Brown liked the idea when told about it by a reporter.

"I admire their initiative to do something on the local level to demonstrate to the public and especially to the victims the gravity of the abuse suffered by young people and children by members of the clergy," Brown said.

Clohessy said it's not surprising that the move came from the ranks of parish priests.

"It's noteworthy ... that this is coming from the bottom up," he said. "The bishops have done so little."

Barman said he and other priests have more freedom to do something like this than cardinals and bishops, who have to worry about pending litigation and the public perception that "they're showing off" if they propose something similar.

The practice of public penance goes back to the first decades after the death of Jesus. Because the number of Christians was small, "when you sinned, you really hurt the body of Christ," Barman said. So acts of contrition -- some lasting months -- were a common way for wayward Christians to work their way back into good standing and show the public the church took sinful behavior seriously.

The Orange County public penances will be performed Dec. 18, when the priests will meet at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen and homeless shelter in Santa Ana to divvy up the public's suggestions. An independent poverty relief organization run by laity, the Catholic Worker has set up a telephone line -- (714) 835-6346 -- for the public to call to recommend penances.

The day of service by priests will take place during the heart of Advent, the four-week period of reflection that Christians use to prepare spiritually for Christmas. It's a perfect time for public penances for priests, the clerics said.

"This is a time of purification," McAndrew said. "Advent is about bringing light into darkness. What better time to do something like this?"

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