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One Congregation's Question Of Faith Following The Pennsylvania Clergy Report


Yesterday at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in suburban Atlanta, a priest spoke to his congregation about sexual abuse. Catholics are struggling with the details of a Pennsylvania grand jury report released last week. It outlined decades of sexual abuse in six dioceses by more than 300 priests involving more than 1,000 children. His words led to a remarkable exchange during the service yesterday. Susan Reynolds was in the pews at St. Thomas More. She's also a professor of Catholic studies at Emory University's School of Theology. Welcome.


CHANG: So can you tell us - what was the priest saying about these revelations of widespread abuse by priests in Pennsylvania?

REYNOLDS: It was a powerful homily. You know, he began by saying, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. And he went on to say what the church needs is radical structural reform led by laypeople.

CHANG: And then what happened?

REYNOLDS: Well, he turned to sit down after he was finished - and like I said, it was a powerful homily - when, all of a sudden, in about the fifth row, a dad stood up. And for those of your listeners who are Catholic, you know that you don't just (laughter) stand up during Mass.

CHANG: This is very rare, for someone to just speak unannounced in the (laughter) middle of Mass.

REYNOLDS: I've been to Catholic for 31 of my 31 years, and never have I ever seen anything like this. He was shaking. He was determined. He was terrified. His shirt was matted to his (laughter) back with sweat.


REYNOLDS: And he simply stood up and said, how? (Laughter) How do we do that? Tell us how.

CHANG: And how did the priest respond to that?

REYNOLDS: Well, you know, that was the most remarkable thing. He didn't say, you know, sir, we can talk about this after Mass, or, please sit down. The ushers didn't descend upon him. He turned back around and looked the dad in the eye and offered a response. It was a humble response. It was a halting response, in some way embodying the inadequacy of every response. I don't even remember what he said exactly, I was so stunned. But it was deeply thoughtful and deeply compassionate.

CHANG: But did he answer the question how?

REYNOLDS: You know, he didn't offer a lot of specifics. I think what was most important about the exchange was that he responded. The dad said, you know, I have a son. He's going to make his First Communion. What do I tell him? And the priest said, well, what's your son's name? And the father responded. And it was this very personal, very gracious exchange. And again, not a perfect answer. But the fact is, in this moment, there are no adequate answers.

CHANG: As you were watching this spontaneous conversation unfold in the middle of the church between this father and this priest, what did the room feel like? How did the congregation react?

REYNOLDS: Well, (laughter) when he first stood up, I heard a grumble behind me. Somebody said, sit down.

CHANG: Really?

REYNOLDS: But that stopped very, very quickly when it became apparent that, you know, this man was interrupting the liturgy in a way that was prophetic and humble and deeply authentic, deeply sincere. I would say that you could have heard a pin drop, but that's not true because there were so many kids in church.

CHANG: (Laughter).

REYNOLDS: But really, everyone was just - you know, jaws were on the floor. I have to say that when - the minute he stood up, I burst into tears. This crisis has been so personal for me because of the work that I do and because of my Catholic faith and my lifelong involvement in the church that when I saw this man stood up, who I'd seen before at Mass - and I knew he had a son - tears just started streaming down my face.

CHANG: Today the Vatican released a letter from Pope Francis saying the church had failed to address the abuse of children. He wrote, we showed no care for the little ones. We abandoned them. What lessons should the Catholic church overall take from what you experienced on Sunday, you think?

REYNOLDS: I appreciated Pope Francis' statement. I think what the church can take from this particular moment is that what the people are looking for are not finessed press releases. They're not public relations campaigns. They're looking for a place to name their grief and their betrayal and their sorrow in public and in sacred space in church and not, you know, to be received with condescension, but to be listened to.

I think part of why previous responses to these crises in the church - particularly since Boston 16 and a half years ago, Catholics feel in some way that the church's response has been inadequate or disingenuous. The wounds haven't healed. The grief is still there because in some way we haven't had that prior moment of lament, of naming our pain in ways that we feel are received, are heard by those in positions of power and authority.

CHANG: And that's where the deeper work begins.

REYNOLDS: And that's where the deeper work begins.

CHANG: That's Dr. Susan Reynolds of Emory University. Thank you very much.

REYNOLDS: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.