Moments into a Mass of Reparation and Healing at St. Euphrasia Church in Granada Hills on Thursday night, Bishop Joseph V. Brennan invited the congregation to kneel.
He then explained how appropriate he thought it would be for him to lay prostrate in front of the altar, asking Msgr. James Gehl and Father Anselm Nwakuna to join him on each side in the act of submissive humility.
“We do this when we are ordained as priests, and bishops, and we do this on Good Friday, but frankly I don’t think we do this enough,” said Brennan, who then listened to the “Kyrie, Eleison” sung by the cantor.
For the last several weeks, in the wake of the reawakening abuse scandal affecting the Catholic Church in the U.S., Gehl thought it was also appropriate to allow his church — which is just steps away from the elementary school that it supports — to gather and pray for strength as well as allow conversation to begin for the healing process.
The Mass of Reparation and Healing was the conclusion of a Novena for Healing of Our Church. After Brennan’s Mass celebration, an hour-and-a-half public forum in the church followed to allow for questions and answers.
It achieved what Gehl said he hoped it could.
“As soon as I heard about this issue come up again, it brought back a lot of emotion in me,” said Gehl, who used to work as Director of the Office of Family Life for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “I put out a prayer that we recite at church each Mass that we have been doing for weeks. Then we decided to do something more formal, the novena — nine days with a prayer — which was to culminate with this Mass.”
Brennan said in his homily that as he prepares to go to Baltimore in November for a meeting of bishops, he wants to take concerns from parishioners and present them as the next step in finding a resolution.
“I’ve only been a bishop for three years — I’m pretty much a rookie in this thing,” said the former vicar general and pastor at Holy Trinity Church in San Pedro.
“Having gone to these meetings the past three years, it was kind of business as usual. This time, we all have a sense it cannot be, it will not be, business as usual. Things need to change. Especially with the bishops in terms of accountability and transparency. We need to be accountable for our own mistakes and how things have been mishandled.
“I think bishops have been for too long in damage-control mode. The first thought is to protect the institution, to defend the Church. This means different things to different people. This is not unique to the Church. It happens with big institutions. Big government. They are in ‘fix it’ mode, but they really don’t fix things. Things get worse instead of better. We have to do things differently.”
Brennan referenced a letter he said he received that stated, “I’m tired of your apologies. Don’t apologize. Do something. Change.” He ended his homily with a new stanza he created for the song “We Are One Body” that included his singing the words: “See the victims long for a chance to speak. By the word of the Lord that we all seek.”
As part of an expressive outpouring of comments in the post-Mass conversation, Brennan was seated facing the congregation in front of the altar with Gehl and Nwakuna. Joining them was Dr. Heather Banis, the coordinator of the Victims Assistance Ministry at the archdiocese, who explained what her office does in concert with the office of Safeguard the Children.
“This has been an awful scourge on our Church, an awful experience for those directly impacted as well as all of those who love and care for the victim-survivors,” said Banis, a clinical psychologist educated at both USC and UCLA who specializes in trauma.
“This work is challenging to talk about in public because it is so private. But everything we are doing is working. I want to be clear that it’s rare to get a call now about current clergy abuse allegations. We aren’t seeing new cases. It’s because we’re doing what we’re doing and not letting people have access to do harm that has been done in the past. A huge thank you to all who have been involved in these programs.”
Banis also admitted to a statistic she is painfully aware of: An estimated 1 in 6 men and 1 in 3 women have experienced sexual abuse.
“Stats can fluctuate,” she added. “But even if those are close to being true, as I look at all of you, we have survivor-victims in our midst. And you can’t tell by looking at them. But many say that’s not how they feel. They feel as if it’s in neon on their forehead. We can’t tell, but what we can also do is be mindful and sensitive about something we think is a joke or a flip comment, something we saw on the news. It could pierce and wound someone deeply. We need to listen. You don’t have to fix it — you can’t fix it — but you can listen.”
Parishioners also heard the petitions read after the Gospel of Matthew that asked not just for healing of abused victims and their families, but also to victims who died from suicide as a result of anxiety caused by abuse, and a call for those clergy found guilty of abuse “may face reparation for their sin but also find forgiveness in God’s mercy.” The response: “Heal our wounded Church, oh Lord.”
Gehl reiterated that as Brennan said at the beginning of the Mass, this might be the first of many.
“I feel this is something each parish can do — look their parishioners in the eye and give them a chance to talk, said Gehl. “You saw the emotions that came out. It spoke volumes. My suggestion is other pastors do something like this, and have people with the know-how who can help.”
Tom Hoffarth is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles.