EL CAJON, California, October 9, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – On October 4th, San Diego's Bishop Robert McElroy held the third in a series of eight "listening sessions" that he said would “focus on seeking input from people in the pews" regarding the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church and the actions required to heal from the scandal.
A crowd of roughly 300 people filled the parish hall of Our Lady of Grace in El Cajon. The hall was renamed last week after being originally named in honor of Monsignor Thomas Moloney, a former pastor at Our Lady of Grace who was named in the diocese’ 2007 list of priests against whom “credible allegations” of sexual abuse have been raised.
Before the event could formally begin, a man rose to his feet and began to speak, commanding attention without the aid of a microphone. Billy, a parishioner at Our Lady of Grace, read a testimony regarding his time at a Catholic youth camp in Southern Illinois, Camp Ondessonk, where he claimed he was a victim of sexual grooming.
Billy recalled being asked by the youth camp’s adult male staff to join them in stripping naked before going down a water slide. He complied.
“I can’t help but realize we were being scoped out to be raped,” he said.
He could not recall whether clergy were among the staff, but noted that Camp Ondessonk was founded by Father Robert Vonnahmen. Vonnahem, now deceased, was eventually defrocked over allegations that he sexually abused minors while director of the camp. Billy said the knowledge that he was at a place where such atrocities occurred, potentially against his peers, has been very painful for him.
While Billy was speaking, several hired security guards approached him and attempted to silence him. According to Billy, the guards also physically removed his 15-year-old daughter for filming her father’s testimony. However, Bishop McElory, standing in the back of the hall, allowed the man to continue speaking.
Billy continued, "How are we supposed to trust the bishops? The same bishops that were supposed to fix this before - we're supposed to trust them again to fix it now? By this point, McElroy had joined the man at the front of the room. Billy turned to face McElroy and said, "I'm talking about you, Bishop. I can’t believe a reasonable man would ignore Dr. Sipe's letter."
Billy was referring to a 2016 letter written by now deceased Dr. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine Monk, psychotherapist, and expert witness in cases involving clergy sexual abuse. After two meetings with McElroy to discuss the sexual abuse crisis, Sipe hired a process server, posing as a donor, to deliver a letter to the bishop that detailed allegations of sexual abuse by priests and the subsequent cover-up by church leadership. Sipe sent the letter this way after McElroy’s staff told him, according to Sipe, that the bishop could not meet with him anytime in the foreseeable future. Included among these were the abuses that ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick committed against seminarians.
In a diocesan statement issued on August 8 of this year, McElroy said, "After I read [Sipe's letter], I wrote to Dr. Sipe and told him that his decision to engage a process server who operated under false pretenses, and his decision to copy his letter to me to a wide audience, made further conversations at a level of trust impossible."
In an apparent rebuttal to McElroy's statement, Billy said, "If someone sent me that letter, I'd make it my life's work to...disprove a crazy man's theories or to rid this evil from the root of my church. It's worldwide!" His remarks were met with boisterous applause.
Pointing to McElroy, who was just a few feet away, Billy then stated, "I have no faith in your will or your character." He concluded his remarks by saying, “Until everything is exposed into the light of God, we cannot heal."
McElroy calls Viganò's statement not 'fair-minded'
The evening brought other challenging questions for McElroy, several of which addressed the letter written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former papal nuncio to the United States, regarding ex-Cardinal McCarrick and Pope Francis’ handling of the crisis.
One table asked, "You appear to dismiss Viganò's claims based on your opinion of his character. However, Cardinal DiNardo and some of your brother bishops have called for an investigation of these claims. Will you support this investigation, and what specifically are you going to do to support it?”
McElroy replied that there were two major themes to Viganó's letter: the first concerned McCarrick and the question of how he came to a position of such power in the Church despite his long history of sexual abuses. The second, said McElroy, was "crafted in a way that was designed to focus all the responsibility on Pope Francis and anyone affiliated with him and to hide responsibility of other people because there was a political agenda."
An audience member cut McElroy off, saying, "So you're willing to dismiss the entire rest of [Vigano's] letter based on what you think his motives were?" McElroy chided the audience member, saying that the session’s format called for one question per table. But the next table stayed with the subject, asking, "How is it that 80 bishops have said we needed an investigation since this latest information came to light…and five were opposed, named in Archbishop Viganó's testimony. And one of them was yourself. So we ask: why is this?"
McElroy replied that he agrees there needs to be an investigation in the dioceses in which McCarrick had served. Upon hearing this, another attendee shouted, "That's not true! That is not true that you're in favor of the investigation. That has not been your statement." McElroy answered, "I have consistently said in all of these sessions, I've said many times before, I think these questions have to be answered. But I've also said that that is not a fair-minded statement of Archbishop Viganó; it had an agenda to it which is ideological and aimed at undermining Pope Francis.” An audience member retorted, "Why would he be in hiding if it's an agenda? He's in hiding! It’s not an agenda, he's telling the truth!" Her comment received hearty applause.
McElroy downplays chastity amidst abuse crisis
The conversation then shifted away from Viganó and toward the role that homosexuality has played in the sexual abuse scandal. "What is the Church doing to address the issue of homosexuality, specifically active homosexual activity, in clergy?" asked one participant.
Speaking about the importance of priests faithfully living their call to celibacy, McElroy responded, "If I come across an instance where [chastity is not being lived out], then I have to deal very strongly with that; whether it’s homosexual or heterosexual."
Another table asked, "Could you affirm the church's teaching that all are loved and welcome, but homosexual actions are sinful?" McElroy affirmed that we're all called to live out the virtue of chastity, but added — echoing a sentiment he previously expressed in America magazine — "Chastity is not the only virtue, nor is it the most important virtue. The most important virtue Christ tells us is to love our God with all our heart and to love our neighbors as ourselves. And sometimes people reduce individual men and women to one dimension of their life." McElroy concluded by reaffirming Church teaching that "sexual activity takes place morally only within the context of marriage between a man and a woman." and that “no person who is homosexual should suffer unjust discrimination because of that - or violence.”
Interrupting the next questioner, a woman interjected, "Bishop McElroy, the reason that we think that you are promoting LGBT is because you use that nomenclature...You use the nomenclature of the homosexual activist agenda...You're advocating for removing the term 'intrinsically disordered' from the catechism with regards to homosexual acts. You're supporting what's going on down at St. John the Evangelist, because you came and concelebrated at the ‘Always our Children’ mass last October with Auxiliary Bishop Dolan, and all of the homosexual activists from San Diego were given front row seats."
After the woman alleged that the parish of St John the Evangelist had an openly homosexual man "running the show," the Bishop cut her off, saying, "Alright, you've gone far enough now. You're not going to stand here and disparage an employee of the diocese. You can leave if you're going to do that. The other things you can say—you cannot attack an employee of the diocese...I owe it to the employees of the Archdiocese [sic] not to let those calumnies be said."
When asked for his thoughts following the event, participant Chris Sawaya, a parishioner at St. Kieran, said, “[The bishop] clearly doesn't consider sexual activity among adults to be any of his business, which is disconcerting, considering the elephant in the room is homosexual predation and unchastity among clergy. I think this whole conflict is still missing the real fight. We are seeing the fruit of a 50-year-old rebellion against church teaching on human sexuality. He mentioned that chastity is not the most important virtue. Now that’s a hell of thing to say in the context of this scandal.”
The listening sessions are being hosted at one parish in each of the eight deaneries, or regions, within the San Diego diocese. Our Lady of Grace is in the El Cajon deanery, which includes 16 parishes. Father Peter McGuine, Pastor of Our Lady of Grace Church said, “The bishop’s ‘listening session’ provided a safe environment for those in attendance to hear from one another, to hear from the bishop, and, most importantly, for the bishop to hear from them on a subject and chapter in the history of the local church that is excruciatingly painful for all of us."
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