In Marin County, the pastors of St. Anselm Parish in Ross and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Mill Valley sensed that communication and community were needed in the days following the Pennsylvania grand jury report that lifted the veil on seven decades of child sex abuse.

They invited parishioners to separate group “listening sessions.” Catholic San Francisco sat in on one of them at the St. Anselm parish hall in Ross Aug. 29.

For two hours, about 25 parishioners including the pastor candidly shared feelings and theories about why the church they love is in crisis again and about what, if anything, they might be able to do about it.

This was a “call to arms” for laity who believe they might be able to help “save the church,” said pastoral council chair Joan Mann Thomas.

“The church is facing a crisis that it hasn’t faced perhaps since the Middle Ages,” she said. “The outcome could be very much the same if the laity does not react,” she said.

The format for the gathering was unstructured and unmoderated except for an opening prayer and statement by Father Jose Shaji, St. Anselm pastor, and two readings, including a passage from Psalm 37.

Initially, talk centered on identifying the “root cause” of child sex abuse among clergy.

“Why this happened, there are a lot of theories on this, but I think we’re afraid to call it by its name,” said Mann Thomas. “There are sexual predators in every institution in the land. We just seem to have an overabundance of them.”

One man wondered whether normal sexual development was stunted by those who entered the seminary at a young age and formed by others with the same lack of development. Another believed the problem was “all the homosexuals in the priesthood.”

“I don’t have any facts and figures to base this on,” said Joe Burke, “but there are obviously, I mean I think, many gays in the priesthood and that is one of the main underlying causes if not the cause of the problems of abuse.”

“I disagree with what Joe said,” said Arleen Hansen, turning to face him. “I have a gay son and he is not a pedophile.” 

The hazards of priesthood celibacy and clericalism were also considered, and Father Shaji, a priest for 26 years, offered a personal perspective.

“When you come out of the seminary, you believe that you are superior to everyone else,” he said. ‘I am a priest, I am consecrated, I am above you.’ This can give you a feeling that nothing and nobody can touch you.”

He said he also believes the priesthood can be attractive to people who are “not comfortable in the world” for a number of reasons. “I don’t know how to put it, but some people come to hide in the priesthood,” he said.

A visiting priest from Africa who is a student at the nearby San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo said the media was “bombarding” people with news about abuse in the Catholic Church that he felt was out of proportion to reality.

“I was shocked to find that it is just 1 percent of priests who have this issue,” he said, calling media saturation of the sex abuse scandal, “the activity of the evil spirit trying to destroy the church.”

Father Shaji mentioned the late Richard Sipe, a former Catholic priest whose studies of the sexual behavior of Catholic clergy were referenced in the movie “Spotlight.” Sipe concluded that between 6 percent and 9 percent of clergy have been sexually involved with minors and that only about half of priests are celibate. Other studies dispute this figures.

In 2002, the U.S. bishops commissioned a comprehensive study of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and deacons across the country. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice report published two years later covered a 55-year period between 1950 and 2005. It reported abuse rates among clergy in the range of 3 percent to 6 percent.

According to Father Shaji, it was Sipe who linked the failures of celibacy among church leaders to a system of secrecy and hypocrisy in which the abuse of minors could take place.

Catholic San Francisco spoke to Father Pat Michaels after he invited his parishioners to the Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish hall in Mill Valley on Aug. 27 for the same purpose. More than 35 parishioners took him up on it.

“One of the things that really came out of this is how powerless people feel,” he said. Participants spoke about struggling with the idea of leaving the church, or about “sending a message” to bishops by withholding financial support, “all efforts that demonstrate whatever power we think we have.”

An Aug. 17 letter from Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone asking the faithful to share in “acts of reparation” for the sins of the church was largely lost on the group, said Father Michaels, even making some angry.

“Many Catholic adults don’t understand that Jesus suffered and died for us and that suffering for the sake of each other’s sins is a part of our tradition,” he said. Only one person in the group beside himself knew that and “she is a convert.”

Full story at Catholic San Francisco.