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Amid Pennsylvania Catholic Church abuse scandal, trust broken but faith unshaken

“The people of the church are messed up,” said one congregant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “It’s not the church’s teachings.”
by Phil McCausland /
Image: Steve Ciccocioppo
Steve Ciccocioppo, center, prays before Mass at the Cathedral Parish of St. Patrick in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 17, 2018.Matt Rourke / AP

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HARRISBURG, Pa. — Their trust in the church may be damaged but their faith in God and Catholic teachings remain unshaken.

That was the sense from many on Friday as more than 100 congregants of the Diocese of Harrisburg, local clergy and a smattering of nuns gathered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a noon mass that had been transformed into an extended plea for forgiveness. The service was held in response to a grand jury report released Tuesday detailing decades of extensive and appalling sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy against children.

“Now do I think what the priests did was horrific? Yes, I do," said Harrisburg resident Antonia Stepanic, 74, as she walked to her car. "Do I think the hierarchy covering it up was wrong? Yes, I do. Did it shake my faith? No, it did not. Not one iota. I still have faith in God. I still have faith in Catholicism.”

Emily Wuerz, 20, agreed and said her faith was not dependent on the individuals who made up the church but the teachings themselves.

“The people of the church are messed up,” she said. “It’s not the church’s teachings.”

The grand jury report identified 45 former priests from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg among the 301 named as abusers throughout the state. This diocese covers 15 counties, 89 parishes, two basilicas and St. Patrick's Cathedral. The priests here stand accused of inappropriate touching, sexual grooming, rape and other forms of sexual abuse, according to the grand jury report, which notes that bishops and diocese administrators worked to cover it up.

Father Chester Snyder, 66, sat on a wood bench just inside the cathedral after providing those who attended the mass Friday with the rite of confession. He said Catholics should “demand nothing less than humility and transparency and holiness” of the church as details of the sexual abuse continue to develop and more victims stepped forward.

“I learned a long time ago that priests aren’t perfect, but most of the time their imperfections are manifested by insensitivity, eccentricity or silliness,” said Snyder, who has been a priest in the diocese since he was ordained in 1977. “We’re on a whole different level here. What we’re talking about is not imperfection. What we’re talking about is sin. What we’re talking about are crimes. And to put those crimes in the same sentence as the word ‘priest’ creates natural tension and dissonance in the hearts of Catholics — mine, too.”

Snyder had served as the pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, from 1995 until 2010, when he came to work for the diocese’s administration here. He said he continues to struggle with details from the report.

To many of the priests in the diocese, the scandal is deeply personal and offensive, Snyder said. These were men they knew. Some of the priests named had worked with him, they served as mentors or were priests in parishes where he grew up, he said, and the news had left him shaken, angry and frustrated.

“A lot these days I’ve been praying for the strength to forgive them,” he said. “That’s not something I can do alone. That kind of forgiveness is divine, and I don’t have it in my nature. So I have to rely on the Lord to lead me to that forgiveness.”

Image: Ronald Gainer
Bishop Ronald Gainer celebrates Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Patrick in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.Matt Rourke / AP

Bishop Ronald Gainer began his homily Friday by quoting from the grand jury report, including sections that said “much had changed in the past 15 years” with how the church treated allegations of sexual abuse. The bishop then called for a yearlong effort of repentance, to support healing and regain the trust of the diocese. That would include days of fasting, church officials said.

“We all know the saying, ‘Words are cheap,’” Gainer said, “but my words in these past weeks and my words now at this mass are invested with profound remorse, firm resolve and consistent action that these actions committed by some members of the clergy that violated the innocence and dignity of children must be eliminated from the church’s life.”

Many who sat in the pews were on their lunch break, having made their way from day jobs to the cathedral, steps away from the state capitol building in downtown Harrisburg. Some retirees were also present and attended the Catholic schools in the diocese where some of the abuse took place.

Steve Ciccocioppo, 64, a retired railroad worker, attended the service with his 84-year-old mother, Blanche, to support the church’s effort to repent. He went to the Cathedral School here in Harrisburg until 1969 when he graduated from eighth grade.

“It doesn’t only occur in the Catholic Church, but we’re in the bull's-eye right now,” he said, calling the report a “black eye” on the church and the catechism of Jesus.

Sunlight shone through massive stained-glass windows depicting Jesus’s acts and stories from the Bible while the statue of St. Patrick adorning the church's stone facade seemed as resolute as ever, but inside, the church was subsumed with grief and promises of change.

During the service, congregants were asked to pray together on behalf of the victims and those who felt betrayed by their church, and the cathedral echoed with the response, “Lord, hear our prayer.”

Image: Irene Youngman
Irene Youngman holds a box of ribbons to be given away before the Mass.Matt Rourke / AP

Prior to the service, two women handed out white ribbons to any who would accept them. The lids of cigar boxes holding the ribbons were inscribed in black sharpie: “Show Your Support for Abuse Victims! White Ribbon Campaign."

Neither of these women represented the church, but both were lifelong Catholics who lived in the area. About half the people who walked by took a ribbon, some who passed by — including a group of nuns — appeared conflicted but later returned to take a ribbon.

Irene Youngman, from Hershey, Pennsylvania, was one of the women handing out ribbons. She said she felt betrayed by the church and hoped it would begin a dialogue about sexual abuse. But for now, she said she looked forward to attending the service and hearing what the bishop had to say.

“I hope it’s the church asking for forgiveness today,” Youngman said.

Gainer, the bishop, was dressed in purple robes and accompanied by 16 priests as he walked down the center aisle of the cathedral. After a Bible reading about Mary Magdalene, the bishop addressed the crowd from a marble dais — where the word “Justice” was painted in gold on the wall 20 feet above his head.

Gainer said that since the church published the names of the priests alleged to have committed the abuses two weeks ago, many victims had reached out to him and told him that it had helped them begin to heal.

“They feel confirmed and believed,” he said.

The diocese planned for five hours of quiet adoration at the cathedral after the mass followed by another Service of Repentance at 6 p.m. presided by Gainer. During the adoration the church offered opportunities for confession, to pray the rosary and enter the Chaplet of Divine Mercy at 3 p.m.

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