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Anger, prayer, renewed push for accountability: St. Louis Catholics respond to clergy sexual abuse

On Friday evening, the Archdiocese of St. Louis is holding a Mass of Reparation at the Cathedral Basilica for victims of sexual abuse.
Brian Plunkett | Flickr
On Friday evening, the Archdiocese of St. Louis is holding a Mass of Reparation at the Cathedral Basilica for victims of sexual abuse.

The word “outrage” doesn’t quite capture how Catholics in St. Louis have been reacting to a recent report revealing that nearly 1,000 young people were sexually abused by hundreds of priests in Pennsylvania over a 70-year period.

“I think everyone is just really grieving … there’s so much anger and some hostility even,” said Sandra Price, executive director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. “The reports that were outlined in the grand-jury report in Pennsylvania [were] grisly, detailed reports of abuse – that’s what sexual abuse is. And that the public has seen what sexual abuse really looks like, it’s traumatic – there’s just no words.”

Price, along with colleague Carol Brescia, joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh for a conversation leading up to Friday’s planned Mass of Reparation. The segment also included comments from Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley and from David Clohessy, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP.

Price acknowledged that there is a “growing sense of distrust with the clergy sexual-abuse scandal.”

“And certainly I think it challenges people’s faiths,” she added. “People have a lot of questions right now.”

Brescia, who is the archdiocese’s victim assistance coordinator, said her office has had “a few calls” since the report emerged out of Pennsylvania, and she continues to encourage people who have experienced abuse to reach out.

Representing the Archdiocese of St. Louis during Thursday’s show were (from left) Sandra Price, executive director for the Office of Child and Youth Protection, and Carol Brescia, victim assistance coordinator.
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Representing the Archdiocese of St. Louis during Thursday’s show were (from left) Sandra Price, executive director for the Office of Child and Youth Protection, and Carol Brescia, victim assistance coordinator.

“These are cases in the past – they aren’t recent,” Brescia said in reference to the latest calls, “but I think because of the report, it’s giving people the courage to speak up and the motivation to call and let us know what happened.”

She went on to describe the process that the archdiocese follows when an allegation is made – typically via phone or email.

After first talking over the phone, she said, an individual then meets with an “investigatory team” that includes Brescia, Price and outside professionals. Their report is then presented to a review board primarily made up of lay people.

“They’re from various disciplines including medicine, psychology, social work, law enforcement – and so every case that’s reported to us, we bring to the review board,” Brescia said. “And then they advise the archbishop on how the allegation should be handled … and he always has followed the advice of the review board, which I think is very important.”

When asked whether there are any priests active in the St. Louis area today who are the subject of allegations, Price said there are “27 priests who are alive today who have been removed from ministry that are not allowed to be in priestly ministry because of substantiated allegations of abuse.”

“And obviously we recently released a press release with another priest who’s been removed due to child pornography,” she added.

Hawley, who last month accepted the archdiocese’s invitation to review allegations of clergy sexual abuse, said Thursday that the lack of subpoena power is “a challenge” for the investigation but not reason “to do nothing.”

“And the alternative is to simply wait for other people to act, and that is something we’re just not willing to do,” he said. “And so with the archbishop’s pledge to open to us all records that the archdiocese has, to cooperate fully and to give us all information that we would be able to get with a subpoena, we intend to take him at his word and proceed on that basis. And we’ve asked the other dioceses to do the same.”

David Clohessy, a child victim of abuse and the founder of SNAP, offered his take on the local response by the Catholic Church – including the cooperation with Hawley and the upcoming Mass of Reparation.

“These are kind of feel-good gestures that many bishops do,” he said. “Quite frankly, they don’t protect a single child, they don’t expose a single predator, they don’t punish a single complicit church official. So it’s largely just, we think, a public-relations effort, and it’s part of an ongoing public-relations campaign by Catholic officials to define this crisis as something of the past.

“But unfortunately kids are still being molested, victims are still struggling in shame and isolation and self-blame. But church officials seem fixated on trying to talk about all of this as though it’s ancient history when in fact it’s not.”

Brescia responded to Clohessy’s statements, saying she’ doesn’t see the mass “as a PR move.”

“I see it as what we do as a community of faith when this huge of a sin and crisis and evil exists – we come together and we pray for forgiveness,” she said. “That isn’t all we do. But that in itself is very important in our faith.”

Brescia added that she agrees there’s much work still ahead.

“We need to continue to find out about past abuse [and] encourage people to come forward and share their stories with us so we can help them,” she said. “We need to continue our prevention so this doesn’t continue. We need to be very aware of what’s happening in the present moment.”

Clohessy emphasized the need for exposure.

“Every single child-molesting cleric has to be publicly exposed – suspended – and their whereabouts need to be revealed so that parents can protect their kids,” he said. “The archdiocese is shielding the names of about 57 predators who they admit are credibly accused child molesters. And their identities are secret because Archbishop [Robert] Carlson insists that they be.”

Related Resources

To report abuse to the Archdiocese of St. Louis, visit the associated page on its website. Victims of abuse are also welcome to contact law enforcement.

Related Event

What: Mass of Reparation
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7
Where: Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, 4431 Lindell Boulevard, St. Louis

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Caitlin Lally is thrilled to join St. Louis Public Radio as the summer production intern for "St. Louis on the Air." With a bachelor's degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Caitlin also freelances for area publications like Sauce Magazine and the Belleville News-Democrat. In her career, she's covered topics such as Trump's travel ban, political protests and community activism. When she's not producing audio segments or transcribing interviews, Caitlin enjoys practicing yoga, seeing live music, and cooking plant-based meals.
Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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