In an unusual move, clergy sex abuse victims are praising Belleville’s controversial Catholic bishop for his honesty.All too often, Catholic officials led or let parishioners assume that any church cutbacks stem from clergy sex abuse and cover up cases. That’s rarely the case.
That’s why we applaud Belleville diocesan officials for making it clear that the impending cuts are due to aging priests and shifting population, not lawsuits against pedophile priests and corrupt bishops.
Fewer people attending church may also be a factor, we suspect.
It’s easy and tempting for bishops to imply that child sex abuse litigation leads to the reductions in church programs. But again, long-standing demographic trends are usually the real reason, and it’s refreshing when Catholic officials acknowledge this.
(SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is the world’s oldest and largest support group for clergy abuse victims. SNAP was founded in 1988 and has more than 10,000 members. Despite the word “priest” in our title, we have members who were molested by religious figures of all denominations, including nuns, rabbis, bishops, and Protestant ministers. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)
Contact - David Clohessy (314-566-9790 cell, SNAPclohessy@aol.com), Barbara Blaine (312-399-4747, SNAPblaine@gmail.com), Peter Isely (414-429-7259, email@example.com), Barbara Dorris (314-862-7688 home, 314-503-0003 cell,SNAPdorris@gmail.com)
Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011
Diocese may close up to 20 parishes: 'If you can't deliver the sacrament. ... it's like Nike not being able to make shoes'
BY LAURA GIRRESCH - News-Democrat
BELLEVILLE -- At the end of a lengthy review, Catholics in the Diocese of Belleville could have up to 20 fewer parishes, Bishop Edward Braxton announced in an open letter on the diocese website.
He noted the diocese's upcoming 125th anniversary in January, and with that, said: "As we give thanks for the past we must plan for the future, taking into account the realities of the present. A number of factors indicate that we need to consolidate some of our parishes if we hope to have strong and vital Catholic communities in the years to come."
The process is called the Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal and Restructuring, and it involves a first phase of six months, starting in September, in which parishes and diocesan schools will use a set of criteria to evaluate their viability. The first phase will also include town hall-style meetings for parishioners to express their views. The parishes will submit their reports to a committee chaired by the vicar general and moderator of the curia, Rev. John W. McEvilly.
In the second phase -- May to February 2013 -- the committee will study the recommendations and meet with parish leaders. The committee will make a final recommendation to Braxton.
As an explanation in part, Braxton wrote: "We currently have 69 diocesan priests in parish ministry. Five of these are 75 or older and three more are 70 and older."
The Rev. John Myler, pastor at St. Peter's Cathedral and a spokesman for the diocese, said other factors include the growth in population in some towns and cities and the loss of population in others.
When asked whether the reconfiguration is because of the $6.33 million settlement awarded earlier this month in a sexual abuse case against a priest, Myler said the diocese has laid out this plan independent of the court case. He said diocesan leaders were discussing this years before the settlement.
The diocese covers the 28 southernmost counties in the state and includes 121 parishes. A closure of 20 parishes would eliminate 17 percent of those in the diocese. Eight of the parishes are in Belleville, the largest single-city concentration in the diocese.
In 2002, the diocese formed "clusters" of parishes that would share priests, and Myler said that in some cases, the clusters have worked well.
"Now it's time to move a little bit beyond clustering and talk about some reconfiguration," he said.
The bishop and Myler emphasize that no decisions have been made; they want the parishes to be the first to make recommendations about their futures because every parish is different. Some may be geographically close together and want to consolidate to offer better services, while some may be too large to accommodate more people.
"It's very much a bottom-up thing, not a top-down thing," Myler said.
When the diocesan leaders first started talking about the plan, Myler said, "Virtually unanimously from every deanery, every group of priests, their response was, 'We must do this and now is the time to do this.'"
Also, he said, "The response that I have received from a handful of parishioners is, 'It's about time.'"
Frank Flinn, who retired from his adjunct professor of religious studies position at Washington University in St. Louis but still teaches courses there in the subject, said there are two factors in the diocesan leaders' decision to consider closing parishes: Declining enrollment in some parishes and a loss in the number of priests. There are fewer priests available to deliver the sacraments, which lay people cannot do.
"If you can't deliver the sacrament. ... It's like Nike not being able to make shoes," Flinn said.
While he's not entirely familiar with the Belleville diocese or the populations of the communities that are part of it, he said that in general, loss of participation in a parish follows loss of community population, though at a slower pace.
"So maybe they're just catching up in Belleville," he said.
He said the consolidation of parishes may change the experience for Catholics who are part of them, but, "In the long run, I've found out that people adjust to that."
He also said Catholic diocesan leaders around the country have gotten better about the way they close parishes. They used to just close them without any input. Now, they sincerely want individual parishes to weigh in.
Several Belleville pastors didn't return calls seeking comment.
The Rev. Kenneth Schaefer, pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Herrin, said he's not too worried about losing his parish. Our Lady of Mount Carmel covers more than 900 households. There are 330 children enrolled in the parish's school.
He said they'll do the review that the diocese is asking of them, but the only thing that concerns him is the chance that small parishes nearby may be consolidated with his. He said there's no room; they already have to set up extra chairs for Sunday Masses.
He said that while some parishes are too small and need to consolidate with others, "you can't take the Catholic presence out of all these counties," he said, noting that Pope and Edwards counties don't have any Catholic churches.
"From a practical point of view, yes, we have to close some of our parishes," he said. "But at the same time, there's probably places we should open parishes."
In those cases, he said, the diocese should be "evangelizing, not retrenching." Nuns and lay people may be able to administer a parish day-to-day, while priests just come in to say Mass and perform sacraments.
He's trusting the process Braxton has set up.
"I'm very optimistic that this will work to the benefit of the diocese," he said.
Contact reporter Laura Girresch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2507