Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne stood before some 200 area Catholics on Aug. 22 to acknowledge that the Catholic Church is wounded and scandalized after a report from the Pennsylvania Grand Jury regarding clergy sexual abuse there, and allegations of sexual abuse by Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington. He was removed from the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis last month.
Presiding over a special Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral in Anchorage, Archbishop Etienne told the assembly that he called for the day of prayer and penance in order for Catholics to collectively seek healing from God.
“It is important for us to look at this reality, firmly, and allow it to make us very uncomfortable, so that we properly respond to those who have been victimized,” Archbishop Etienne said during his homily. “I know the reopening of this wound in the church in this last week during this summer has scandalized many of our people once again. I know the Body of Christ and all the members that make up the church need prayer for healing as well.”
The liturgy occurred on the Feast of the Queenship of Mary and began with a 9 a.m. Mass followed by a day of eucharistic adoration and an evening penance service. Archbishop Etienne asked all parishes outside Anchorage to provide at least a three-hour period for eucharistic adoration that same day.
The day of prayer occurred as the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops pledged to investigate how a man like Archbishop McCarrick could become such a powerful U.S. cardinal while committing acts of sexual abuse that date back decades. The additional findings in the recently released Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report of sexual abuse cover up by the church there has many calling for robust reforms in holding bishops accountable for neglecting to remove those who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse and misconduct in their dioceses.
Referencing the day’s Old Testament reading from the Book of Ezekiel, Archbishop Etienne said it is appropriate that the Scriptures speak of wayward shepherds who have failed to care for their flocks.
“Shepherds you have failed your sheep. You have failed the people and you must do better,” he said.
Despite the immense suffering the church is undergoing, Archbishop Etienne reminded the faithful that Christ has not abandoned his flock.
“Jesus, fully aware of the sinfulness, of not just the shepherds but of the whole of humanity, comes to walk with us,” Archbishop Etienne added.
He observed that the sinful reality of wayward shepherds has been at work well before the church was ever founded, going back to Old Testament times.
“Any of us who know anything about the church’s history, know we’ve been through chapters such as this before,” he said. “Since the church is human as well as divine there will be sadly other chapters in the future. I say that not that we dismiss the present challenge before us. Clearly it needs attention and work needs to be done to dismantle the system that has allowed these types of abuses to take place.”
Archbishop Etienne offered his personal apologies to “all those who have been abused by a priest, bishop, deacon or anyone who represents the church. I want you to know of my own personal resolve to continue work within this archdiocese to further strengthen our safe environment programs, to further strengthen our compassionate response to any victims who come forward.”
He pledged to personally work within the larger U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for “even greater reforms and for greater involvement of the laity in helping to understand and address in a transparent manner the negligence of bishops to properly manage these cases.”
Archbishop Etienne pointed out that the entire church is hurting and suffering. For this reason, the entire body of believers must come together — not to do penance for their personal sins in this matter but to pray for the larger Body of Christ. It is only in prayer that the church will know how to respond, he said.
“What we do only on our own, by our own wisdom, in the end it’s going to be insufficient,” Archbishop Etienne said. “It is God’s initiative we seek, God’s grace, God’s light to shine in this darkness.”
“In many ways, the only place we have to go is the foot of the cross to beg the Lord to allow the blood he shed for us to continue to cleanse our church and to continue to heal our wounds,” he added.
He then urged the faithful to ask God “not to allow us to despair.”
“We need actions and words of sorrow and apology,” Archbishop Etienne concluded. “But I believe at this stage, as much as anything we can do, we need prayers that God will heal us and that we may be the church that he so longs to see.”