Shared from the 2/4/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Priests urge Catholics not to leave church

Texans attending Mass told to pray for victims, alleged abusers on released list as faithful grapple with scandal

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Kim Brent / Staff photographer

Congregants attend Saturday evening Mass at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Beaumont.

Cheryl Hunter was not surprised to read her priest’s name on the list of those credibly accused of child abuse because she’d heard his version of the story in the pews a few months back.

Father John Keller of Prince of Peace Catholic Community Church — one of the 42 priests named by the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston on Thursday — had told the story during Mass, she said. In the version Hunter heard, he said he had been falsely accused, undergone an extensive investigation and been vindicated.

“He was very believable,” said Hunter, 68. “He got a large ovation and support from the congregation.”

Keller gave one final Mass on Friday, the day after the archdiocese released the list that spanned decades. On the first Sunday since dioceses across Texas named nearly 300 clergymen as credibly accused of sexual abuse, the Prince of Peace parking lot was so full that congregants parked in fire lanes and on side streets.

Auxiliary Bishop George Sheltz addressed the congregation during its 10:45 a.m. Mass, acknowledging the hurt in the church and promising the archdiocese would take special care of Prince of Peace.

“Father has only been alleged he did something,” he said of Keller. “The system has to work itself out.”

Sheltz received applause from the pews.

Priests across Texas addressed the list of alleged abusers from the pulpit with a similar message: Pray for the victims, pray for the priests and don’t leave the Catholic Church because of the abuse allegations.

“We know the church has had far more difficult things in its history,” said Joseph Fiorenza, an emeritus archbishop, at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart’s 9 a.m. Mass. “I ask you to remember that Jesus established this church in accordance with his nature, both heavenly and divine. We are quite familiar with the human part of the church.”

“Nobody likes a pedophile, but we need to pray for them.”
Cheryl Hunter, Prince of Peace Catholic Community Church parishioner

Before Mass, parishioners paging through the weekly bulletin paused on a message from Father Lawrence Jozwiak about the accusations.

“Contrary to the public perception, it is a very small number of clergy who are guilty of such evil acts, especially as compared to other denominations or other professions,” he wrote. “But the Catholic clergy seems to get most of the publicity.”

He concluded his letter by urging parishioners not to stop giving money to the church. As ushers passed the wicker baskets around Sacred Heart, people dropped in everything from checks to crumpled bills.

Texas is just the latest state to turn the spotlight on the Catholic Church. A scathing Pennsylvania grand jury report from August 2018 revealed not only 300 abusive priests with more than 1,000 child victims, but the men who protected the abusers. In December, the Illinois attorney general discovered 690 accused clergymen. The church had failed to disclose about 500.

“The church is like a cup of wine,” said Alex Traxler, 51, standing outside Sacred Heart after Mass. “A lot of people are looking at the cup criticizing the cup and forgetting what we came for is the wine.”

And other denominations have grappled with their own sexual abuse scandals in the past year.

The Southern Baptists formed a sexual abuse study committee after a seminary leader resigned for allegedly covering up a rape and a woman came forward to say the denomination’s mission arm knew about one of its then-leaders molesting her as a teen 10 years before she filed a police report. The independent fundamental Baptists have been accused of covering up sexual abuse and shuffling perpetrators among churches. Jehovah’s Witnesses had to pay a $35 million settlement to an abuse survivor in September 2018. One of the most revered rabbis in Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish community was accused ofsexual abuse in 2018 — just the latest in a series of abuse allegations against Orthodox Jews.

“It is the devil’s work to divide the church,” said Father Biju Mathew at Prince of Peace. He told the church’s members to pray daily for their priests. “You have the power to protect our clergy from the clutches of dark forces.”

Prince of Peace members scuttled by after the service, not ready yet to talk about the allegations.

“Still processing,” one congregant said before hurrying out the door.

One woman started crying, reeling because her pastor had been named but still strong in her faith. Another woman said Keller had been her husband’s favorite priest and he was left questioning his faith. He wasn’t at church with her. It would probably, she said, take time for him to heal.

As for Hunter — a Catholic convert after 50 years spent bouncing between Protestant denominations — she prays nightly for the victims. As a psychiatric social worker, she understands the trauma of what they went through.

She also prays for the clergy.

“The priests involved — some have been wrongly accused and I feel for them,” she said. As for those who are guilty: “Nobody likes a pedophile, but we need to pray for them.” sarah.smith@chron.com

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