When The Headlines Come Home

My words today are a deep lament, as well as a cry for justice and mercy.

Yesterday I picked up a copy of my hometown newspaper and saw a headline I’d never imagined I’d read: Bishop Edward Grosz, Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo, is the latest in the string of more than 150 priests to be accused of sexual abuse of a minor in the diocese. He is also the highest ranking. To top it all, for years he was charged with the task of handling the cases of accused priests.

Sexual abuse of children on the part of Catholic priests has dominated the US news for two decades now. In 2018, abuse cases came to light in Buffalo – cases that had been consciously and deliberately covered up by the former bishop of Buffalo, Richard Malone. As the list of accused priests grew longer and longer, I followed the story in horror – but also a very small amount of relief. At least none of the accused priests were men I’d knew personally. As such, though I am a cradle Catholic who still practices, the reality of sexual abuse in the Church remained something of an abstraction.

That changed yesterday.

As a child growing up in the Polish-American community of Buffalo, I knew Bishop Grosz because everyone knew him. He was a man about town, present at many church-related but also Polish-related events. He was friendly and humorous. Whenever he preached a Mass, his homilies were earnest and well thought out.

At sixteen I made my Confirmation – a sacrament I took very seriously, having put much thought into the choice of both my name and sponsor. Bishop Grosz came to my home parish to preside over the sacrament. As we approached the altar, he spoke to each of us personally. He asked me why I’d chosen my saint (Dymphna, patron of mental health and family peace) and urged me to live with the courage and fearlessness she showed. He thanked my sponsor. He anointed me and sealed me with the Holy Spirit.

Our connection did not end at that ceremonial moment. He soon became pastor of Saint Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Church in Buffalo. Known as the “Mother Church of Polonia,” this parish was founded in 1873 by my great-great uncle, a priest who traveled from Poland to the US specifically with the aim of serving Polish immigrants to Buffalo. I had not grown up as a parishioner there, but around the time when Grosz was installed as pastor, my parents decided to join the parish in 2008.

Grosz shined as a pastor, undertaking a major renovation project to the historic church and reaching out to people in the poverty-stricken neighborhood. His homilies were inspiring. When I came to one Easter Vigil Mass while home from college, he told me that I looked radiant with Easter joy. When my mother landed in the hospital in 2009 with a minor head injury, he was quick to visit and pray at her bedside. When he was transferred from his role as pastor to an administrative position in the diocese – unbeknownst to us at the time, with the task of handling abuse claims – we were disappointed to lose him as a pastor.

When I read yesterday’s news, my first reaction was shock and disbelief. Grosz denies the allegations. My first reaction was also one of denial. Perhaps he is being falsely accused, I told myself. As someone who has been falsely accused of a wrongdoing (plagiarism back in high school), I know the emotional strain that comes with having one’s good name threatened though having done no wrong.

After absorbing the shock, however, my next inclination was to believe the accuser, who gave an interview with The Buffalo News  on the condition of anonymity. I one of the millions if not billions of human beings to whom the #metoo hashtag applies; that movement at last raised awareness of just how rampant sexual abuse is throughout all sectors of society. For too long victims have gone silenced and disbelieved. What makes this victim’s story particularly horrifying is that he was already suffering abuse at the hands of his (now deceased) parish priest and had hoped to ask Bishop Grosz for help at the Confirmation reception. Instead, he was traumatized further when the bishop used posing for a family picture as an opportunity to inflict abuse. I have no words for this – just heartbreak and horror.

In the short time since receiving this news, I have struggled to suspend judgment. None of us can know what truly happened at that reception in 1990. If the allegations are true, then Bishop Grosz needs to be held accountable. If he is being dishonest in his denial, he is compounding one grave sin with another.

However, as a sinner myself, I do not believe that any human being should be judged by their worst act alone. The evil we do does not cancel out the good we do; we must reckon instead with the terrible mixture of both. Sin causes suffering to the sinner as well as the sinned against. I believe that all of us are loved by God, and none of us – even the most heinous criminals – are ever beyond redemption.

Two years ago I heard the writer Richard Rodriguez speak at a conference on the Catholic Literary Imagination about the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. He urged us to remember that pedophile priests, with all the horror and disgust they inspire, are still a part of the Church. He stated that if someone gets baptized and then finds out that the priest who administered the sacrament is defrocked due to abuse, the person need not get baptized all over again. In the same way, I don’t need to go out and get re-confirmed. The Church is greater than its flawed institution and leadership and members.

This incident makes me all the more determined to see real change come about in the Catholic Church at the systemic level. It is frequently posited that sexual abuse occurs at the same rate inside the Church as outside of it; however, for too long, Catholic priests who abuse minors have been protected by an all-male hierarchy that claimed absolute authority and let its members act with impunity. This is a system that needs to change. I personally believe that placing women in roles of leadership and authority in the Church is an essential part of that change.

But at this point, I am in a state of lamentation. Bishop Grosz is not a priest I know well; I do not count him as a friend or mentor. Nevertheless, he is a priest I’ve known and respected very much over a period of two decades, a priest who expended huge efforts to preserve the historically significant church my ancestor founded, the priest who confirmed me as an adult in the church I love. The truth needs to come to light in this case, the sooner the better; justice must be served. At the same time, wrongdoers are deserving of mercy. To you, the reader of this sad little piece, I request prayers: for the victim, for the accused, and for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, NY, where it is probable that more of these horrific abuses have yet to come to light.

Note: this post is also being shared on the Catholic blog Vox Nova.