On Friday evening the Catholic Bishop of the Camden Diocese Dennis Sullivan began his homily at Saint Agnes Church in Blackwood by lying prostrate before the altar, his forehead pressed to the floor.
The service was held as an evening of prayer for the victims of sexual abuse by leaders of the Catholic Church and came in light of the grand jury report released in August in Pennsylvania. The report revealed more than 300 priests in six Pennsylvanian dioceses had committed sexual abuse which spanned decades and resulted in more than 1,000 victims. At least four of the priests named in the report had ties to parishes in New Jersey.
After four minutes of lying on the floor in silence, Bishop Sullivan stood and offered an apology on behalf of the Church.
“To those who have suffered abuse by a minister of the Church of Camden, I am sorry. To those who tried to bring that abuse to light, but did not experience the care and concern they deserved, I am sorry. To the family members of the abused, who have watched devastating effects of that abuse impact their families, I am sorry.”
For many in the crowd, like Mary Anne Serra, this apology was a welcome act of humility by a respected leader.
“I was very proud of our Bishop for being very straightforward and saying he was sorry,” Serra said after the service. “Laying down on the ground is not always the easiest thing and he’s very sincere in what he is doing. So I was proud of him.”
But the evening which started out in silence ended with a bold call to action by the bishop.
“Words will not do it, they are not enough,” he said. “There must be actions. Concrete actions on behalf of the victims and specific actions, decisions on the manner the church will conduct itself when a member of the clergy commits a crime.”
The service was one of several taking place to address the instances of sexual abuse in South Jersey. A similar one was held at Philadelphia’s cathedral, but Archbishop Charles Chaput did not attend. For those who missed this evening of prayer, six other parishes will hold similar services on Friday, Oct. 5 at 7 p.m.
Reflecting on the service, Serra is hopeful for the church moving forward.
“For the church here in Camden and for the church throughout the world,” she said, “make sure everything is cleared up so that we can go ahead stronger and better than we were before.”