Pa. Catholics grapple with the church in wake of ‘predator priest’ report

Bishop Ronald Gainer, of the Harrisburg Diocese, arrives to celebrate mass at the Cathedral Church of Saint Patrick in Harrisburg, Pa., Friday, Aug. 17, 2018. Gainer, who's named in a grand jury report on rampant sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy is celebrating a Mass of forgiveness, as the Vatican expresses

Bishop Ronald Gainer, of the Harrisburg Diocese, arrives to celebrate mass at the Cathedral Church of Saint Patrick in Harrisburg, Pa., Friday, Aug. 17, 2018. Gainer, who's named in a grand jury report on rampant sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy is celebrating a Mass of forgiveness, as the Vatican expresses "shame and sorrow" over the burgeoning scandal. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Following a blistering grand jury report alleging widespread child sexual abuse at the hands of Roman Catholic priests in six of Pennsylvania’s eight dioceses, some Catholics across the state have been wrestling with their faith and future in the church.  

The Catholic Church has always been “a rock” for Kathleen Hoagland of Mechanicsburg, Pa, especially during the most challenging times in her life.  

Hoagland, 35, has attended mass nearly every Sunday since she was a kid. She went to Catholic schools from kindergarten through college and has been active in the church as a eucharistic minister.

“I’ve been proud to say that I’m Catholic, Hoagland said. “I’ve been proud to have my kids raised in the Catholic Church.

As a mother of three young boys, when she heard the allegations that more than 1,000 children were sexually abused, molested, or raped by priests in Pennsylvania, she was angry, embarrassed and confused.

She looked to her local parish, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in the Diocese of Harrisburg, for answers, but was disappointed when the priest barely mentioned the issue at a mass following the report’s release.  

“My faith does not go away, but the religion, the processes, the beliefs the ceremonies the rituals, that’s what I’m questioning,” Hoagland said. “Do I want to be a part of this moving forward? Can I find something else?”

In the Harrisburg Diocese, 45 priests have been identified as offenders by the grand jury, and Hoagland now doesn’t feel like she can continue supporting the church in the same way.

“On Sunday when they asked for the collection plate, I purposely did not contribute to the collection plate because I don’t know where this money is going,” Hoagland said. “I’m not willing to support the church financially right now if we don’t have 100 percent transparency.”

Catherine Liberona also grew up in a family engrained in the Catholic Church. She’s the youngest of eight children from Northeast Philadelphia and describes her mother as a devout Catholic.

She was horrified by the stories of abuse she heard in the report, but was not surprised.

Philadelphia had its own grand jury investigations into clergy sexual abuse revealing more than 130 priests accused of similar offenses and cover up.

Liberona stopped going to church years ago, but recently she was considering having her infant daughter baptized. Now, revelations from the new report are giving her second thoughts.  

“It’s really hard. I just can’t see myself as being a part or having my daughter be a part of the Catholic Church now.” Liberona said.

In Indiana, Pa., Susan Bevevino broke down and cried when the report came out.

She recognized one of the names, Fr. Chester Gawronski, from her home parishes of St. Agatha and St. Bernadette Mission in the Erie Diocese.

Gawronski, one of 41 priests identified by the grand jury report, admitted that he fondled at least a dozen boys under the guise of performing a “cancer check.”

He remained in active ministry for at least 15 years after the diocese received complaints about his criminal behavior.

Bevevino’s not sure she’ll ever get over the betrayal and distrust she feels, but she plans to continue to practice in the Catholic Church.

“Some people can say, ‘I’m never going to go back to church again,’ but that doesn’t solve the problem of professing your faith,” Bevevino said.  “I just think that we have to live by God’s law, not church law.”

For Bevevino, a mother of three young adults, it’s important to worship, and Catholic rituals are all she knows.  For her children, though, she’ll encourage them to question the ways of the church and find their own faith.

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