Sex abuse scandal leaves some priests grappling with a sense of betrayal

Image: Saint Patrick Church
St. Patrick Shrine Church in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 19, 2018. Copyright Sean Simmers for NBC News
By Phil McCausland with NBC News U.S. News
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"We don't have all the answers. We're as shocked as you are in many cases," one priest told his congregation.


CARLISLE, Pa. — Father Martin Moran raced through an early morning drizzle after the 8 a.m. mass on Sunday at the 19th-century St. Patrick Shrine Church here. He was on his way to the outskirts of town to speak at the tail end of the 9 a.m. mass at the large modern St. Patrick Church.

In both red-brick buildings, his message was the same: Apologies for the horrific sexual abuse suffered by children at the hands of clergy and promises to help his congregation through a time that could shake their faith.

The grand jury report released Tuesday alleged that 301 priests in Pennsylvania abused as many as 1,000 children over the past 70 years in parishes much like this one, and it has shaken the state's Catholic community.

Moran, a large, gregarious man with a mother from Italy and a father from Ireland, is responsible for three morning masses — one at the shrine church and two at this newer house of worship — each Sunday in this Pennsylvania parish that serves around 2,350 households and 5,000 people. He does so with the help of a recently ordained priest, who administered the 9 a.m. service, and a retired Army chaplain, who led the 8 a.m. mass.

While those in the community have struggled to reconcile with the pervasive and appalling abuse detailed in the report, the revelations also marked a difficult time for priests in the church as a whole. Moran noted that he knew 68 of the names in the grand jury's findings and had reported a few of them himself. He said the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg, the body that oversees this parish as well as 88 others across 15 counties of central Pennsylvania, had removed the priest or conducted an investigation on each occasion that he reported an individual.

Sean Simmers for NBC News
Rev. Martin Moran of Saint Patrick Church in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 19, 2018.Sean Simmers for NBC News

"We don't have all the answers," Moran told the congregation at the 9 a.m. mass on Sunday. "We're as shocked as you are in many cases."

This parish was served by three of the 301 priests named in the report since the 1950s, but allegations surrounding their conduct while at this church only came up in the case of Rev. Anthony McGinley, who was forced to resign his post in Carlisle in April 1970 after multiple allegations surfaced of molestation throughout his career. He was allowed to attend graduate school for guidance counseling before he was forced to retire and had his priestly faculties revoked by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg in 1987. McGinley died in 2006.

Those are the types of allegations that are now haunting a holy calling. And it's the magnitude of the abuse — the sheer numbers of clergy members involved and how close many abusers were — that has left pastors reeling after the report's release.

"I think often about what I've been praying for the past 30 years of my priesthood for all victims of sexual abuse, especially for those who have been abused within the church," Moran told the parish at the end of the 9 a.m. service on Sunday. "If you're a survivor of abuse our prayers go out to you because we don't have the words of true healing for you. All we can say is that we're with you and your prayerful support in any way that we could help you."

After the 8 a.m. mass at the old St. Patrick's Shrine Church, Father Greg D'Emma hung up his vestments and leaned against a vanity as he considered the grand jury report. D'Emma, who has spent 48 years in the priesthood, is not technically part of the Harrisburg diocese, but chose to retire here in Carlisle after serving 37 years in the military — nearly 10 of those years were spent in this town at the U.S. Army War College less than two miles away.

Sean Simmers for NBC News
Saint Patrick Church on Marsh Drive in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 19, 2018.Sean Simmers for NBC News

D'Emma recalled that as a child, he and six other altar boys used to spend a lot of time with their priest — a young man who took them to the movies, the seminary or the beach — but there was never a hint of anything untoward about the experience. That relationship with his pastor ultimately led him and one of the other boys to the priesthood, which is what makes this report particularly difficult for him.

The abuse feels like a betrayal on multiple levels.

"We walk a different path," D'Emma said. "We give up one aspect of human life to take on another. We do that in order to give our total — and this is another reason this falls so heavily — we give up all those other things and remain celibate so we can give our total attention, care, love and concern to the people we serve."

Finding out that so many broke that promise of service and celibacy breaks trust within a parish and among those in the priesthood, D'Emma said. Now he prays that the church can regain that trust, though he believes it will take years.

Many seem to agree with D'Emma's view in the wake of the report. They are turning to their own faith for answers and hope that it can unite their flocks once again.

"We as the church must continue to work together in the tasks of the faith even as these past terrible events are addressed," Moran said. "It is only in succeeding in our objectives of love, charity and care that we will regain the trust and confidence of the community and those whose faith has been shaken."

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