Coming to terms with millstones

Jun 6, 2016 by

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I read the 150-page report from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office about the abuse cases of the Altoona-Johnstown (Pa.) Catholic Diocese in the midst of writing a doctoral dissertation on organizational communication ethics. The lists of abuse and administrative bumbling over 50 years were difficult to read. Having come from a Cath­olic family rooted in Johnstown, I know most of the parishes listed and some of the priests.

Stephen Kriss

Kriss

The abuses that happened in the spaces where parents trusted the church with the welfare of their children were hard enough to comprehend. Worse yet, for me, was the administrative bumbling that had allowed these abuses to persist. I remembered the words of Jesus: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea” (Mark 9:42).

The stories of abuse came out with the introduction of a new bishop who was willing to let the cases be exposed. I am grateful for him. Organizations lose credibility when they allow leaders to bully or abuse. Bishop Mark Bartchak’s willingness to admit the church’s failures opens up the possibility to regain credibility by acknowledging past sin.

This effort was provoked by an Altoona Catholic businessman, David Foster, who noticed something seemed amiss and did his own research until the case eventually popped. Foster’s attitude is that the church is God’s, and God will take care of the church even in the midst of exposing the misdeeds of the past. I applaud Foster’s persistence and faith.

I went to Mass on Palm Sunday evening at the diocese’s co-cathedral in downtown Johns­town. I went alone but ended up sitting with friends of my family. The church was full. The priest who presided had also been in charge of the diocese’s communication efforts for years. I wondered how hard it is for him to stand up front but say nothing about what had happened, as I’d heard needed to be the case due to the legal entanglements.

I watched as the congregants went to the altar to take the Eucharist. These are still my people in many ways. In this dying steel town, the faithful still show up in the midst of what can at times be too difficult to speak about.

Now working with the Mennonites, I don’t want to be quick to judge another group’s mishandlings. We’ve done our own administrative bumbling. We have done disservices to the abused, multiple times over.

Within the first years of being a pastor, I heard stories of abusive conduct in Mennonite settings by credentialed leaders — sins that had become millstones for the victims and those who knew about what had happened.

While we don’t have the same indictments hanging over our Anabaptist communities related to priestly misconduct, we have our own sins, our own harboring of bullies who publicly advanced our causes and purposes while privately betraying the divine intent of flourishing for all people.

I wept on Good Friday in a Pittsburgh Presbyterian cathedral, where we prayed for those who had been violated by people trusted with spiritual nurture in the neighboring Catholic diocese just up the mountains to the east. Those words cut to my soul as a youth read them in the darkness of a candlelit worship gathering, outside the walls of the Catholic community where they could be spoken, admitted, confessed, known. God help us.

Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.


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