Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dominica XXVII per Annum C

6 October 2019

In today’s Gospel selection, the apostles have some private time with the Lord on the extended journey to Jerusalem and in the context of the many difficult and challenging parables we have been hearing from this section of St. Luke for many weeks now.  The apostles say to Jesus something that I bet could easily be the prayer each of us makes to Jesus: “Increase our faith.”

God is so very good and so very good in the mysterious ways He operates, even when His ways are inconvenient to our way of thinking and far from ideal in our desire to control our lives and our own surroundings.  Time and again I have to say, God is so good to us and to what we truly need to grow in this life and to arrive at Heaven!  I try to give a lot of attention to my preaching by prayer, study, and preparation.  I usually need at least all week to do this.  But late this week on Thursday the long-awaited independent report of clergy abuse and the critique of the handling of abuse in our archdiocese from 1960 to the present was finally released.  I feel compelled to speak to you about it this weekend.  But I have had only a few hours and not all week to prepare for this.  The report is a devastating topic about real victims whose lives and whose faith are severely harmed.  The report is about local people.  The report includes some people I respect and trust.  The report has me shocked and furious.  Given all this and given only a few hours to switch gears to talk about this before you, what kind of crazy man am I to say “God is so good to us?”  Because as I began reflecting on our local report and noticing my own internal reactions my eyes fell again, but in a new way, on those words to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”  God is good to us because in His mysterious Providence things have happened such that we have this devastating report together with the messages of this weekend’s Scripture selections from His word to us!

Lord, increase our faith, we beg you!  Listen to how perfect these words are for us at this time.  Back up a few verses and see how this passage begins, the setting of these words.  Jesus said to them, “Temptations and sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come!  It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Lk. 17:1-2).  Jesus goes on to tell the apostles to rebuke sinners and to forgive them if they repent.  To all this the apostles beg, “Increase our faith!”

But what is the precise meaning of this request?  What kind of faith do the apostles reference?  “Faith” is typically understood or treated in two broad categories.  There is the objective content of what is believed.  We might call this the intellectual “stuff” of faith.  I suggest that is most likely typically the meaning you and I immediately have when we speak of having faith.  But there is also the subjective dimension of the word “faith,” meaning the personal adherence by the one who believes.  We might call this the trust of the believer, that deeper movement beyond what I believe that aids my having trust in the one in whom I believe.  The Greek word for “faith” in the Scripture carries both these dimensions and we should stop to consider that because I suspect that in English we often hear and use the word “faith” in mostly the first dimension of the intellectual content of what is believed.  Given this notion of trust that is also part of the concept of faith I want to reflect with you on the apostles request and make it our own: Lord, increase our faith.  Lord, increase our trust!  Like the original setting of this apostolic prayer, we are rocked and unsettled by scandal, by crime, and by sin.  We know the content of the faith tells us of the reality of sin and the reality of God’s power to heal it.  We know we ourselves must receive mercy and forgiveness for our sins.  And we too wrestle with that uncomfortable challenge to be people of mercy who forgive when a sinner repents.  Can we not easily also cry out, “Lord, increase our faith?!”

 As we each pray for an increase in a trusting faith in this difficult time I want to make some observations about the Independent Investigation that our Archdiocese commissioned into the instances of abuse and the method of handling abuse locally.

First, I want to say again and unequivocally, that focus, care, support, and prayers needs to always first be given to victims.  Nothing can undo the harm done to them.  But the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus bring for them too healing and new life, as it does for all of us in whatever wounds we carry.

This investigation was commissioned in August 2018 with the indication that its results would be published in a few months.  More than a year later, I think we can see and understand now why the report took so long… because it was so extensive and thorough... and because there were serious complications along the way.  The Archdiocese gave unprecedented access to files and every time the independent law firm came across an allegation they had to pursue it as far as it could go.  This took much more time than anticipated.

Last year at this time I said in a homily that I hoped we could just get everything out at once and stop the piecemeal release of things that prolongs this ordeal and makes it like a wound that never seems to heal.  I think our Archdiocese’s report goes a long way to that goal.  There will be more to come as earlier time periods are also investigated.  But as difficult as this is, we can have confidence that we are on the path of the unvarnished truth.  We cannot draw back from or fear the truth.  The commitment to transparency and accountability in this report is remarkable.  The Archdiocese is choosing truth over secrecy, even when the truth shows us in a poor light and reveals ongoing systemic failures in our leadership.  If you are like me you may desperately want to believe that our local report stands out among other dioceses for its scope and transparency.  Let me assure you that is true.  There is an international organization called SNAP, which stands for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.  You can imagine that there is usually some tension and high criticism of the Church from SNAP, and with good reason.  In Friday’s article on our report in the Oklahoman newspaper there was one such critical quote from a SNAP national board member.  So imagine my surprise when later in the day I came across an online religion journal [“Audits of Oklahoma dioceses identify 22 accused clerics,” Crux, 4 October 2019, by Sean Murphy,] that ran a story about the report from both Oklahoma dioceses and in that story a man identified as the Executive Director of SNAP USA had some unheard of positive commentary to make about the Archdiocese’s unprecedented reporting.  I think you need to hear this.  I of course really wanted to believe that people like SNAP who follow all of this reporting around the world truly had complimentary things to say about what we did here.  But, I’m gun shy to say things I really don’t have firsthand knowledge of.  So, I got a sort of wild idea.  I did a Google search and I called up the Executive Director of SNAP USA, Mr. Zach Hiner.  He answered the phone and I identified myself as a priest of this archdiocese.  We had a very pleasant conversation in which I asked him to confirm for me what SNAP has to say about the OKC report.  Obviously, the matter of the report is criminal and sinful, devastating and damning, and disturbing in the revelation of systemic failures in record keeping and the loss and destruction of records.  But Mr. Hiner was incredibly positive and effusive in his praise of the report the Archdiocese freely commissioned here.  He has read countless reports from dioceses about abuse allegations.  He says they mostly offer a list of names of the accused, dates of ordination, date of removal from ministry, current whereabouts of the accused, and date of death if deceased.  He said rarely is there ever even a bit of information about the particulars of the accusation.  Mr. Hiner said if all we did here was offer a bit of additional information that would have already been noteworthy.  But that we permitted such depth of investigating, with details about the accusations including timelines, and information about the internal handlings of accusations and accused priests… this, he said, is something he has never seen in any report.  He went on to say that the fact our local leadership actually “got out of the way” – his words! – and let outside investigators see it all, even while knowing it would reflect poorly on our personnel and on our procedures, but that we did it anyway is noteworthy and incredible.  For as ugly as the report’s findings are Mr. Hiner says he sees in the actions of our local leadership in this matter real signs of the tenor of things in our local Church by which we get the problem and are committed to the transparency that will truly address abuse and seek to ensure that it does not happen again.  He thanked me for wanting to make sure I had accurate information to share with you about how SNAP views our report and he thanked me for taking the time to call and make sure I had good information.  I thanked him for giving me his time and being willing to talk to me.  Oddly enough, in God’s mysterious ways, my conversation with the Executive Director of SNAP was one of the more positive highlights of my last few days.

I invite you to go to the website of the Archdiocese and follow links to the report and to related information about the topic.  The Archdiocese has made some graphs that can be helpful as we each wrestle with the reality of abuse.  In the current report the files of all priests who were active in our archdiocese from 1960 until the present were investigated.  This represents about 545 priests.  Of those 545 priests, 11 were found to have substantiated allegations of abuse, which is about 2% of the priests represented in the report, with the most recent instances of substantiated abuse taking place in the 1990s, but none substantiated since that decade.  Without minimizing the real harm that 2% represents we should note that our Safe Environment protocols are working and that our environment in the Church is safer now than ever.  We can sometimes be frustrated on the parish level with all the paperwork and what seems like hassle to undertake background checks and Safe Environment training.  But given the reality of abuse and the reality of how improved things are because of our protocols we should recommit ourselves to these procedures, if for no other reason than to honor the victims from earlier decades who did not benefit from this vigilance from the Church they trusted.

 Perhaps by this point in history we are not as shocked as we once were by the notion that even a priest could be a horrifically evil sinner and a disgusting criminal who engaged in the abuse of a soul in his charge.  Maybe what is more shocking to us now is to learn of the failures of Church officials as we see their mishandling of abuse allegations revealed.  Maybe we are each different in what shocks us most depending on our personal circumstances and life experiences.  Whatever the case, and admitting my own deep disappointment and sadness at seeing on display the failures of leaders I held in esteem, we do have to be rather sober in our application of present-day understanding and standards regarding abuse to the actions of those in the past as they attempted to handle abuse.  That in no way absolves their abysmal failures because in instances of clear patterns of repeated abuse by the same cleric they should have been better in their handling of matters.  But being sober in our application of present standards to past activities can help temper our reaction since the truth of the past is more complicated than our feelings are usually ready to admit.

However our understanding of abuse and standards of handling abuse allegations may have evolved over time, especially in the last few decades, we are now without excuse in how we address this and handle it.  It is my enduring hope that the unprecedented depth of this report can permit us to go to the very core of this ugly wound in our Church and in our world.  Just as a doctor or nurse has to go right to a wound, into its ugliness and pain, to scrub it, clean it, and treat it…. the pain of treating a wound is accepted and embraced with the view of the healing that this leads to.  It is my hope that our opening of this wound in our Church is just such a beginning toward an equally unprecedented healing of this scourge.

And so, rocked and stunned, unsure, and angry we can only cry out to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  Increase our trust!  We will be tempted to adopt the attitude found in the words of the first reading, “How long, O Lord?  I cry for help but you do not listen!  I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene.  Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery?”  I can assure you that in our prayer, individually and collectively, if we are honest and sincere in surfacing the truth of our feelings and raising them to the Lord in all their raw woundedness, that we will find healing, renewed peace, and strength to be Jesus’ disciples.  The key will be also noticing that tendency of the human heart to shut down.  And so the psalm today is a good reminder as we pray for victims of abuse, as we pray for purification of our beloved Church, and as we beg of the Lord for increased faith.  The psalm said, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”  Lord, we are nothing but unprofitable, unworthy servants.  We beg you, increase our faith!  Increase our trust!