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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

594 Synod Question #1: What are difficulties, obstacles, and wounds in the local Church?

Day 594 Saturday October 30, 2021

Synodal Question #1:

What are difficulties, obstacles, and wounds in the local Church?

Dear Sisters and Brothers: This is my response to the first question that we're being asked to reflect upon by Pope Francis within the framework of the listening process he hopes to create. Please understand that this is only my opinion about the difficulties, obstacles and wounds we face in actually creating a healthy catholic faith community. Once I started writing, I realized the wounds of old are still wounds and still hurt. Sex abuse, homophobia, and our infantilization by hierarchs who expect us to pray, pay, and obey still rankle.

- with love from David

The people of the Diocese of Santa Rosa have been betrayed over and over again by the actions of priests and Church leaders who have broken trust with us. The difficulty facing most Catholics I know is to believe Church leaders who have lied to us for decades about the sex abuse of our children which has caused so much trauma, heartache and devastation.

In attempting to cover up the scandal, our Bishops have attempted to move priests around, destroyed personnel records, and have pursued aggressive legal tactics to stop and silence victims and their families from suing the Diocese or expressing their trauma in public.

The Bishops have attempted at all times to protect the institutional Church while allowing the people to suffer. In fact, we learned years ago that the Santa Rosa Diocese had been characterized in the past as an “intentional refuge for abusive priests from other areas.”

It was not until January 2019 that Bishop Robert Vasa revealed the names of 39 priests and deacons who committed child sexual abuse or were credibly accused of such crimes. Bishop Vasa The list of 39 clergymen includes the well-known names of predatory priests whose behavior came to light beginning in the mid-1990s. Imagine – it took that long to get to the truth.

The diocese has since paid out more than $29 million in legal settlements to childhood victims of at least 10 priests since the 1990s.

The diocese’s history includes several criminal cases, including that of Father Timmons, a former priest at St. Eugene’s Cathedral Parish who was convicted of child molestation after several victims filed suit over sex abuse that took place at a church retreat, Camp St. Michael in Mendocino County, and at other locations.

Father Keegan was believed to have molested as many as 80 children before he was stripped of his duties with the church in 1982.

It was well known in the Hispanic community that Father Ochoa abused several young men in the Sonoma area in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Ochoa admitted sexual misconduct to then-Bishop Daniel Walsh in 2006. Once the Bishop knew about the abuse he failed to notify the police – a responsibility he had by law. Ochoa fled to Mexico.

The tragedy of sex abuse of our children was compounded by sex and financial scandals involving Bishop Patrick Zieman. Bishop Zieman gave up his post in 1999 after Father Jorge Hume Salas filed a lawsuit alleging that Ziemann had coerced him into a two-year sexual relationship in exchange for keeping silent about the priest’s theft of money from St. Mary’s parish in Ukiah.

Ziemann publicly acknowledged his affair with Father Salas but said the relationship was consensual. The Santa Rosa diocese agreed to a $535,000 settlement with Salas, who has since left the priesthood and returned to his native Costa Rica.

Church leaders, meanwhile, found Ziemann had squandered $16 million in diocese money -- the result of poor oversight, bad investments and overspending. The shortfall forced the diocese to lay off about a third of its staff and cut funding for building projects, religious education, youth ministry and other programs.

And through all the scandals and the thefts and the enormous payouts, we, the people, were never consulted about the costs, the settlements. We witnessed the broken hearts and lived with the people who were traumatized. But we were rarely, if ever, asked for our opinions, our perceptions of the crisis of our Church.

We are also aware of the horrors of child sexual abuse in other Diocese throughout the world. The stories from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and a hundred other places in the US combined with the same traumatic news from Ireland, Canada, France and Germany compound the trauma we have suffered as Catholics.

Everywhere it is the same news: Bishops protect themselves and their clerics at the expense of the people of God. That is the wound we all feel.

And it has shattered the faith of millions of Catholics around the world.

The continuing cover-up and the refusal by the current Bishop(s) to open up the Diocesan personnel archives remains a scandal. Many of us, appalled by the actions of the hierarchy, have simply stopped going to Mass or participating in our parishes.

Our children have witnessed the news headlines and the torturous manner in which the hierarchy has been forced to reveal its secrets. And they ask themselves “Is this a Church I can trust? Is this a faith that carries on the life-giving message of Jesus?” Many, including my three sons, have decided they cannot trust this Church that places the needs of the institution above the needs of the people.

The obstacle I see in the synodal process is that our Bishop and many parish priests are invested in their professional roles. The Bishop enjoys being the sole voice of the Diocese. And who wouldn’t like the role of an autocrat? All power and authority is invested in him.

He has used that power in an attempt to force an oath of fealty on our teachers.

Bishop Vasa and his priests have removed or dis-empowered once vibrant and participatory parish councils.

He has removed young women from the altar and made them to feel embarrassed and “less than.”

He has made our brothers and sisters in the LBGTQ+ community feel unwelcome.

The Santa Rosa Diocese is blessed with women and men who live lives dedicated to loving others and to living out the good news. We read extensively, are well trained in Catholic philosophy and theology. Through our Baptism, we are called to serve one another and recognize the divine in each person.

We are ready to listen and to participate in this synodal process.

The real question is – is the hierarchy ready to join us on this journey of faith?

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