Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

The Senior Side: Our hearts are broken … again

By BILL CLARKE, Commentary | Published September 6, 2018

“While much has been done in the Church in the United States to advance the protection of children, youth and all who are vulnerable, the revelations over the last several days and weeks have proven that not enough has been done.”

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory

Many senior Catholics, on hearing the latest scandal, probably said inwardly, “Oh, my God, here we go again. When will it end?”

Our archbishop, Wilton D. Gregory, was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 when they addressed the initial abuse scandal. At the time he said, “We understand that your children are your most precious gift. They are our children as well, and we continue to apologize to the victims, and to their parents and their loved ones for this failure in our pastoral responsibilities.”

With Archbishop Gregory’s leadership, the Catholic Church in the U.S. then introduced programs around the country to provide a safe, secure environment for minors and vulnerable adults and a system to respond to the victim as well as the accused. As a result of these actions, Catholics hoped and expected that the abuse would be eliminated or quickly and effectively dealt with.

Such was not the case.

Many who work for the archdiocese witnessed firsthand the great disappointment and sorrow that Archbishop Gregory experienced on hearing the latest accusations. While leading an opening prayer at the recent Atlanta Catechist Conference, in front of 1,200 catechists, he stated, “This past week has been the most difficult week of my tenure as a Bishop of the Church.”

He went on to express his heartfelt sympathies to the victims and pledged to do whatever is in his power to bring justice to all.

A childhood incident

As I sat in a recent staff meeting on the subject at the Chancery, I debated whether or not to bring up an incident that happened to me as a young boy, an altar server. There was a point about accountability I wanted to voice so I told the following story.

We had a younger priest who would regularly come to the servers’ dressing room and spend time with the servers (it was only boys back then). The priest would sit next to us, tell us how valuable we were to the church and thank us for being servers. One day when I was the only server in the dressing room, he sat next to me, put his arm around me and began feeling my thigh. I knew that wasn’t right so I jumped up and ran to the sanctuary.

I didn’t know what to think about the episode.

I went home after school and told my mother what had happened. She then said something that caused me to keep this experience quiet for a great many years. She said, “Oh, Billy, you probably misunderstood what Father was doing. He is a holy man, a man of God. He wouldn’t do anything to harm you.”

Looking back on the incident, I now realize that my mother, and perhaps other mothers and fathers of the era, may have unintentionally enabled dishonorable priests to commit abuse with the expectation that parents would not believe that priests were capable of immoral acts on their children. The culture of the era placed all priests on a pedestal.

I never again allowed the priest to spend any time with me. I continued being an altar server, but I was in and out of the dressing room in seconds!

When I revealed this incident during the meeting at work, the archbishop said that he had talked to many parents who had inadvertently placed the reputation of priests over the revelations of their own children. As a result, some offending priests, who should not have, received a safe haven.

Working together for justice

The terrible tragedy of the past decades is that a great many children and adults became innocent victims when some of our church leaders were not able to understand that a brother priest could commit such heinous acts. As a result, some guilty priests were quietly transferred from one parish to another with the hope that they would repent, ask for forgiveness and become model priests.

But it didn’t happen that way. Many of the guilty priests had significant personal and psychological issues that went undiagnosed. Without the intervention of professional help, they continued their errant ways. Some may have deeply regretted their transgressions but were incapable of changing their behavior.

An obvious abuse of moral leadership has taken place. The entire church, especially the laity, must now work together to acknowledge and correct the problem. The Church must focus on action—fast action, not words. We pray that our leaders and laity will have the courage, strength and guidance from the Holy Spirit to do what is right.

If you or a loved one are sick and tired of learning about these covered-up incidents, please don’t walk away from your faith. We need your experience, wisdom, participation and prayers now more than ever. These horrible acts are demonic attempts to weaken the Catholic Church.

Please believe that God will ultimately prevail, as he always does, and the church will emerge from this darkness into a new era of safety and love for all.

Also, please don’t lose confidence in our church leadership. Don’t judge them on the terrible actions of a few. They are grieving along with us. They will help to lead us through this crisis.

Bill Clarke, former business executive, teacher and senior citizen, emerged from his third retirement to serve as the associate director of professional development for the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship. To send Bill your thoughts on this and other topics, send an email to