St. Thomas Aquinas

Brad Hundt/Observer-Reporter

A statue of the Virgin Mary stands outside St. Thomas Aquinas Church in California. The church was one of four closed in March in St. Katherine Drexel Parish.

As parishioners exited Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Washington last week, the afternoon was warm and blue-sky sunny, much like Aug. 14, 2018, in this area when state Attorney General Josh Shapiro released an 884-page report based on grand jury testimony on a very dark topic: decades’ worth of sexual abuse by priests.

Investigators said they identified 301 priests in six dioceses, including Pittsburgh and Greensburg, who allegedly abused more than 1,000 children.

The report made headlines locally, nationally and internationally.

How do some Catholics view it one year later?

“They’ve been watching more,” said one Washington resident who declined to give his name but identified himself as he headed from Immaculate Conception Church toward North Franklin Street as a member of St. Hilary Roman Catholic Church, Washington.

He’s seen the aftermath result in “more projects, keeping the people up to date, that’s about it,” he said, adding that he personally found the information “shocking how long it’s been going on without anybody knowing about it.”

Then he briefly reconsidered his words.

“It was a lot of years. Somebody had to know.”

There have been changes in the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese, which includes Washington and Greene counties, since the grand jury report was made public. One aspect is a drop-off in both the number of people attending Mass and in the amount of money in the collection basket.

According to a news article published in the Pittsburgh Catholic this summer, “Prior to 2018, for several decades average Mass attendance in the diocese has fallen 4% annually, while for several years offertory giving has fallen 1% annually,” a trend seen in many denominations and attributed to an increasingly secularized society, and “in Pittsburgh’s case, one of the oldest populations in the country.

“Over the past 12 months, however, Mass attendance fell 9% and offertory fell 11%.”

The article specifically mentions the grand jury report on child sexual abuse, but also notes that a few months after it was released, “parishioners also reacted to the October 2018 implementation of ‘On Mission for the Church!,’ which led to the transfer of many popular priests and changes in accustomed Mass times.”

Smaller offerings impacts parishes and the diocese. The article on the Pittsburgh Diocese notes it recently had to reduce its costs by $2.8 million, eliminating 32 jobs, a 20% cut in diocesan staff. It also cites a decade-long decrease in Catholic elementary schools by 40%.

The Pittsburgh diocese expanded its Diocesan Finance Council to include every county in the six-county area. Local members among 12 are Laura Coss of Greene County, a member of St. Mathias Parish, Waynesburg, and Laural Ziemba of Washington County, member of St. Benedict the Abbot Parish, McMurray.

The diocese pegged documented payments to assist victims at approximately $7 million, including $4.7 million in legal settlements since the first one recorded in 1991. The total also includes $2.3 million in other assistance to victims and survivors primarily for counseling since 2003.

In late 2018, the Pittsburgh Diocese announced the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, which plans to publish the aggregate amount of payments to victims and survivors by Jan. 1.

“No funds for the (compensation program) will come from ‘Our Campaign for the Church Alive!’, Catholic Charities or any other funds designated for a specific use by the donor,” according to the diocese’s report, Financial Costs Related to Sexual Abuse by Clergy. “Nor have such funds been used in the past to compensate victims.”

In the Greensburg diocese, which includes Fayette, Westmoreland, Indiana and Armstrong counties, the annual, diocesan-wide count of Mass attendance will be conducted in October, but Jerry Zufelt, spokesman for the diocese, said, “We attribute an approximately 4% decline in Mass attendance to the grand jury report.”

However, “weekly giving is matching last year’s. The annual Diocesan Lenten Appeal met its goal of $3.4 million. It generated an additional $1.26 million for individual parishes to keep for their specific needs,” according to Zufelt.

In February, Bishop Edward C. Malesic announced details of a Comprehensive Reconciliation Initiative, including a Survivors’ Compensation program, an opportunity for survivors to interact with a program administrator, as well as access to counseling and spiritual guidance.

Both are administered independently from the diocese by Commonwealth Mediation and Conciliation Inc., a private dispute-resolution company.

According to Zufelt, Malesic has said that as he listened to the stories of the survivors, their pain and their anguish had a tremendous impact on him. Malesic wanted the outreach to be more than just a compensation fund, and he wanted to ensure that the effort was a commitment to listening to and supporting the same people the diocese had failed to protect in the past.

After its work is completed, CMCI will provide a report about the compensation fund to the Diocese of Greensburg, and the diocese, Zufelt said, will make a full disclosure of the funds distributed through this program by the end of the summer.

A woman leaving a recent mid-day Mass at Immaculate Conception who preferred not to give her name but said she’s a 35-year resident of Washington is “all broken-hearted that the priests here – all priests – are stigmatized.

“When it came out about the Boy Scouts the other day, it’s everywhere,” she said, saying of the allegations, “these predators, it’s between them and their God what they did.

“I see people coming together more and more to defend the church. I’m just happy we have this church and such good priests. We pray always for more dedicated vocations, both men and women.”

Noting she has been a Catholic since birth who attended Catholic schools, she continued, “So this is my faith and there is no other. This is not defining us at this church. It’s happening in society everywhere, all kinds of horrible things. I do not dwell on this – it’s not something I think about at all.”

Church closures, mergers

Church closures and mergers also made the news during the past year, restructuring done in the face of declining attendance, financial woes and a shortage of priests.

In October 2018, the Pittsburgh diocese had 188 parishes in 57 groupings. Nine months later, on July 1, the number of parishes had been reduced to 170 in 48 groupings.

In Washington County in February, four Roman Catholic churches in the Mon Valley were slated to close in March: 113-year-old St. Michael the Archangel in Fredericktown; St. Joseph, Roscoe, which dated to 1904; St. Thomas Aquinas, California, a 63-year-old structure; and Saints Mary and Ann in Marianna, a once thriving coal town where the mine closed due to an underground fire.

The closures took place as planned, and four churches are for sale. Parishioners have appealed the decisions to close both Sts. Mary and Ann and St. Michael the Archangel to the Vatican, and the matter will likely be resolved next year.

Greene Countians learned in May that all five Roman Catholic congregations would be merged into one, without closures, which took effect July 1.

Now known as St. Matthias Parish, the merger, which took effect July 1, affected St. Ann, Waynesburg; St. Hugh, Carmichaels; St. Ignatius, Bobtown; Our Lady of Consolation, Rice’s Landing, Nemacolin and Crucible; and St. Thomas, Clarksville and Jefferson.

Zubik, in a letter to parishioners, said the merged parishes would allow “for more effective ministry by addressing serious financial problems, sharing resources and allowing the clergy to focus on the spiritual work for which they were ordained.”

The Greensburg diocese has 78 parishes, the same number as a year ago. Its most significant consolidation was in June 2013 with the creation of St. Francis of Assisi parish.

Prayer and repentance

Malesic announced a day of prayer throughout the Diocese of Greensburg today marking the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. All parish churches in the Diocese of Greensburg will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for private prayer with a special intention for those who have been abused and for the healing of the Church.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh concludes what is officially known as a Year of Repentance on Thursday with the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary. Mass will be celebrated at 6 p.m. tomorrow in St. Paul Cathedral.

Zubik said he chose to do this in conjunction with the Assumption “as a sign of hope and healing for victims and for renewal in the Church through the intercession” of the Virgin Mary.

Zubik inaugurated the special observance last September, asking “all clergy in the diocese to fast and pray for the purification of the Church in light of the scandal of child sexual abuse.”

“Faced with the sinful actions of the members of our own ranks of the clergy, who are called to manifest the example of Christ, we feel both shame and sorrow, and are reminded of our own sinfulness and the need for mercy,” Zubik wrote in a letter to priests, deacons and seminarians of the diocese.”

Staff Writer

Staff Writer Barbara S. Miller is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College. She covers Washington County government, courts and general assignments.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!

Thank you for reading!

Please log in, or sign up for a new account and purchase a subscription to read or post comments.