August 2018

While the Alvernia University community joyfully welcomed a record freshman class - the largest, academically strongest and most diverse in history - a dark cloud hung over campus.

As a proud Franciscan, Catholic university deeply rooted in the community, we are outraged and appalled by the twin horrors documented in the Pennsylvania grand jury report: the predatory sexual abuse by priests and the abuse of power and trust by those with responsibility to deal with it.

Fortunately, Alvernia's Mission Day, rooted in the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi, gathered our faculty and staff for the annual morning of reflection on our Franciscan core values at the outset of a new academic year. Our focus was discussion of a statement of "Commitment to Freedom of Expression and Civil Dialogue," drafted by a campus group I convened last spring. But throughout the morning, our thoughts turned naturally to a topic that defies civility and evokes fury.

Although there are no references in the report to Alvernia, we later discovered that four of the priests named from the Allentown Diocese (Robert Cofenas, James Gaffney, Henry Paul and Joseph Zmijewski) were part-time adjuncts at the college back in the 1960s and 1980s. We have no evidence of abuse occurring during that time, but any possible association with it is painful for our community.

We have notified alumni who were students during that time to report any such abuse to the Office of Attorney General's Clergy Abuse Hotline at 888-538-8541. We have reached out to students, reaffirming that counseling resources are readily available and that our campus continues to be a supportive, inclusive learning community with no tolerance for harassment or abuse of any kind. We draw spiritual inspiration from the example of our Bernardine Franciscan Sisters. And in partnership with them, we will hold a Service of Healing.

As the president of a university whose mission statement pledges faculty and staff to be and to prepare "ethical leaders with moral courage," I have been heartened, though unsurprised, to find that faculty and staff at Alvernia have many shared perspectives.

We praise the courage of the survivors and appreciate the efforts of the attorney general and the grand jury. We recognize that most cases date back decades, and we are encouraged by steps taken in our diocese and in our nation to report cases now promptly to legal authorities. In addition, we also believe passionately that all individuals and family members who have been victimized deserve justice and support for their healing.

And we continue to be convinced that lay women and men at Catholic universities such as Alvernia can be a powerful voice for the justice and cultural renewal needed in the church and, indeed, in our world.

Yet each of us responds individually to these horrible revelations. For some non-Catholics, already skeptical, cynical or even bigoted toward the church, this news confirms their attitudes. Some Catholics, especially lay and religious women, struggle with the church's hierarchical nature. For them, it is impossible not to view this from a gendered perspective. And for "cradle Catholics" like myself, our emotions range from shock and shame to unbridled anger over the sinful betrayal of trust.

I also, amidst deep sorrow, find hope. Raised by a single mother, I was fortunate that her two brothers, my uncles, were inspiring Jesuit priests and my surrogate father figures. Many of my youthful mentors were Jesuits, as is my best friend of more than 40 years. I ache for them. I believe in them.

I also hold fast to the knowledge that, like theirs, my faith is Christ-centered. And I take courage from the letter of Pope Francis, praised by Pennsylvania's attorney general, to "fight all forms of corruption, especially spiritual corruption" and to be "involved in the ecclesial and social change that we so greatly need."

For Catholics and, indeed, all Christians, there is no Easter Sunday without Good Friday. Never has this mystery of faith and hope been truer or more relevant than now.


Reading Eagle, August 31, 2018



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