By John Toole firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — SALEM — For the first time in the Greater Salem area, the leader of New Hampshire’s Roman Catholics will offer a healing Mass tonight for victims of child abuse.
Bishop Peter Libasci is scheduled to celebrate the Mass at 6:30 p.m. at St. Joseph Church on Main Street.
The service comes 10 months after Libasci became bishop of the Diocese of Manchester and 10 years into the still-unfolding Catholic clergy abuse scandal in New Hampshire.
A critic of the church’s response to the scandal, David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Libasci has disappointed those who hoped for change. “He has been disappointing on so many levels,” Clohessy said. “Libasci is in an enviable position. He can say, ‘I don’t know these men. I wasn’t here.’ That makes it much easier for him to be forthcoming and proactive.”
SNAP continues to press the diocese to publicize the names, faces and locations of abusing priests, demonstrating as recently as three weeks ago outside diocesan offices in Manchester.
Clohessy is critical of Libasci for failing to do so. “There is virtually no difference” under Libasci than with his predecessor, Bishop John McCormack, Clohessy said.
McCormack was reviled for his role as an aide to Cardinal Bernard Law as the abuse coverup scandal first hit the Archdiocese of Boston. Later, upon becoming bishop of Manchester, he was criticized by victim advocates for not being forthcoming in releasing information about offending New Hampshire priests.
Clohessy said other dioceses have publicized information about abusive priests. “About 30 bishops in America have done this. It is a simple, inexpensive, public safety move. Of those 30 bishops, I don’t know a single one who later said, ‘Boy, I shouldn’t have done that,’’’ Clohessy said.
Healing Masses are not new. Dioceses across the country are holding them, Clohessy said. “Fundamentally, we think these kind of events are at best misplaced energy and at worst just public relations,” Clohessy said. “We think the focus needs to be on protecting kids and less on healing adults.”
Diocese spokesman Kevin Donovan said this is the fourth healing Mass in New Hampshire. McCormack held the first in response to requests from victims. Libasci has continued the practice.
“It was something that really came out of conversations Bishop McCormack had with victims,” Donovan said.
The masses are intended for child abuse victims generally and not just for victims of abuse by clergy or sex abuse victims, Donovan said.
The church doesn’t make a big deal about the Masses. Donovan said they tend to be small services. “They really are for healing,” he said.
Victims get the chance to personally speak with the bishop if they wish. “They are very powerful experiences,” Donovan said.
While Libasci has not discussed publicizing information about offending priests for the benefit of the public, Donovan said the diocese “follows the law and goes beyond the law.”
Don Simmons, a member of the Salem parish, sees the Mass as an honest effort by the new bishop to try to heal the wounds that haven’t healed in the past. “I hope that it’s perceived as an attempt to reach out to people affected by abuse,” Simmons said.
Other than monetary considerations awarded by the courts, “I don’t know what else the church can do to try to heal them emotionally and spiritually,” Simmons said.
“Our hopes are great that he can at least reach people with his personal dynamism,” parishioner Anna Willis said.
Willis said there remains a lot of anger because of the scandal so where SNAP and other critics are coming from may make sense. But Libasci is new, representing the church and still learning his people and the best way to deal with this issue, she said. “There is a curiosity about how he is going to deal with this because he is new.”
She has high hopes for the new bishop and his ability to deal with it. “I think this particular bishop has a reputation of being a shepherd and caring about his flock a great deal,” Willis said.
Libasci doesn’t carry the baggage of McCormack from the association with Law, she said.
The diocese has a report on its website, “Child Protection Measures,” detailing steps taken in the aftermath of the scandal. It says more than 23,000 adults working in churches and parochial schools have completed background screening, 28,500 have been trained to recognize abuse and 22,000 youths annually receive personal safety lessons.
Libasci, in his message accompanying that report, pledges “never again will the church in New Hampshire falter in its vigilance to protect children.”
The bishop acknowledges abuse as a present injury to the Catholic community. “Too many young people were robbed of their childhoods. Too many predators were not stopped,” Libasci said.
The real achievement is the anti-abuse policies have become permanently woven into the fabric of the church, he said.
“We must learn to live with the criticism of skeptics who only see a flawed institution beyond any hope of repair. In fact, we may indeed learn from what they have to say,” Libasci wrote