BISHOP PERSICO, REPORTER MEET FOR 'UNCOMFORTABLE CONVERSATIONS'
Following a year of difficult truths revealed over the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, Erie Bishop Lawrence Persico took another step toward transparency Dec. 4.
Fittingly, he participated in Edinboro University of Pennsylvania’s public forum series “Uncomfortable Conversations,” featuring himself and Tribune-Review reporter Deb Erdley of Greensburg.
About 200 people gathered at the university’s Pogue Center, listening in on a one-hour discussion between the reporter and bishop, both of whom have been at the center of the sex abuse crisis, but from different vantage points.
Having previously covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, Erdley went on to extensively cover the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury investigation of the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children by 301 priests in dioceses across the state. The grand jury’s 800-page report documented the abuse and cover-up by clergy over a 70-year period.
Bishop Persico was the subject of some of Erdley’s coverage, having distinguished himself as the only bishop in Pennsylvania to testify personally before the members of the grand jury. He also is considered to be the only bishop in the United State to release a list of both clergy and lay people in the diocese who have been credibly accused of actions that disqualify them from working with children.
The conversation itself was cordial and not as uncomfortable as the subject matter. Some members of the audience expressed their concerns in the 20-minute question-and-answer session.
Two people inquired about the status of Robert Bower, a former diocesan priest barred from ministry who maintains a residence in Edinboro. Although accused of possessing child pornography, Bower has never been formally charged. He is among those named on the Diocese of Erie’s credibly accused list.
The bishop explained the various steps necessary to bar a priest from ministry and/or strip them of their priestly status through laicization. Either way, it’s not always easy to monitor those individuals afterward.
“This is why it was so important to release all the names on our list, so the public is informed,” the bishop said.
Erdley questioned the bishop on a full range of topics – from why he chose to cooperate with the grand jury investigation to the long-term, potential damage to the church as a whole.
She also asked him about the current criticism of the Pennsylvania bishops for offering a victims’ compensation fund versus favoring a widening of the statute of limitations window for abuse victims. A bill to suspend the statute of limitations retroactively was passed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, but stalled in the Senate.
“I have victims in the diocese that are 87 years old,” Bishop Persico said. “It’s too long for them to wait for the legislation on the statute of limitations to go through the court system.”
During the question-and-answer session, Jim VanSickle, who was abused by a priest while at Bradford Central Christian High School, asked the bishop what he would do for victims who still maintain their faith, but have abandoned the church itself.
“We really need to do some outreach for people who have been abused. They’re still Catholic and they’re still a part of the family,” the bishop said. “We need to find a way to let them know they are loved.”
A young man who is a parishioner of St. Francis Xavier parish in McKean asked the bishop what a Catholic could do in their parish to help in the crisis.
“You can get involved in your parish and question your pastor,” Bishop Persico said. “Be challenging.”
Following the evening, many people from the Edinboro community mingled and continued the conversation with each other.
Twenty-four-year-old Brianna McAndrew, a parishioner of Our Lady of the Lake Parish, Edinboro, was impressed and grateful that Bishop Persico participated in the “Uncomfortable Conversations” series.
“As a young adult, I support him. He is being as transparent as he can,” McAndrew said. “Yes, there were things done wrong in the past, but he’s trying to right those wrongs.”
The bishop’s actions, she said, should be imitated by other Catholic dioceses as they face the sex abuse scandal.
“He’s trying his best to get as much information out there and be there on the front lines, meeting one-on-one with victims and other people like myself who have questions,” McAndrew said.