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'A Reckoning With The Past': Priest Responds To Child Sex Abuse Accusations Within Church


In Texas, the Catholic Church just released the names of 300 priests accused of child sex abuse, joining a number of other dioceses that have made their records public. The church has made headlines in recent months in other ways, too. Debates over the behavior of a group of Catholic students at the March for Life and the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court have drawn a lot of attention. And it's left the clergy embattled and the faithful asking questions of their church.

Father Alek Schrenk is getting some of those questions. And he's here for our first-person interview about when people's lives and the news intersect. He's a priest in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Father, welcome to the program.

ALEK SCHRENK: Thank you, Lulu. It's a honor to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Six months ago, there was a scathing report in Pittsburgh that really kicked off what we are seeing now in places like Texas. Where is the community after the report's release?

SCHRENK: You know, when it hit, it really was a total bombshell, even to the diocese. The graphic nature of what was described in the report and, of course, the emotions that came afterwards, I would honestly describe them along the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. You know, you had a sort of initial denial of what was going on. And I think that there's also a real sense of, this again?

You know, having lived through the whole thing that began in Boston and then to sort of have it re-presented, but so close to home and in such a graphic way, it really opened some fresh wounds among the people. And the response from the bishops and the priests, I think, at that point became very important.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, indeed, and what are people saying to you? And what answers do they want?

SCHRENK: You know, I think a lot of people just want a reassurance. A lot of people want to know that you are a good priest. So that's a great pressure to model a really compassionate response and understanding response.

And for myself, preaching from the pulpit and my personal interactions with people, what I tried to keep foremost in my mind was the idea of, first of all, that this person could themselves be a victim. What they really want is a healing voice, someone that can listen to what they're saying, affirm it and then say, this is the way forward.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've been ordained for a little over a year. So in some ways, you're coming to this with a fresh pair of eyes almost. How do you think the church has handled this so far?

SCHRENK: You know, I think I - if I can - if I can be honest, I think that there's a lot of sort of institutional protection that goes on in the church. And I think that maybe this crisis has underlined that that's not really a sufficient response, and that's really not the way to go. You know, I think a lot of people were calling from - in Catholic circles, at least - where is the spiritual aspect of this?

You know, are we going to see bishops, are we're going to see priests, engaging in acts of public penitence? I think that's what people want to see, is to see that this is being dealt with on the level of sin because once it's owned on the level of sin, then you can have some degree of redemption that follows.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Catholicism's been in the news quite a bit lately. You know, Catholic education has come under scrutiny with Covington and the issues around that and Kavanaugh. How have you addressed those discussions?

SCHRENK: You know, I always just try to maybe lead them in a direction to understand that Catholics have never really been at home in this country. There was a sort of period in the 1960s where we felt we had made it, you know, the first Catholic president - and only Catholic president - John F. Kennedy.

But I think there's a - maybe a healthy sense of malaise that the church has had with with dealing with this republic. And I hope that that doesn't result in people finding extremist positions within the political climate in which to express their Catholicism.

And as we see an increasing polarization in the political climate of our country, that the church needs to find a third way that people can go down without having to express any degree of hate or fear towards others.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you worried, though, about the future of the church right now, as people turn away amidst the controversies?

SCHRENK: You know, I do see a great degree of disaffection, of maybe - you know, it's not even opposition among the people, but maybe a lack of a sense that it's relevant to their lives. But among many young people in particular, I see a sort of a rediscovery of the great tradition of the church.

And I think what we're seeing is the preparation of a creative minority within the church so that the church will be smaller, radically different, perhaps, on an administrative level, but hopefully much more a force for prophetic good in our country and much more an agent of the tradition that we've been entrusted.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Father Alek Schrenk is a priest in the Dioceses of Pittsburgh. Thank you so much.

SCHRENK: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.