The current sexual misconduct scandal involving hundreds of Catholic priests in Pennsylvania is being overshadowed locally by a similar case involving a priest in the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese.
Last week, the local Diocese received an accusation of inappropriate contact 14 years ago involving a minor against Fr. Edward Jones – Pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Sacred Heart Parishes near Tallahassee. Bishop William Wack then contacted the diocese’s independent investigator.
“That [investigator] was in contact with the victim several times over the phone because the person is out-of-state now,” Wack said. “After interviewing that person and documenting it, the investigator told me that there was no reason to doubt the victim’s sincerity.”
The victim is not being identified by the Diocese.
Wack determined the accusation credible and removed Jones from all ministries in the diocese. The Attorney General’s office was notified and if criminal charges are filed, law enforcement takes the case.
“It’s my understanding that none have been filed; that’s up to the victim; nonetheless, it still triggers our process and protocols,” said Wack.
For now, says Wack, it’s too early in their investigation to speculate just what punishment – if any – will be handed down by the Church. A key factor is the Dallas Charter – passed in 2002, it provides extra transparency for addressing allegations of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. Wack believes it could inspire other victims to walk out of the shadows.
“We constantly are telling people, ‘If you know of anything, if there is an alleged abuse then please, let us know,’” said Wack. “We give them phone numbers; web pages, everything. Perhaps this might trigger a memory.”
Responding to what it calls a "moral catastrophe," the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops plans to ask the Vatican to investigate the scandal in Pennsylvania involving 300 priests and more than 1,000 children, over a span of seven decades.
“Just like everyone else, I think I got pretty much sick to my stomach,” said Wack. “We knew of almost all of those – or maybe all of them. It’s really posting all the names of those who had been accused or convicted over the last 70-some years. But seeing them and reading those stories was horrific, really.”
Wack applauds Vatican City’s involvement, saying the American Catholic hierarchy has lost credibility when it comes to investigating such matters.
“I know that’s dramatic, but I believe that,” Wack said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t think we can do it, but we need an outside investigation. The problem is – and people will see it – Rome moves with glacial speed. The Church has been working for 2,000 years; it doesn’t move as quickly as people want it to, especially in this day and age. So that’s going to be frustrating.”
Addressing the abuse scandal is just one – albeit massive – issue facing the modern Catholic Church. Wack says long-term solutions for the leadership involve getting back to the basic tenets of the Faith.
“We have to engage in more prayer and works of penance and the Gospel; be about the Gospel more and more,” says Wack. “Focus on that more than anything else – position, power, anything. It has to be about service and humility. But then also in terms of the leadership, we need more lay involvement, so that more people are part of the leadership; part of the decision-making, and part of the accountability of the Church.”
But if there’s any silver lining in this latest round of allegations, it’s that while people are horrified by them, it appears that actual Catholic teaching is unscathed. Wack says for now, that’s the hope.
“Ultimately it’s that we are all weak, all have sinned as St. Paul says in the Epistles,” said Wack. “But God is good; God forgives, God strengthens us [and] God is always with us. What we are charged with is the part on Earth, where we need to be good and humble ourselves and serve our brothers and sisters. And that’s where we’re not doing such a great job – at least not the Church leadership.’
Bishop William Wack – who prefers “Bishop Bill” – has led the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese for almost a year now. He hopes his words don’t sound “hollow.”
“I am profoundly and just saddened and sorry for this,” says Wack. “And I just hope to use my ministry and position as much as I can to serve people and help bring comfort and healing to the world. It’s maddening, as a new bishop, to have to face this, but I’ll do what I can to turn it around.”