In Catholic turmoil, priest keeps upbeat spirit
Right before the 11 a.m. Mass on Sept. 2 at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Dunkirk, the unexpected heavy rainfall let up. Rays of sunlight began to enter the sanctuary through the cupola above.
It was a moment that did not go unnoticed by the Rev. Daniel Walsh, pastor. In welcoming the congregation of about 350 for that service, he did not hesitate to mention what seems to be on the minds of every Catholic in Western New York: when will the dark clouds of the sex-abuse scandal ever go away so that brighter days can come to a dedicated flock of God’s followers?
Since late February, when the Rev. Norbert Orsolits admitted to abusing boys to The Buffalo News, increased incidents and allegations have rocked the church and brought questions for numerous loyal Catholic church-goers. In recent weeks, elected officials and some high-profile parishioners have called on diocesan Bishop Richard J. Malone to resign as even more shocking revelations have been reported.
But what problem does having Malone resign solve? Malone has been the face of the crisis that is decades in the making — and not under his leadership. Someone new, unfortunately, does not change or fix what was done in the past. Besides, he is just — like every other diocesan leader — following orders that come from the top and are very slow to change.
Moving forward, there needs to be greater accountability, plenty of healing as well as forgiveness. That’s where Walsh comes in. The popular priest came out of retirement to serve at Holy Trinity in 2015.
“Forgive your spouse for being human, forgive yourself for being human … we’re all sinners,” he said, echoing a theme common in many of his sermons. “Forgive your children for being human, your parents for being human. Forgive even our wonderful Catholic Church for being human and forgive our government for being human. … If you give up on the church, the temple or the mosque, where do we go?”
This year, on a personal and local level, there has been success for Walsh and the denomination. Not only has there been some gains in attendance at the parish, but the pastor also celebrated his 50th year in the priesthood in July at an event that drew more than 400 well wishers. More recently, he has been part of a rejuvenated Northern Chautauqua Catholic School, which topped its fund-raising goal of $100,000 and has an enrollment of 96 in a newly started school year.
But those pieces of good news are a raindrop when compared to a tidal wave of scandal that thrives in a negative social media environment. Walsh frowns upon that.
“Let’s be more affirming and less critical whether it comes to our family, our religion, our government, even ourselves,” he said of our current culture. “Let’s look for ways of affirming one another. … We’re finding fault with everybody. We’re very critical. We’re tearing people down. … If you’re waiting for a perfect world, it’s not going to happen.”
Seventeen years ago this week, America came back to religion almost out of necessity. Our country was shocked and reeling from the terrorist attacks. Many of us at that time did two things: we flew the flag and sought out a higher being. “Where would be without church on 9/11 in 2001?” Walsh asked. “The churches were full … especially that first Sunday after the event.”
While in Gowanda in 2009, he remembered the horrific flooding that affected the village. A collection, that next Sunday, was taken in which more than $4,000 was raised. Walsh said the parish immediately gave those funds to anyone who was in need of help after that crisis.
A positive message from an unfortunate event — something Walsh wants his parishioners and this region to hear more about. He also believes that once his religion with centuries of history gets past this scandal, it can take a closer look at how it operates.
“I’m looking for the church to change over this,” he said. “Maybe we’re going to have more women in the church, maybe women in leadership roles or priests. I think if priests were parents, we would have been more conscious of what goes on in families or our children would tell us things.”
He does not apologize for those who have been implicated in the scandal, but has “great sympathy” for those who were abused. “Every morning when I read the newspaper, before I finish, I close the paper and pray,” he said. “I remind myself that there is a God who loves me and all of us. God is in charge and we have friends in high places.
“I can then better accept that the pope and bishop are human, that our national and world leaders make mistakes, and that the Yankees or Bills lost. In the end we all win. This gives me courage and hope. I still care, but I don’t worry.”
John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to email@example.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.