Church sex abuse scandal makes newly ordained priests want ‘to be holier’
David Egan is well aware of the stigma attached to priests in the wake of the Catholic Church child sex abuse scandal.
“I assume that other people assume things about me, that they’re very suspicious of me now,” Egan said. “If you walk out in public with a collar on, I think people are questioning ‘Is this one of the good guys? Or is this someone who has committed some terrible sin among his own flock?’ ”
Egan is one of four area men who were ordained to the priesthood Saturday by Bishop David A. Zubik of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh during a Mass of Ordination at St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland.
In addition to Egan, 30, of Glenshaw, the new priests are Timothy Deely, 37, of Greenfield, Brendan Dawson, 30, of West Deer and Mingwei Li, 31, who immigrated with his family from China and grew up in the South Hills.
“Freedom of religion is limited in China. Coming to the U.S. was part of God’s plan,” Mingwei said.
An instrument of healing
Each said that, if anything, the revelations from a 2018 grand jury report that widespread clerical sexual abuse occurred in Pittsburgh have made them more determined to answer their calling.
“Obviously the grand jury report in Pennsylvania came out recently, and the way that’s affected me the most is that it’s made me sort of afraid of potentially being falsely accused of something,” Egan said. “But it’s also created in me a real desire to be holier and to be an example of a holy priest for the people I serve.”
“In some ways I can be, I hope, an instrument of God bringing some healing,” Dawson said.
Deely was a student at Boston College when the first news of a church-related sex abuse scandal in the U.S. broke in 2002 in Boston. A Boston Globe investigation uncovered a pattern of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in Massachusetts and an ongoing cover-up by the Boston Archdiocese led by Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston.
“B.C. was right across the street from Cardinal Law’s residence,” Deely said. “I was terribly scandalized along with everyone else and quite angry. I think part of the reason I wanted to be a priest was that I was inspired by the good priests I had known and so angry at the priests who had not been good priests that I thought, ‘I want to throw my hat in the ring and be one of the good ones.’ ”
Deely said he still had to work through his loss of trust in the authority of the church.
“The things those priests had done were shocking to me and the fact that that most basic evil wasn’t dealt with was more shocking,” Deely said. “And then last year wasn’t helpful in restoring that trust. It was a reopening of an old wound. There was something in the human culture of the church at that time that was quite wrong, but I don’t know what that was.”
Avenues for change
Deely said there are some things within the culture of the Catholic Church that need to be done differently in order to deal with priests sexually abusing children, such as greater transparency and a commitment to telling the truth.
“It seems that there was a sense that by not telling the truth, they were protecting the church, and I don’t think that was true,” said Deely.
Deely said the “holier than thou” attitude perpetuated by some in the church hierarchy also needs to change.
“The clergy shouldn’t be this separated higher caste,” Deely said. “We are being ordained to be servants, not to be some sort of religious lordship. Some of these outdated notions have been shared by everyone for a long time and that’s what led up to people not believing that priests can do terrible things. And that was leveraged in some ways to hide these things and to hope they would just go away.”
Priest marriage rejected
Egan seems open to the idea that the Catholic Church needs to find new solutions to old problems, but he said that lifting the vow of celibacy, as some have suggested, is not the answer.
“When you talk about sexual perversion, I don’t think that has anything to do with whether or not you are married or whether or not you act on sexual impulses at times,” said Egan. “There are married men who have been pedophiles. I don’t think allowing priests to get married is the solution to the problems of sexual abuse.”
Before entering the seminary, Deely was a theology teacher at an all-boys high school in Warwick, R.I. He said his students would often ask why priests had to be celibate.
“Some of the boys thought it was patently absurd or that it was some kind of cover,” Deely said. “That was another one of the bad things about the abuse scandal was that it sort of gave in to the perception that this was some sort of a front and no one was faithful to their vows anyway.”
Deely said he and other priests have even asked themselves why they must be celibate.
“It seems like an odd thing,” Deely said. “But through the study of this and then through living it, it really is a beautiful thing and like any of the virtues, it becomes easier the more you commit to it, the more you do it. And we believe too that with ordination God gives certain help in that regard.”
Egan said he sees celibacy as a gift.
“It’s something that I’ve chosen,” Egan said. “A lot of people outside the Catholic Church look at celibacy as a burden. But for me personally, it’s something that I’ve freely chosen. It’s not something like ‘I wanted to become a priest and celibacy is a part of that and oh what a bummer.’ It’s more about wanting to imitate Jesus’ life to the fullest and he was a single man.”
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].