Sept. 20 2018 09:30 AM

Diocese faces criticism of ‘Happiness’ event


Jim Secor at St. Mary Cathedral in Lansing

Michigan Avenue soon will be lined with thousands of Catholic Churchgoers en route to the largest mass to ever be assembled within the Diocese of Lansing, but some have labeled the spectacle as a poorly timed distraction.

The “Made for Happiness” conference — scheduled for Saturday morning — aims to parade up to 15,000 Catholics from Lansing’s St. Mary Cathedral to the Breslin Center in East Lansing for an afternoon of worship. Organizers expect the Breslin to be filled to capacity for a public display of spiritual devotion to Jesus Christ.

But some local residents, in the wake of recent investigations of sexual abuse among Catholic clergy members across the country, contended the last thing the church should do is celebrate happiness. Jim Secor, an East Lansing resident and practicing Catholic, penned a letter to Bishop Earl Boyea in response to the upcoming plans.

“The Catholic institution has an all-too-predictable pattern, when caught in another embarrassment, to simply change the subject,” Secor wrote. “The worse the crisis, the louder and more gaudy the distraction has to be.”

A grand jury report released last month indicated that Catholic Church leaders in Pennsylvania helped protect hundreds of abusive priests for decades. More than 1,000 child victims were identified within the recent report. And Boyea — in response — opted to take a closer look at allegations that may have been reported in Lansing.

“We hold accountable any perpetrators who have harmed minors and vulnerable adults,” Boyea explained in a letter he published late last month. “They have no place in Church ministry and are removed from ministry.”

Secor identifies as a Catholic by faith but labeled the overarching institution a “failure.” He said the upcoming event is designed primarily to “baffle the fools with bullshit” rather than bolster a much-needed focus on sexual assault prevention. Diocese officials disagreed but recognized the event is based on an elaborate marketing ploy.

“I think the title of this conference is throwing people off a bit,” said Craig Pohl, Diocese director of new evangelization. “The word ‘happiness’ was designed to catch attention. People think we’re coming together to celebrate this happy event. They think smiles and giddiness. A better word here might be ‘holiness.’” “The sad truth of the matter, had we labeled it that way, we’d only get like 2,000 people to attend. We wouldn’t be able to pack that stadium. So much of this was just on a marketing level, and it gives people the wrong idea.”

Boyea charted plans last month to hire an “external agency” to review how possible accusations of sexual abuse were handled and publish the names of clerics who sexually abused children. Diocese officials said those plans have yet to take shape but will be similar to a financial audit — only for reports of clerical pedophelia.

“We’re talking about happiness that the Lord has brought to us,” said Diocese spokesman Michael Diebold. “Happiness is having Jesus in our heart. This has been in the works for years. We’re doing this to celebrate our faith. We’re not ignoring what happened in Pennsylvania. We’re dealing with the issue here in Lansing.”

Some lauded the transparency efforts but were ultimately skeptical of the church’s ability to truthfully determine what constitutes a “credible” allegation of sexual assault. Officials said a diocesan review board will make those decisions and determine the protocol for handling any potential abuse allegations in the future.

Tashmica Torok, founder and executive director of The Firecracker Foundation, helps provide therapy to children who have survived sexual assault trauma. She said the upcoming event could have been rescheduled or refocused but it won’t do much to distract the public from the issues that pervade the church as a whole.

“It’ll take more than a march, in my opinion, to make people forget the hundreds of children that have been abused,” Torok added. “They’ll eventually need to be held accountable for what has been done.”

Diebold said law enforcement is notified whenever allegations of sexual abuse are reported. A panel of church officials will also personally investigate any reports and attempt to interview everyone involved, including the suspected perpetrator. And clergy will be promptly removed if allegations are found to be “credible.”

“Criminal cases go straight to the police, but we’ll have to take those steps to find other people to corroborate the story of the person coming forward,” Pohl explained. “In those instances, we would have to determine whether it’s a credible accusation. We can’t just take everyone’s word for it. We have to take that due diligence.”

Boyea indicated the most recent local incident of child sexual abuse by a member of the clergy dated back to before the 2002 adoption of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a comprehensive set of guidelines for addressing sexual abuse allegations within Catholic churches across the world.

He said any clergy members who have been found to have abused children are either dead or have been permanently removed from the ministry. Diocesan officials — if allegations have not already been reported to police — have and will continue to properly notify authorities and assess claims with the internal review board.

“There’s no place in the priesthood for child abuse,” Diebold added.

Diebold emphasized that church officials rely on law enforcement to gauge the credibility of abuse accusations. But Torok — in the wake of a large-scale cover-up in Pennsylvania — encourages churchgoers to remain critical of the plans, especially if church officials are charged with determining the merit of a victim’s accusations.

“With spiritual communities in general and with the Catholic Church specifically, there’s a power dynamic that priests have over their communities,” Torok added. “I’d encourage people to make sure that power doesn’t go unquestioned. We need to teach children that no one has access to their bodies without their consent.”

The eucharistic procession for the “Made for Happiness” event is slated to run from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday. One lane of Michigan Avenue will be closed for the four-mile march. A picnic, activities for children and an array of guest speakers will continue afterwards at the Breslin Center. Visit madeforhappiness.org for details.