Thank you, Gene Kennedy, for empowering laypeople

Eugene Cullen Kennedy in 2010

On a wet, early December evening in 2002, a bald, 70-something rotund man with pale Irish complexion stood relaxed on the podium. In a nearly filled sanctuary in St. Agnes Church in Louisville, Ky., Dr. Eugene Cullen Kennedy was set to offer his critique of the crisis engulfing the American Catholic church.

The attendees sat confused, awaiting guidance from the nationally recognized psychologist to cope with the unending stream of news of child-abusing priests. The Louisville archdiocese was hit especially hard. With a little over 200,000 Catholics, the chancery was facing nearly $25 million in legal settlements with over 100 victims. Twenty-five priests had already been defrocked. This audience wanted answers and the grace to sort through their shaken trust in church leaders who operated in a clerical culture of deceit, power and lies.

Gene Kennedy was direct, honest. The world of the clergy is sick, and the church would never heal from the sexual abuse crisis until the entire culture was cleansed of its mentally twisted ways. Groups like Voice of the Faithful, consisting of lay leaders determined to birth a new church, were the wave of the future, Kennedy insisted.

I, the one who had invited Gene, sat uneasy in the front pew as he spoke. For months, I had witnessed a series of my former pastors' pictures on the front pages of the Louisville Courier-Journal, every one accused of abusing children, some for several decades, producing in one case over two dozen victims.

Dr. Kennedy's prescription for the terminal illness in the church was a lay revolution. He endorsed common-sense ideas, including lay participation in selecting pastors, a married clergy, and a priesthood of service, not power and status, that includes women. Seminaries must foster engagement in the secular world and not be cloistered from it. Our leaders must be sexually mature.

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Conspicuously absent that evening was our pastor. Rumors said he was 100 miles away at a concert in Cincinnati.

Sadly, just one week after Kennedy's lecture, that same pastor was removed from the rectory in the middle of the night by his Passionist provincial after an investigation substantiated accusations that he had abused minors.

Kennedy's wisdom helped prepare us for the shock and anger we felt about our pastor's pedophilia. A week after his removal, in a parish meeting with the order's provincial, we demanded all prospective new pastors be screened by the lay parishioners, as Kennedy suggested just two weeks earlier. The enlightened provincial, to the dismay of our archbishop, Thomas Kelly, agreed with us and kept his word.

Over the next several years, as the magnitude of the abuse crisis set in, the Louisville chapter of Voice of the Faithful asked me to work with them to tighten the Kentucky laws on sexual abuse of minors. The age of consent was 12, the statute of limitations was three years, reporting requirements were among the weakest in the nation.

Inspired by Kennedy's words for the laity to take charge, I joined this determined band of political neophytes. As a state representative of 16 years at the time, I taught them to strategically roam the halls of the state capitol to explain the importance of the bill they were pushing. At committee hearings, victims told stories of horror to spellbound legislators.

In their grassroots effort, the Voice of the Faithful was able to pass one of the best child protection laws in the country in just a single legislative session. When asked to testify in favor of the bill, the archbishop balked. At the bill signing, a single priest showed up to endorse our efforts, Fr. Joe Fowler, who had heard Kennedy's lecture at St. Agnes. Two years later, the national Voice of the Faithful recognized his efforts on behalf of the legislation by giving him the Priest of Integrity Award.

We mourn Gene Kennedy, who the Lord took on June 3 at the age of 86. I had known his Gaelic wit and smile since my college seminary days in the heady post-Second Vatican Council days of the late 1960s. He inspired me to become a psychotherapist, to speak up for the oppressed, to get into the arena to make a difference in our wounded world.

In the wake of his death, we can raise an Irish toast in gratitude for his challenge to take ownership of our church and world -- and change it.

Well done, good and faithful servant.

[Rep. Jim Wayne is a 25-year member of the Kentucky House of Representatives and a practicing psychotherapist in Louisville.]


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