St. Bernadette parish ‘needs stability’ as it faces grand jury report, upcoming change
Figurines of Jesus and notable saints adorn the small lobby in Monroeville’s St. Bernadette Catholic Church on a sunny late summer morning. As they always do, church bells ring nearby signifying the end of daily Mass as parishioners file out to go on with daily life.
But for many of them, that day’s worship carried a weight not typically present in the sacred space of their sanctuary. A few days prior, a grand jury report was released detailing how 300 “predator priests” sexually abused at least 1,000 children over seven decades and how a hierarchy of clergy leaders conspired to cover it up.
Two of the disgraced priests served at St. Bernadette during their tenures.
At the same time the roughly 7,500 parishioners of the church wrestle with that reality, they also are saying goodbye to a trusted priest of nine years.
Effective Oct. 15, the diocese’s 188 parishes will be placed in 57 groupings that will become new parishes between 2020 and 2023 as part of a strategic planning initiative that’s been in the works for five years. Religious leaders — some who have been in their current churches for many years, including the Rev. Tony Gargotta of St. Bernadette — will be reassigned to other parishes, hospitals, nursing homes, schools and correctional institutions.
Days after the state grand jury’s bombshell, all Gargotta could think about was his parishioners.
“Right now we need stability,” he said. “People want to be with the priests they know. That’s what everyone is telling me here.”
‘This doesn’t change God’
In Western Pennsylvania, 20 priests who worked in the Greensburg diocese and 99 in the Pittsburgh diocese stand accused of sexual abuse in the report made public in August.
James Graham, who died in 2015, started serving at St. Bernadette in May 1974, according to the grand jury report. The report said the Pittsburgh Diocese removed Graham as a priest from St. Lawrence O’Toole in Garfield in 2012 after verifying reports he had raped several young boys on multiple occasions and wrote one a love letter.
William Yockey started at the parish in October 1978 and served for nearly five years — his longest stint in a single church — before he was transferred to the diocese’s Department of Social & Community Development in June 1983.
The allegations against him emerged in 1991 when two men in their 20s claimed they were sexually molested by Yockey nine years prior.
The diocese put Yockey on administrative leave as chaplain of the Allegheny County Jail. The priest resigned from the chaplain position on July 18, 1991, and was withdrawn from active ministry a week later. He is now 66.
Dolores Gallagher, 78, a St. Bernadette parishioner of 18 years about to attend morning Mass on a weekday, said the news — although tragic — won’t stop her from going to church every day.
“For those that will (leave the church), maybe their faith wasn’t strong at all in the first place. But this doesn’t change God or Christ. My faith is in Christ,” Gallagher said.
Today, back inside the church building, moving boxes line the walls of Gargotta’s rectory office. The priest of 17 years is packing to move on to St. Peter’s Parish on Pittsburgh’s North Side this month.
Gargotta, 56, said the grand jury report, which he called “shattering, horrible news,” should lead to Cardinal Donald Wuerhl’s resignation and the Pittsburgh diocese should postpone the church-wide reshuffling.
The question was brought up at a diocese meeting of all priests in late August, but Bishop David Zubik said the strategic planning initiative, dubbed “On Mission for the Church Alive!”, will move forward.
St. Bernadette Parish will be grouped with St. Bartholomew of Penn Hills, St. Gerard Majella of Verona, St. Michael of Pitcairn, North American Martyrs of Monroeville and St. Susanna of Penn Hills. Each of the diocese’s 57 groupings will have two to five years to submit their merger plan to the bishop.
This is not Gargotta’s first time navigating church life in the wake of a scandal.
Shortly after he was ordained at age 39, news broke that nearly 90 priests in Boston had sexually abused children for years and the diocese coordinated to cover it up.
“I have to admit it was very hard as a brand new priest,” Gargotta said. “I was so proud to be a priest, and all of a sudden I wondered if I should even have my (clergy) shirt on.”
He described a time when he was in the Pittsburgh airport, shortly after the Boston Globe’s story broke.
“This little boy wandered over to me. And this lady — I didn’t touch him or anything — she just screams, ‘Get away from that man!’ And I’m just standing there like this,” Gargotta said with his hands up.
“I started wearing my collar a lot less for about a year or two,” he said.
If he learned anything from the first scandal he weathered, it’s that people need stability in tumultuous times.
“They need to face the emotions, tell God how they feel, first in prayer. Whatever they want to do, they want to scream, talk, cry — do all that. They should make the diocese know how they feel. Then, if they trust their pastor or priest, pour your heart out, talk to them,” he said.
That could be hard for some St. Bernadette parishioners as a new priest is introduced Oct. 15.
Ray Grego, 70, has been a member at St. Bernadette since 1965. He called the contents of the grand jury report “terrible” and is troubled by the church’s plan to move forward with its reconfiguration.
“(Bishop Zubik) is uprooting our priests — we’re devastated. Some people really are depressed over it. They’re taking (Gargotta) out. So who do you go to?” he said.
The sweeping grand jury report alleges Cardinal Wuerl did not adequately deal with pedophile priests during his tenure as bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006.
Wuerl has said he plans to talk to Pope Francis about his resignation.
Calls for Zubik’s resignation soon followed August’s report. The bishop has denied the church covered up the abuse and detailed how the church has adopted internal reforms to address abuse.
For Grego, that’s not enough.
“I hope they’re removed. As long as these two are (active), I don’t see how we can move on from this,” Grego said.
Meanwhile, Gargotta has worked to make the Oct. 15 transition as smooth as possible — both for himself and his parishioners. He said he’s met with around 50 parishioners to talk about a variety of anxieties.
“Some of them have had a baptism or a marriage done by one of the priests on the list. They feel like it’s invalid — dirty,” Gargotta said.
But most of them, he said, plead with their priest to stay at their home parish.
“Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t ask me if I can stay here,” the priest said.
‘God wants them back’
Christine Gurski, 76, a St. Bernadette parishioner from Murrysville, greeted Gargotta from an outdoor bench as he walked by just outside the church’s main doors shortly after celebrating a weekday Mass.
“He’s one of the good ones,” she said of Gargotta.
“I just hope the people who suffered will find peace,” Gurski added in reference to the grand jury report. “If they left, come back. We still feel they belong. God wants them back.”
Gargotta said the church has not experienced a decline in parishioners and donations since the grand jury report published. Instead, he said there has been a 10 percent decline in both membership and donations since April, when Bishop Zubik detailed the diocese’s reshuffling.
That fact underscores his feelings about leaving his parishioners.
“I’ll miss them,” Gargotta said. “I really know the people here more than the other parishes I’ve served.”
Moving forward, Gargotta said, parishioners should be afforded the truth from their priests and deacons.
“They need love and honesty — the truth. And they need our sacrificial time, not to be brushed off,” he said.
But Gargotta is optimistic of the parish’s future with the other parts of the grouping.
“We’re working as one — it’s a new family, new life,” he said.
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review
staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, [email protected] or via Twitter @dillonswriting.