New Priests Discuss Abuse Scandal's Impact on Church

his week, the L.A. Catholic Archdiocese settled a multi-million dollar lawsuit with victims who were sexually abused by priests. News of the scandal first broke five years ago ... just as a new class of seminarians began studying to become priests. Unlike their brother priests, their entire religious training has been under a cloud. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde sat down with two of those new priests to talk about how the sexual abuse has affected their faith.

Kitty Felde: Father Paul Griesgraber says the sexual abuse scandal has changed a lot about the Catholic Church ... and not just for priests. Father Paul is an associate pastor at Saint Andrew Catholic Church in Pasadena. He says a grandfatherly parishioner was supposed to teach a Saturday class to prepare new altar boys.

Fr. Paul Griesgraber: However, he didn't do his Virtus training, he hasn't been fingerprinted, and the person in the parish who's in charge of that pointed that out, so the altar serving training is postponed to September.

Felde: "Virtus" is Latin for "character" or "courage." It's also the name for the mandatory child sexual abuse awareness training now required for anyone who represents the church and has contact with young people. That includes priests, like Father Paul. After a career in business, he decided to enter the seminary and become a priest. He was ordained last year at age 55. Not many make the cut.

Griesgraber: You'll go through a battery of psychological tests and evaluations even before you enter the seminary, as part of the application process. You'll have background checks, you'll have people interviewing those who know you, your letter of references, your family.

Felde: Father Edward Benioff was ordained just last month.

Fr. Edward Benioff: Sometimes it can feel a little overwhelming because you think that, you know, you're under the microscope, but I understand why they do that, because they have a responsibility. Not just for extreme cases like this, but just in general, they want the people of God to have someone that is integrated and healthy and whole, not someone that's got serious problems.

Felde: Father Edward wasn't particularly religious growing up. He was a high school quarterback. He worked at the Souplantation to pay back his student loans from Cal Poly Pomona. His parents were shocked when he entered the seminary at the age of 26.

Benioff: I grew up in a very affluent area in Arcadia, and everyone seemed to be going for money and power. And to me, that seemed kind of superficial and empty and looking back at it, I think God was kind of calling me to something deeper.

Felde: That call came just as news about priest abuse scandals began to break nationally. It wasn't a particularly good time to pursue a vocation, but Father Edward didn't mind.

Benioff: I kind of like the fact that our status is not that high because I think I like the humility it instills in us. In other cultures, the priest can think he's big stuff or above it all. Case in point, some of the problems. Where me personally, I like that I'm not perceived as anything better, or if anything, sometimes people don't like me, or want to spit on you or hate on you. I say good, good for my humility.

Felde: Father Edward says no one spits at him at his first parish, Holy Trinity in San Pedro. Of course, he's only been here two weeks. Both he and Father Paul say the abuse scandal hasn't affected their faith.

Fr. Edward is reluctant to say anything about how Cardinal Roger Mahony dealt with the priest abuse scandal in L.A. Fr. Paul says he's sure the cardinal feels he could have done a better job. But ask about the scandal itself, and both priests speak directly. Father Edward calls the abuse "a horrible tragedy."

Benioff: I feel terrible for the people that were abused, and again we pray that it never happens anywhere – not just the church, but in schools and in neighborhoods; it's a horrible thing.

Felde: Father Paul Griesgraber says Father Edward speaks for the rest of his colleagues.

Griesgraber: I haven't found a priest yet who has said other than this is a horrible tragedy, this is wrong, this is a grave evil, and a sin that must be addressed and taken care of completely. I haven't met a priest who hasn't identified that with great pain and great sorrow.

Felde: The larger question for the church is whether the sexual abuse scandal will discourage other men from choosing the priesthood. At a recent meeting for those considering the vocation, no one showed up. Last month, Father Edward was one of just five priests ordained in the L.A. Archdiocese. Just four were ordained in Fr. Paul's class the year before. But next year is supposed to produce what passes for a "bumper crop" of priests in the L.A. Archdiocese these days: 14 men are scheduled for ordination.