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Oxford Priest Responds to Ongoing Catholic Church Sex Scandals

Story by Meagan Harkins
School of Journalism and New Media Student

Father Tonos celebrating daily Mass at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Oxford. Photo by Meagan Harkins.

Father Joe Tonos has personal insight into the trauma of those abused by priests, considering he was mistreated himself.  

When Tonos was 18, he said a priest came on to him while they were discussing the vocation of priesthood. Tonos said the priest made sexually suggestive comments and offered to purchase him alcohol. Although he was not physically touched, he described the encounter as one that made him angry, but it didn’t turn him away from the church.

Tonos has been an ordained Catholic priest for 25 years and is serving his 15th year at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Oxford.

His story is not an isolated one. The Google search term “priest abuse” has stirred traffic since 2004, as far back as Trends data goes. Interest spiked in August 2018 when Pennsylvania released a list of more than 300 Roman Catholic priests accused of sex abuseFollowing the Pennsylvania incident, a similar list was released for Mississippi.

Tonos said he found it “heartbreaking” to see names of friends on that Mississippi list.

“I can’t go back and question that or get angry about it,” he said, as the friends listed are all deceased. “It’s just sad.”

Tonos, like some of his parishioners, is frustrated with the Catholic church hierarchy. He said he recognizes that the church is responsible for covering up decades of incidents. However, he said St. John’s Mass attendance has remained stable throughout.

“A lot of us don’t have any real sense that somehow the Pope and the bishops run this thing. As Catholics, we believe that Christ instituted this Church,” Tonos said.

Many of Tonos’ parishioners are Ole Miss students. He estimated for Sunday services that 30% of attendees at 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. are college students and that 80% of 5 p.m. attendees are students.

“The ones that people were afraid of being affected haven’t been,” Tonos said, referring to the fear that the abuse incidents would drive young people away from the church.

Yet, according to a Gallup poll, 37% of American Catholics considered leaving the Church in 2019 in reaction to the sexual abuse incidents. 

Tonos attributed local resilience to their “confidence in this faith,” and he said he believes that his parishioners have grown up respecting the Church’s hierarchy but are still independent thinkers.

Emma Stanley is an Ole Miss junior and St. John parishioner who is pleased with Tonos’ response to the sex abuse crisis in the church.

“He did a good job of condemning it, speaking out about it, and being honest about the state of the Diocese of Jackson,” Stanley said of Tonos’ statements to the parish. “He made it clear that he doesn’t stand for it and he doesn’t stand with it.”

Tonos has developed a relationship with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). He has one message for them: “Keep on going to the law. Tell your story and don’t give up.”

He makes it clear that this is not just a Catholic issue but a global church issue, including other sects of Christianity. However, he said he is thankful that the immoral acts of some priests are being brought to the light.

“People are empowered enough to go to their local governments because their religious institutions haven’t looked out for them,” he said. 

Stanley has made peace with the issue this way.

“The Catholic Church isn’t about the priests, it’s about Jesus. Priests are human but the Catholic Church stands separate from the priest,” Stanley said. “Our Church is good and true.”

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