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Pope Francis walks in front of a candle in memory of victims of sexual abuse as he visits St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral in Dublin Aug. 25. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The clerical abuse crisis and the "crisis of credibility" it created for the U.S. bishops have led to serious divisions within the U.S. church and to a temptation to look for administrative solutions to problems that go much deeper, Pope Francis told the U.S. bishops.

Without a clear and decisive focus on spiritual conversion and Gospel-inspired ways of responding to victims and exercising ministry, "everything we do risks being tainted by self-referentiality, self-preservation and defensiveness, and thus doomed from the start," the pope wrote.

In a letter distributed to the bishops at the beginning of their Jan. 2-8 retreat, Pope Francis said he was convinced their response to the "sins and crimes" of abuse and "the efforts made to deny or conceal them" must be found through "heartfelt, prayerful and collective listening to the word of God and to the pain of our people."

"As we know," he said, "the mentality that would cover things up, far from helping to resolve conflicts, enabled them to fester and cause even greater harm to the network of relationships that today we are called to heal and restore."

The "abuses of power and conscience and sexual abuse, and the poor way that they were handled" continue to harm the church and its mission, he said, but so does "the pain of seeing an episcopate lacking in unity and concentrated more on pointing fingers than on seeking paths of reconciliation."

Such a division, which goes well beyond a "healthy" diversity of opinions, is what caused him to recommend a retreat because, the pope said, "this situation forces us to look to what is essential and to rid ourselves of all that stands in the way of a clear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

The pope said he had hoped "to be physically present" with the bishops for the retreat, but since that was not possible, he was pleased they accepted his suggestion to have the gathering be led by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household.

Pope Francis originally had suggested the bishops make a retreat in November instead of holding their annual general meeting. But the scope of the abuse crisis and the intense pressure the bishops' felt to act led them to keep the November meeting and plan the retreat for January.

The pope said he had hoped "to be physically present" with the bishops for the retreat, but since that was not possible, he was pleased they accepted his suggestion to have the gathering be led by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household.

Plans for the November meeting and for the retreat came after a summer of shocking news: revelations of credible abuse accusations against Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington; the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report accusing more than 300 priests in six dioceses of abusing more than 1,000 children in a period spanning 70 years; and accusations published by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, former apostolic nuncio to the United States, that Pope Francis had known about and ignored allegations that Archbishop McCarrick had sexually harassed seminarians.

In his letter to the bishops, Pope Francis said he suggested the retreat "as a necessary step toward responding in the spirit of the Gospel to the crisis of credibility that you are experiencing as a church."

"We know that, given the seriousness of the situation, no response or approach seems adequate," the pope wrote. Still, pastors must have the wisdom to offer a response based on listening to God in prayer and to the suffering of the victims.

Pope Francis said church leaders must "abandon a modus operandi of disparaging, discrediting, playing the victim or the scold in our relationships," and instead listen to the "gentle breeze" of the Gospel message.

Encouraging the bishops to continue taking steps "to combat the 'culture of abuse' and to deal with the crisis of credibility," he warned that credibility "cannot be regained by issuing stern decrees or by simply creating new committees or improving flow charts, as if we were in charge of a department of human resources. That kind of vision ends up reducing the mission of the bishop and that of the church to a mere administrative or organizational function in the 'evangelization business.'"

A restored credibility, he said, can only be "the fruit of a united body that, while acknowledging its sinfulness and limitations, is at the same time capable of preaching the need for conversion. For we do not want to preach ourselves but rather Christ who died for us."

"We want to testify that at the darkest moments of our history the Lord makes himself present, opens new paths and anoints our faltering faith, our wavering hope and our tepid charity," the pope said.

The bishops as a group, he said, must have a "collegial awareness of our being sinners in need of constant conversion, albeit deeply distressed and pained by all that that has happened."

Humility "will liberate us from the quest of false, facile and futile forms of triumphalism" and from anything that would "keep us from approaching and appreciating the extent and implications of what has happened."

"Affective communion with the feelings of our people, with their disheartenment, urges us to exercise a collegial spiritual fatherhood that does not offer banal responses or act defensively, but instead seeks to learn -- like the prophet Elijah amid his own troubles -- to listen to the voice of the Lord."

The bishops had planned to devote most of their November meeting to discussing and voting on several proposals to the abuse crisis, including the formulation of standards of episcopal conduct and the formation of a special commission for reviewing complaints against bishops for violations of the standards.

However, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, asked the bishops to delay their votes, citing the short amount of time the Vatican had to review the proposals, possible conflicts in them with church law and in view of the meeting Pope Francis has called for February with the presidents of all the world's bishops' conferences to discuss child protection and the abuse crisis

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Danny Collins
5 years 5 months ago

So much talk contradicted by action. Pope Francis is a disgrace. He should be leading by example, coming clean on what he knew and when about McCarrick. He should acknowledge his own faults in covering for and rehabillitating child molesters, sexual abusers and those who covered up their crimes (e.g., Inzoli, Barros, Ricci, Murph-O'Connor, McCarrick, Danneels, Maradiaga, etc).

Vincent Couling
5 years 5 months ago

Pope Francis IS leading by example. Christopher Lamb's reflection in The Tablet explores this with great insight: "The power of silence: The mystery of Pope Francis' refusal to respond to his enemies" https://www.thetablet.co.uk/features/2/15110/the-power-of-silence-the-mystery-of-pope-francis-refusal-to-respond-to-his-enemies

Some excerpts: "One of the main reasons behind the Pope’s refusal to speak is the way the 77-year-old former Vatican diplomat chose to release his “testimony”. With the help of a handful of Catholic media outlets, Viganò and his collaborators were able to time publication so that journalists travelling back with Francis from Dublin to Rome would have to ask him about the allegations during the in-flight press conference. It was an attempt to force a response out of the Pope, and Francis refused to fall into the trap. They wanted Francis to “break his silence”, something that the so-called dubia cardinals – who demanded simple yes or no answers to a series of questions raised by his family life document, Amoris Laetitia – have been unable to manage. Francis was in something of a quandary. Respond to Viganò, and get caught up into his war of words; say nothing, and be accused of running away from difficult questions. He chose silence. ... In the chaotic and messy aftermath of Viganò’s j’accuse, many thought Francis’ decision to remain silent was unwise. Silence, after all, had been the Church’s initial response when allegations of the sexual abuse of children by priests had begun to emerge. The decision to remain silent is, to some, still a scandal, as is his refusal to respond to the dubia cardinals. ... While refusing to speak directly on Viganò’s accusations, Francis has not been inactive. He’s ordered an internal Vatican inquiry into the Archbishop McCarrick files; he has urged journalists to investigate Viganò’s testimony; and, after Viganò issued a second letter, alleging that the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, held the “key documents incriminating McCarrick”, the prelate from Quebec issued a sharp rejoinder. ... The strategy of silence seems to be proving effective. While the Pope says nothing, Archbishop Viganò has persisted in speaking, releasing further letters and statements, shifting his position and backtracking from his original claims. He no longer calls on Francis to resign, and now admits that the nature of the sanctions under which ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick had been placed were informal, rather than canonically binding. ... The evidence that has emerged shows that the Vatican made serious mistakes in promoting Archbishop McCarrick to senior positions, particularly in appointing him to the key see of Washington in 2000. But those who are eagerly waiting for Viganò to produce a smoking gun that would incriminate Francis are still waiting. ... It’s become increasingly clear that Viganò and his supporters are seeking to use the sorry McCarrick affair and the wider clerical sexual abuse crisis as a weapon to try to destroy this pontificate. The silence of Pope Francis has created a space in which the truths and the falsehoods in Viganò’s claims might be quietly discerned, far from the madding crowd. ... “In moments of darkness and great tribulation, when the knots and the tangles cannot be untangled or straightened out, nor things be clarified, then we have to be silent,” Bergoglio – who has a devotion to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots – wrote in a 1990 essay cited recently by the Jesuit online journal, Thinking Faith. At such moments, we must “remain under the cloak of the Holy Mother of God” and avoid being embroiled in a useless battle of words. ... Understandable though they might be, hasty reactions and noisy condemnations do little to illuminate the truth. In staying silent, the Pope is putting his faith in the truth always emerging eventually. In the words of Emile Zola, truth “will grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way”."

Aiden N
5 years 5 months ago

Outstanding! When the Cardinals asked the Holy Spirit to guide the conclave in selecting the next Pope, they got exactly that: a holy man in the persona of St Francis, rebuild my Church.

“”The loss of credibility also raises painful questions about the way we relate to one another. Clearly, a living fabric has come undone, and we, like weavers, are called to repair it. This involves our ability, or inability, as a community to forge bonds and create spaces that are healthy, mature and respectful of the integrity and privacy of each person. It involves our ability to bring people
together and to get them enthused and confident about a broad, shared project that is at once unassuming, solid, sober and transparent. This requires not only a new approach to management, but also a change in our mind—set (metanoia), our way of praying, our handling of power and money, our exercise of authority and our way of relating to one another and to the world around us”


Dina Janis
5 years 5 months ago

Dear Brothers... that opening in itself remains part of the problem... I appreciate the fact that Pope Francis uses inclusive language in his letter- but at the end of the day- for the church to truly correct itself- it needs to address not just the "brothers" but the sisters in an open dialogue about how to move forward. Women need to finally be allowed at the table. Until that day- nothing will change.

Molly Roach
5 years 5 months ago

I think the bishops should sharing information about good lawyers because RICO is coming.

5 years 5 months ago

It's about time! It's beyond me how this has been going on for so long without any legal ramifications, jail sentences, and fines. Before any one speaks out about anything outside of the church (abortion, war, etc), this issue must be addressed.

J. Calpezzo
5 years 5 months ago

As long as Roger Mahony wears the Red Hat in Los Angeles, it doesn't matter what the Vatican says or thinks.

Vincent Gaglione
5 years 5 months ago

"Affective communion with the feelings of our people, with their disheartenment, urges us to exercise a collegial spiritual fatherhood that does not offer banal responses or act defensively, but instead seeks to learn -- like the prophet Elijah amid his own troubles -- to listen to the voice of the Lord."

Maybe I am unique in my experiences. I just don’t know. There are so few other Catholics whom I know and who attend Mass regularly that I have no basis for comparison. Other than a single Sunday Mass at which the parish associate spoke to issues surrounding the sexual abuse scandals in the USA Catholic Church, there has been no other commentary, direction, what have you, from the parish clergy. And the Sunday bulletins have not addressed the issues either.

I am a regular reader of this website. Were it not for this website, other than pieces in the local secular media, I would have no other sense of what is happening and the Church’s reaction, sentiment, instruction on the issues. As Pope Francis says, how many Catholics have become so disheartened by the scandals as to have lost faith …in the Catholic Church, in our Faith? And I am even more disheartened that the scandals have been used to exploit secular political opinions and attitudes as well. Is anybody, either parish clergy or bishops, listening? Obviously not to me and apparently neither to Francis!

sheila gray
5 years 5 months ago

Vincent, I agree with you. America Magazine is the only major “Catholic” publication that allows readers to comment. This has been very helpful to me over the last several months. I think the abuse crisis had to get this bad before REAL CHANGE can happen... We are there. I believe that a permanent Healing Center for Survivors should be built, and will be built, soon in the Ojai, California Area... because I intend to do it. The name will be Open The Gate. It’s purpose will be to help survivors learn how to uncondition the conditioned mind. And it will be based on the teachings of J Krishnamurti. More details to follow. I believe this is a way forward. I could be mistaken, and then something else will grow out of it. This is an exciting time. We can all be part of a solution we might not even see yet. Out with the old and in with the new is what real life can be about. We are the answer.

Arthur Sullivan
5 years 5 months ago

Conversion? Humility? I have an idea: Send this whole mess to the International Criminal Court.

Craig B. Mckee
5 years 5 months ago

For a real dose of reality from the pews, perhaps Pope Francis should require these retreating hierarchs to view the South Park episode entitled: "A Boy and a Priest."
And after donning their starched collars, French cuffs and expensive jewelry, only to be chauffered to O'Hare Airport by some LADder-climbing seminarian, who will undoubtedly tote their carry-ons to the gate for their FIRST CLASS return flight to their flocks, they could then "reflect upon their beds in silence" after reciting Cardinal Merry del Val's LITANY OF HUMILITY.

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