Why this Lent is an opportunity to get our response to sex abuse right
As Catholics begin Lent in the midst of crisis, I feel like we have been here before. In fact, we have. But this time, something is different.
During Lent in 2002, Catholics were reeling from the sexual abuse revelations emerging from Boston and from across the country. Many people looked to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to take action. The bishops took initial steps at their June meeting that year, but they focused on responding to some aspects of abuse and missed the fact that the church was facing twin crises: a crisis of abuse and a crisis of leadership failures and cover-up. This time, both crises need to be addressed in order to get at the root causes and move the church toward recovery and reform.
If the bishops had listened to other voices in 2002—or looked honestly at themselves—they may have realized that taking action to prevent abuse was not enough. But this Lent is an opportunity for us to look inward for an honest reflection of our church culture. Many Catholics ask: Will the response to the crises be any different this time? I believe that it can, and here is why: Members of the clergy and laity recognize the need to reform an unhealthy leadership culture. Now is the time to act.
Members of the clergy and laity recognize the need to reform an unhealthy leadership culture. Now is the time to act.
The Vatican summit on the protection of minors last month was structured around the three critical themes of accountability, responsibility and transparency, which point toward the action needed to create a new culture of leadership.
One example of such action took place in early February. The Leadership Roundtable hosted the Catholic Partnership Summit for more than 200 lay and ordained church leaders from 43 U.S. dioceses. Among the participants were bishops and abuse survivors, diocesan staff and college presidents, corporate leaders and theologians, canon lawyers and philanthropists, religious superiors and experts in abuse prevention. (America’s editor-in-chief, Matt Malone, S.J., and editor at large James Martin, S.J., were among those in attendance.)
The meeting tables at our summit were a vision of collaboration: Cardinals sat with laywomen, bishops sat with abuse survivors, religious women sat with philanthropists. This did not happen in 2002. Attendees identified root causes, including clericalism, of the church’s twin crises and generated recommendations for resolving them. We have published the results of the summit on our website.
Some of the best recommendations came from dioceses where leadership change and abuse prevention are top, interrelated priorities. One of those places is the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A few years ago, under the leadership of Archbishop Bernard Hebda, auxiliary Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens and professional lay staff, the diocese formed an independent task force to go beyond what most dioceses have done to prevent abuse. Today, diocesan staff hold regular meetings with survivors for input and post the names of credibly accused clergy and religious who worked in the archdiocese.
Some of the best recommendations came from dioceses where leadership change and abuse prevention are top, interrelated priorities.
As Archbishop Hebda has noted, the changes made by the diocese not only help prevent abuse but has changed the leadership culture, including “the way we accept, prepare and promote seminarians; the way we train our priests, employees and volunteers; and how we educate our children and youth in every parish and Catholic school in the Archdiocese. It has helped to improve our culture.”
Another place becoming known for its bold response is the Diocese of Jefferson City in Missouri, where Bishop Shawn McKnight and diocesan staff worked together to implement an innovative policy to ensure that any abuse allegation against a sitting bishop is handled outside the diocese by the metropolitan archbishop in St. Louis. The diocese has also been transparent in its communications and finances related to the crises. Even more, the diocese requested that any religious order that wants to continue serving in the diocese must release the names of all credibly accused members.
These and other dioceses are taking steps to create a new culture of leadership that is built upon co-responsibility between clergy and laity. They are places where the bishop or archbishop have welcomed laity into the decision-making process, providing checks and balances.
As Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, whose archdiocese in Newark has been at the center of the recent crises, wrote, “A strange blessing of the past year has been the overwhelming evidence that laypeople haven’t given up on the church, but are in fact willing to dig in and be a part of the rebuilding.” Indeed, we are.
To be sure, sometimes the abuse and leadership crises in the church can feel like a long Lent without Easter. But from where I stand, I see the glimmers of emerging best practices that are making places in our church not only safer but healthier for the church’s mission over the long term.
The examples from these dioceses remind me that change is happening. It is happening because priests and laypeople are listening to one another and making progress for the people of God. There is a long road ahead. But these Catholics are lighting the way forward. We will make it out of our long Lent but only if the rest of the church begins to follow their example.