In recent weeks, dioceses all across the United States have re-examined their policies on clergy misconduct, as priests across the country have been removed from parish duty because of their derelictions. Media coverage of these events has encouraged the faithful to wonder and to question.
Among both the faithful and the clergy, reactions have included anger, sadness and disbelief that this issue has touched the churchespecially since many dioceses have been fully committed to ensuring the safety of their people through the establishment of policies and other measures.
It is most certain that these occurrences have reopened old wounds, spotlighted issues difficult to address and created great confusion in many parish communities throughout the United States. While it has made many Catholics realize that there must be no limit to the church’s accountability to its people, we collectively must not lose hope during this time of re-examination. Rather, we must come to realize that out of this pain can come good.
It is clear that the church is facing an opportunity to renew its relationship with its people, to restore trust and to strengthen its commitment to the faithful. We are confronting a wonderful opportunity for ultimate healing and for the beginning of a new era in the church, an era of unshakable faith and the emergence of a church stronger and more full of love and hope than we humanly could ever have imagined.
Restoring the trust of the people must first begin with the victims and their families. Cases of clergy misconduct are especially damaging because we all know that priests are called to emulate the charity, chastity and care of Christ the Good Shepherd. The abuse of anyone, especially a minor, by a priest is shocking and among the most depraved of moral aberrations.
There is no way to express the immense sense of pain and anger I have witnessed when ministering to victims of clergy sexual abuse and their families, as I did when I was bishop of Lafayette, La. Often victims and their families would express feelings of humiliation and suffering. They would tell me that their psychological torment was so immense that despite the passing of time, they continued to be affected by the memory of the detestable violation of the victims’ body and spirit. Some left the church and to this day have not returned.
These people were crying out for someone to heal them fully. When they told me of the terrible acts perpetrated against them or their children, I was sometimes overwhelmed by the gravity and intensity of their accounts. I knew I would never fully grasp their pain, and I knew I could never take away those horrid experiences.
With time, I came to realize that one very important way to help bring such injured souls solace was to walk with them along their journey of spiritual healing. I tried to reassure them that despite the horrible and heinous offense committed against them by a priest, the victims and their families could with God’s help be spiritually healed by faith and hope. While there were some victims I was not able to reach, my attempts to help the injured were increasingly affirmed. I recall one young man who tapped me on the shoulder as I was standing at the church door greeting the people following a parish liturgy and said: Bishop, I just want you to know I’m O.K. Three years later he proudly introduced me to his fiancée just before they were married.
In fact, as time passed, the exchange between the victims and me became a growing and healing experience for all of us. Each story, each experience, helped me to give more help to other victims, and ultimately the entire diocese began to find healing and a way to begin tackling this very serious problem.
In Lafayette, we not only met with victims and their families; we held healing Masses, sought the advice of victims on how to handle future cases and worked to improve our process for reporting cases of abuses by clergy.
When I was later named archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, I took what I had learned from my experiences in Lafayette and continued my efforts to combat sexual abuse by clergy. By working with those who had drafted a clergy sexual abuse program established under the administration of my predecessor, Archbishop John R. Roach, we worked to ensure that the archdiocesan policy was updated regularly. We also continued to work closely with Minnesota law enforcement authorities and to make sure that all victims had access to an advocate of their choosing. It was also a matter of prime concern to ensure that clergy of the archdiocese accused of misconduct received professional treatment and that assignments (if any) were in line with the advice of a board that included lay professionals in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, sociology, law and law enforcement.
While it is of utmost importance to minister to those who have been sexually abused by priests and to work toward improvements in our policies, we must also remain sensitive to our responsibility to care for the priest-perpetrator. While sexual abuse of anyone is unacceptable, we also need to minister to those clergy members who battle this dreadful condition.
As Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua recently stated to the people of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, In no less a manner than anyone would care for a loved one or family member who evidences such sickness or deviant behavior, the church demonstrates not only the justice but also the compassion of Christ.
It is important to remember, too, that we are all, every one of us, called to vigilance in protecting our sisters and brothers, especially the young, from abuse. The sexual abuse of minors is not limited to Catholic priests alone. To think that it is would be a disservice not only to the church and to those priests who have fully dedicated their lives to Christ and are living their vocations to the fullest, but also to any who may be possible victims of any type of offender. We must remember that those who sexually abuse others are found in all walks of life.
When looking at the whole situation, one realizes the enormity of the problem facing the church. But we must not let this daunting task keep us from responding to the opportunity, to what is perhaps even a calling, to bring the church to a new level of commitment to its people.
Often in times of crisis, we overlook the simplest of solutions. We must continue to improve our policies, to treat both those injured and ill, and always to work under the law. But we must also remember that works are nothing without prayer. Clearly, healing will come if collectively the church and its people strive to restore the trust of all who have been hurt by the crimes of priests. This restoration of trust must be achieved not only by good works, but also by calling on the Spirit of God, a Spirit that can fill each one of us with beautiful gifts.
We are all one in the body of Christ. If we as Christians truly believe this, we will realize that we are being called to embrace all injured souls in the fullness of the church and to remind one another that the path to freedom lies in the hope and love Jesus Christ has promised to all. Christ himself promised us that against his bride, the church, the gates of hell will not prevail. Can the church be healed? With God all things are possible.