This report revealed blind spots in the church’s response to this crisis that need to be acknowledged and acted upon now.
It has been just ten weeks since I was received at St. Joseph Cathedral as the sixth bishop of Baton Rouge. As bishop, I would have liked my first column in The Catholic Commentator to be on a less serious subject but this moment in our lives as Catholics demands a different kind of reflection.
On August 14, the "Grand Jury Report on the Sexual Abuse of Children in Six Dioceses in Pennsylvania" was published and once again cast world-wide attention on the tragic story of sex abuse in the Catholic Church. At the same time, it was also revealed that a cardinal of the church, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, had been allowed to continue to hold a place of honor as a member of the College of Cardinals and bishop in good standing even though there were accusations of child abuse in his past. This caused already wary Catholics to wonder if anything has changed in how the church is handling the serious issues of the sexual abuse of minors. It seems as though we were right back at the beginning again. All these events were happening as I arrived in Baton Rouge to be installed as bishop on August 23. Now having reflected on these two scandalous revelations over my short ten weeks as your bishop, I now believe that even though they have caused sadness and doubt they may also provide a catalyst for new understanding that will hopefully move the church to authentic change and renewal.
The "Grand Jury Report on the Sexual Abuse of Children in Six Dioceses in Pennsylvania" is often viewed by some as controversial and even dismissed by some Catholics as simply a historical document. While the report may be flawed I think it is naïve to ignore the truths it revealed and the profound effect it made on Catholics throughout the United States. This report revealed blind spots in the church’s response to this crisis that need to be acknowledged and acted upon now. The first surprising revelation from the report for many was the intimate and graphic testimony describing some of the acts of abuse inflicted on children by priests. These personal and graphic testimonies revealed a true reality that is often hidden from sight and simply described as abuse. These descriptive accounts gave us a window into the horror of child sexual abuse and caused true, righteous anger throughout the church. This genuine outcry caused by the grand jury report, I believe, truly challenges the church, in particular the bishops, to review our responses to the sinful and violent acts of abuse on children by deacons, priests and even bishops. I use the word violent because that is what sexual abuse of a child really is, a violation, a violence that assaults the innocence of youth and wounds the sacred foundation on which a young child begins to create a trusting heart. Sexual abuse of a child is a betrayal of trust that wickedly confuses a young heart at a time when they are forming the spiritual and human foundations upon which all loving relationships depend. A heart wounded at this young age is often a heart wounded for life. Keeping an awareness of the true and horrific nature of child abuse always front and center will keep the needs of the victims of sexual abuse in the church at the center of our concern and will keep us alert and vigilant to keep a firm resolve to protect our children going forward.
A second surprise in the report was the listing of names of accused priests not previously known to the public. This revelation shocked and caused some to wonder what other secrets dioceses were hiding in their chancery files. In response to the demand for an even deeper transparency, many dioceses have decided to release a complete list of clergy of any rank who have been credibly accused of the sexual abuse of minors within their diocese. As bishop, I have decided that this is the required action needed in our diocese as well. My plan is to publish a list within the next few months of any credibly accused deacon, priest or bishop who has served in our diocese. I hope first of all that this will affirm and give credence to the voice of the victims of this tragedy. Also, it is my hope that this accounting will be an important help to build a deepening trust between you and myself as your bishop, and you with my diocesan staff.
The Cardinal McCarrick scandal revealed a different kind of wound in the church that needs to be straightforwardly addressed. At the 2002 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Dallas, Texas, the bishops of the United States created "The Charter for the Protection of Children," which created a series of strict guidelines which required bishops to immediately remove any cleric from ministry if he was credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor and only returned to ministry if the accusation was proven false. While this was an exceedingly strong response to this crisis in the church, the bishops did not create a similar method of accountability for themselves if accused. The Cardinal McCarrick case clearly revealed this critical weakness in the Charter. In light of this scandal the bishops have committed themselves to addressing and correcting this weakness. Next week beginning Monday, Nov. 12, the bishops of the United States (USCCB) will gather in Baltimore, Maryland for their annual meeting and will consider concrete ways to investigate accusations against bishops, such as through an independent review board, holding a bishop accountable for his actions and/or to prove an accusation true or false. This is a measure that I will wholeheartedly support at our bishops’ meeting next week. This will hopefully be another crucial step taken to rebuild trust where it has been lost within the church community. I truly hope you realize how the events of August have created some movement for change and conversion within the church. Please pray for all the bishops and me as we meet in Baltimore next week.
Do not lose heart because in reality this is deeply spiritual work. For the faithful Catholic the way the Gospel always seeks to bring what is in darkness out into the light. Even at times while doing this hard work it can feel like we are dying, we are always hopeful of resurrection. What is in the darkness enslaves us to the power of sin and will always cause disunity in the body of Christ. What is brought from the darkness into the Light of Christ frees us to love and thus frees the church to be a true witness of Christ.
Pray with me please, that our decisions and actions during these difficult times may make us credible witnesses to the healing love of Christ in this world.
Originally published in the Catholic Commentator on November 9, 2018.