My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
The recent meeting held by the Holy Father, Pope Francis, on the Protection of Minors in the Church, commonly known as the sex abuse summit, has not received very favorable coverage in the press. Therefore, I will attempt to explain what actually was accomplished at the meeting and how our own efforts here in the United States, particularly in our own Diocese of Brooklyn, have already implemented much of what was suggested at the summit. A report of the meeting on National Public Radio said this, “Despite the unprecedented gathering, church leaders have been reluctant to address what critics say is an ingrained history of abuse, and some Catholics remain skeptical that any real change will be enacted.” There was an article in Time Magazine entitled, “Pope takes on abuse, too slowly for some.”
Having taken the time to read through the actual statements of the meeting, it seems that a facile headline or an easy criticism is not really the case. Most importantly, the Holy Father personally annunciated 21 items that he believes would be important in combating sexual abuse of all kinds around the world. These points were formulated by the various commissions and episcopal conferences that the Holy Father consulted with, before the meeting in Rome. Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the person at the forefront on sex abuse matters at the Vatican, said the points were very important because “they are a road map for our discussion.” He added that it is, therefore, “an understanding that they have to be taken seriously.”
The summit was attended by 200 bishops, a representative from each bishops’ conference from around the world, and some special invited guests having some experience in this issue. It is unfortunate that our Church by and large is not a great communicator when it comes to balancing what the secular media reports in their headlines with the real facts that are more difficult to get out in the public forum. But this we must do.
Recently, I had a meeting with our own DeSales Media Group, the communications and technology arm of the diocese, and asked them to work harder in bringing the truth to the public forum regarding this complex issue that now faces our Church.
I wish to concentrate by explaining the Holy Father’s 21 points. They have been summarized in eight general categories which make the 21 points a bit easier to comprehend. The complete list of reflection points may be found on the diocesan website – https://dioceseofbrooklyn.org/sex-abuse-crisis-response/
The eight points begin with “A ‘change of mentality’ to focus on protecting children rather than ‘protecting the institution.’” Clearly, the protection of our children is our first goal. Our prevention and protection program in the United States, and specifically in our own Diocese in Brooklyn and Queens, has resulted in what we know to be only two serious and credible accusations against active clergy of our diocese, over the last 20 years. Teaching children how to protect themselves from sexual exploitation is paramount and training our adults to recognize any signs of sexual abuse is also critical.
The second point is, “A recognition of the ‘impeccable seriousness’ of these ‘sins and crimes of consecrated persons.’” Unfortunately, some still believe that there was a massive cover-up of what happened in the past. As I have said so many times before, here in the diocese we knew of only 14 percent of all of the 500 cases that were presented to the diocese “before” 2002. All of these cases were reported to the appropriate District Attorney at that time. “After” 2002, the remainder of the 86 percent were presented. It is difficult to cover-up what one does not know. Our Toll-free Reporting Line – 888-634-4499 – certainly has assisted many in reporting abuse. Our Independent Reconciliation Compensation Program (IRCP) has required the reporting of these crimes to our Reporting Line, so they would be transmitted to Law Enforcement. We must always remember that anyone can report to the civil authorities any abuse that has occurred. No one in the Church can or would stop anyone from reporting such abuse to the police.
The third point is, “A genuine purification beginning with ‘self-accusation.’” Yes, we must recognize what did happen in the past, that many cases which were known to us were not handled properly given the misunderstanding and confusion between sins and civil crimes. Yet, we must also recognize that in our own State of New York reporting mechanisms and laws have changed over the last 40 years.
“Positive formation of candidates for the priesthood in the virtue of Chastity” is the fourth of the guidelines. Through more intense and new screening processes and through better human formation programs, the Borromeo Council governing the college and theologate programs have incorporated these new approaches. From my conversations and meetings with seminarians, I believe that they are well aware of these situations and pledge themselves to change a culture of the Church which would in any way allow such crimes against children to occur.
The fifth guideline is “Strengthening and reviewing of guidelines by episcopal conferences, reaffirming the need for ‘rules.’” This directive that Pope Francis gave allows for the renewing of guidelines by episcopal conferences and reaffirming the need that some aspects might need to be replaced. The Church is present in almost every country of the world and each country has different laws. And so, one general set of regulations would not be able to cover each civil authority or jurisdiction. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will be voting this June on measures that will strengthen the reporting system, especially regarding the conduct of bishops in their own personal life and also in the handling of sex abuse cases.
The sixth guideline is “The accompaniment of those who have been abused with an emphasis on listening.” Here in the Diocese of Brooklyn, since 2002 counseling has been offered to victim-survivors. And in the last six years we have worked to form the Survivors Advisory Committee. Since 2014, we have had an annual Mass of Hope and Healing for all those impacted by sexual abuse in our Church. All of this is an effort to accompany, stand in solidarity, and dialogue with our victim-survivors.
“Ensure that seminarians and clergy are not enslaved to an addiction to pornography” is the seventh guideline. Pornography addiction is growing in the world and has skyrocketed because of its easy availability on the Internet. No one is immune to this insidious temptation. Again, the human and spiritual formation of our priests and candidates must address this fact since we must learn that the temptations of our culture, which in general have been the back drop of sex abuse, especially in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, now must be changed.
Finally, in the eighth guideline the Holy Father speaks about our efforts to “Combat sexual tourism around the world” and also trafficking of minors for the purpose of sexual abuse which, unfortunately, is a problem in our own country.
I would suggest that you look at all of the 21 recommendations which are even more specific than the eight guidelines. These all show us that there is a comprehensive approach and that much was accomplished at this summit. All of these directions give us the opportunity to improve programs already in place.
The Holy Father, in his interventions and oversight of the meeting, clearly seemed to be deeply moved by the problem that faces the Church. He said, “In people’s justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons. The echo of the silent cry of the little ones who, instead of finding in them fathers and spiritual guides, encountered tormentors, will shake hearts dulled by hypocrisy and by power. It is our duty to pay close heed to this silent, choked cry.”
Last August, Pope Francis issued a letter to the People of God on the sex abuse crisis. It is appropriate as we begin Lent to remember what he said. “To see things as the Lord does, to be where the Lord wants us to be, to experience a conversion of heart in his presence. To do so, prayer and penance will help. I invite the entire holy faithful People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting, following the Lords’ command. This can awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says ‘never again’ to every form of abuse.”
Challenges Whole Church
Abuse is not a problem only of the perpetrators. It is a challenge to the whole Church and we must become a community aware and astute in changing the culture that allows abuse to occur. We must take every opportunity we can, especially during Lent, to pray and fast in solidarity with the whole Church as we undergo conversion and find new ways to renew our commitment to protecting God’s children.
Lent is an opportunity for us to put out into the deep waters of reflection as a Church and as individuals, so that as Easter comes we will be stronger in our faith and support those whose faith has been challenged. For those whose faith has been weakened by this scandal, we must address the obstacles to the practice of faith that some of the faithful have experienced.