My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
In an extraordinary move, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has written a “Letter to the People of God” regarding the historical sex abuse cases of six dioceses in Pennsylvania, sadly a past problem which extended throughout the United States and even throughout the world. The letter begins by Pope Francis quoting St. Paul, who in the First Letter to the Corinthians tells us, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor 12:26), meaning that the suffering in the Body of Christ is experienced by all, in solidarity with one another. And so when one member is harmed or hurt, that harm reverberates through all the members of the Church. This certainly has been true in the highlighting of the situation in Pennsylvania. It must be said, however, that every diocese in the United States could have a similar historical record of abuse. The issue of sexual abuse has reached the very heart of the Church, which makes this so hard to understand.
Our Holy Father looks to the past telling us that sorrow is not enough. But there is an urgent need for meeting the needs of the victims of clergy sexual abuse, as well as repenting for the faults of the past. He recognizes that, “No effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening.” The fact is that since 2002 in the United States, through expulsion of abusive priests and deacons, the program for the protection of youth, and more intense screening of seminarians, the future will be brighter. The historical epidemic of abuse within the Catholic Church is also mirrored in our general society. It began in the 1950s and trailed off until the late 1990s. It followed a pattern of what is called a “bell curve,” with a slow beginning and a constant growth and then tapered off to an end. Some psychologists have called this a true epidemic which mirrors medical occurrences. The history of this phenomenon has been well detailed in the John Jay College Study.
On May 18, 2011, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice issued a report titled, “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010.” Commissioned by the National Review Board of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops the study was funded largely by the USCCB, and is a ground-breaking study on sexual abuse in any one particular organization. The study can be found here: https://bit.ly/1Tp2UdH
The Holy Father underscores that the whole Church feels shame and regret for what has occurred in the past. But we must now repent and seek forgiveness, as well as come up with concrete programs for preventing a re-occurrence of this in the future. This we have done in the Church in the United States. What has happened has left a profound wound and a scar not only upon the victims, but also upon every member of the Church.
This is why the Holy Father reminds us that we must suffer together in solidarity, as the whole people of God. Pope Francis has written this letter “To the People of God,” recognizing that once we recognize the truth of a situation then we must turn to action. In the past, it was truly sins of omission where what occurred was not handled properly as the sin and crime that it was.
We need to show solidarity here in our condemnation of past inaction, as well as in the existence of the corruption and blindness that may have kept action from happening in the past. The basis for this repentance is as the words of Scripture tell us, “Am I my brother’s keeper”? (Gen. 4:9)
The protection program in our own diocese, which spends nearly a half million dollars a year, concentrates on background checks for all who work with children in the diocese as well as training on how to recognize signs of abuse and prevent it. These are quite important because in effect since 2002, real-time cases of abuse in this diocese are almost non-existent. Although historical cases have been reported to the diocese since that time.
Zero tolerance was also spoken about in Pope Francis’ letter. Since 2002, it has been the norm in the United States that any acts of sexual abuse committed by a priest, cleric, deacon or bishops, against a minor will result in removal from ministry. This removal occurs in two ways; some have been assigned to a life of prayer and penance without public ministry, while others have been laicized and are no longer able to perform any priestly ministry. The assignment is determined depending on the circumstances of the abuse. Prayer and penance, as our Holy Father reminds us, are not only for those who are the abusers, but also for every member of the Church because, unfortunately, we all are affected by these actions. All need to take this seriously, that reparation can be made for the sins of others by each one of us. The revelation of the Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque reminds us of these theological facts. In our diocese this past June 8, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, I gathered with almost all of the priests of the Diocese in Brooklyn and Queens in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston for an afternoon of prayer and reflection. We accepted the call of the Holy Father for reparation and repentance for the sins committed by clerics of the diocese in Brooklyn and Queens against innocent victims.
Pope Francis brings up the point of clericalism as being a causative factor in the so-called cover-up of sexual abuse by clergy. Clericalism in one sense is blind to the defects of clergy. While in another sense, clericalism can be blind to any of the good that is accomplished by the clergy, and minimizes the God-given grace and talents of lay people. Unfortunately, clericalism has been a bane to the Church for many centuries. However, Pope Francis is particularly attuned to the issue of clericalism and has decried this in many instances. We must recognize in some ways that Canon Law from the past did not allow easily for the dismissal of someone from the clerical state.
The New Code of Canon Law, however, gives its penal directives and a new understanding that ministry is not a right but a privilege. In our diocese we have removed many clerics from the clerical state. In the past, a misunderstanding of the rights of the clergy resulted in an effort to rehabilitate those who offended and placed them in new situations of ministry. This was the wrong remedy to this serious problem. Not since the Dallas Charter of 2002 has the Church in the United States handled any such problems in that way, since zero tolerance is absolute.
Pope Francis continues this letter to seek solidarity within the Church. He tells us that we are saved together as a people. All of us need to pull together to change the culture in the Church which somehow prevents priests and deacons from living up to their responsibilities under the moral law. The Holy Father exhorts us to prayer and fasting. I recommend to all members of the diocese that in our daily prayer we remember the victims of clergy sexual abuse and pray for forgiveness for the perpetrators. In addition, we are called to acts of penance; whether it be fasting on one day of the week or doing something positive for the relief of the poor or any who suffer. We all experience a sense of shame because these new revelations force us to acknowledge the sins of the past. Yes, we must beg forgiveness for our own sins and the sins of others, as our Holy Father reminds us. While at the same time we must work together seeking the truth and changing the culture, not only of the Church which permitted or was blind to such abuse, but also the culture of our society where, unfortunately, there are many cases of sexual abuse in the many other occupations and institutions that dealt with young people.
Truly, we have before us an opportunity for the Church to put out into the deep waters of repentance and renewal. Seeds of conversion have already been sown and now we must nurture these seeds and help them grow.
For the past 15 years, the Church has made great strides regarding this issue through independent review boards, an independent abuse reporting number – 1-888-634-4499, protection programs, intensive screening of seminarians and other efforts at eliminating the egregious problems of sexual abuse of minors. Truly, it is a work of prayer that needs now to be accompanied with action, as I have outlined above.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, asks us to call upon Mary Immaculate who was without sin, to help us root out sin within the heart of the Church. Pope Francis asks us to pray for an anointing, which is one of his constant themes. We are anointed by God for a purpose. He anoints us with the oil that heals the wounds of those who have been abused and pray for the constant conversion of all members of the Church.