Put Out into the Deep

The Continuing Fight vs. Sexual Abuse

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

The Child Victim’s Act (CVA) passed in New York state earlier this year will put the crime of sexual abuse across all of society front and center next week. The one-year window for victims to file civil lawsuits opens on August 14. The statute of limitations previously put a time limit on allegations. Now victims can bring lawsuits against individuals or entities, regardless of when the alleged abuse occurred, and seek damages for the harm they suffered.

Sexual abuse is a heinous, sinful crime, and for victim-survivors, the CVA is one way they can get justice. Victim-survivors have the right to seek out what they feel will bring them healing from the abuse they have suffered.

Over the years, I have met with dozens of victim-survivors who were brave enough to tell their stories of betrayal and pain. These meetings have been heart-wrenching. As someone who has been a priest for nearly fifty years, I wrestle with the agony that such horror could have happened in our Church. What many victim-survivors said they wanted more than anything was acknowledgement by their Church of what happened to them. One way we provided that acknowledgment earlier this year was when we published our List of Credibly Accused Clergy. www.dioceseofbrooklyn.org/sex-abuse-crisis-response/list

The comprehensive list shows the number of credibly accused priests represents less than five percent of all clergy in the Diocese of Brooklyn in its 166-year history. About two-thirds of accused priests are deceased; the vast majority of cases involved priests who were ordained between 1930 and 1979. 

On August 4, our Holy Father, Pope Francis issued a letter to priests around the world acknowledging the shame and frustration they feel about the abuse perpetrated by fellow clergy. Realizing how overwhelmed our good priests feel, he thanked all who faithfully spend their lives serving others.

Some published reports say there could be civil lawsuits in the thousands. Many lawyers will try their cases in the press and have you believe this is only a problem in the Catholic Church. But what those reports also say is the cases of sexual abuse have been occurring all across society; at schools, hospitals, youth clubs, commercial businesses, government agencies, religious institutions and in families at home. Sexual abuse is an evil societal problem that shows no distinction of religion, race, or social class. That is why we are united in this struggle since sexual abuse takes a devastating toll on victim-survivors, their families, and all of society.

We do not know how many lawsuits we will face during this window period, and if we will have to declare bankruptcy as a result. What we do know is that litigation can be a lengthy endeavor. Our straightforward and non-adversarial process for financial compensation through the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP) is another option still worth considering.  The IRCP was established in June 2017 as a possible mechanism for healing in hopes of bringing closure to victim-survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

The IRCP is administered independently by The Law Offices of Kenneth Feinberg, whose firm handled the September 11th Compensation Fund. Feinberg recently described the program’s benefits in an op-ed in the Daily News: “The funds provide victims with an alternative to conventional litigation—which is time consuming, costly, inefficient and uncertain … And in court, higher standards of proof, the absence of corroborating witnesses, and the costs and delay of a trial make for a very uncertain result. For most, the compensation funds are a better way forward.”

To date, the IRCP has settled claims with nearly 500 victims of the Diocese of Brooklyn. We intend to have the IRCP continue at the same time the window is open. The diocese has paid settlements by selling and mortgaging properties. None of the money used has come from donations. While no amount of money could ever heal the scars of abuse, the compensation program has been one way for us to show a concrete expression of our contrition and our desire to make amends.

Another way we have tried to help victim-survivors is through our Victim Assistance Ministry.

The Diocese of Brooklyn pays the cost of therapy, about $2.6 million since 2003, for victim-survivors through independent licensed therapists. We provide and have offered various support groups for victim-survivors to help them go through the stages of healing with people who have walked in their shoes. Each year, I celebrate Mass of Hope and Healing so that our entire diocese has an opportunity to pray for the victim-survivors of clergy sex abuse and everyone else impacted by the abuse. Our Victim Assistance Coordinator, Jasmine Salazar, LMSW, a licensed clinical social worker, provides outreach to our victims and works tirelessly on our continued reconciliation efforts between innocent survivors of clergy sexual abuse and our diocese.

From the ashes of our shameful past, the Diocese of Brooklyn also has instituted the most aggressive programs to prevent future abuse and to protect children. Our present and future are far different because of the numerous programs put in place by the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (Dallas Charter), enacted by Bishops in 2002. Evidence to date shows the Charter has worked. Since 2002, there have been two credible cases that were within the statute against active priests in our diocese. While even one case is too many, this shows we are on the right path to ensure sexual abuse is eradicated from the life of the Church.

The Office of Safe Environment, directed by Maryellen Quinn, manages all the mandates set forth by the Dallas Charter, including age-appropriate sexual abuse awareness training for children and adults; specifically, all clergy members, teachers, parish and academy/school employees, catechists and volunteers who work directly with children. Employees and volunteers must also agree to initial and ongoing criminal background checks and must sign a Code of Conduct. For videos on our Safe Environment Office and Victim Assistance Ministry, visit www.dioceseofbrooklyn.org/sex-abuse-crisis-response.

What will be clear when the lawsuits are filed is that the sexual abuse of minors has tragically been a prevalent problem across society for decades. Too many children have suffered at the hands of predators. Too many children’s lives have been haunted for too long because of abuse. Yet it is especially egregious when it happens within the Church because victims came looking for hope and compassion and in these situations, they found betrayal and despair.

Since 2003, when I was installed as the Bishop in Brooklyn, I have been deeply committed to changing the culture which ever allowed the sexual abuse of minors in our Church.  For years, we have had two laywomen, who are mothers, responsible for the most important ministries of the Diocese of Brooklyn; the protection of children and the outreach to victims.

The Diocese of Brooklyn has not stopped and will never stop fighting and condemning the crime of sexual abuse. This crisis is a moment of purification for the Church, one that has helped us reform so that we protect the most vulnerable in our midst.  It must also be noted that the vast majority of priests are good, faithful men who do God’s work here on earth every single day. I pray for their perseverance during these difficult times.

As we continue to put out into the deep in the work of healing those who have been hurt by clergy, employees or volunteers of our diocese, we recognize it is work that will take many years to accomplish.  It is not something that can be done through a settlement in court. But we will continue to walk on the side of the victim-survivors with the numerous programs we have in place. It is my prayer that victim-survivors of clergy sex abuse can thrive despite the Cross they have carried for far too long.