My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
In my column last week, I made a reference between the comparison of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and our own sexual abuse crisis in the Church. The similarity being that when all the bitterness was over, we are left with a lack of trust; with our country being unable to protect us and the Church being unable to protect, most especially, our children. There is a profound sense of betrayal on the part of our laity and also the clergy because those who abused betrayed not only the lay faithful, but also their brother priests, deacons and their bishops. These abusers have shaken the foundations of trust, which are essential to any organization, especially one which is the Church of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time in our history that this has happened; however, it is our responsibility now to restore that trust.
Recently, I happened to see an image of my own coat of arms, which has a lot of symbolism. The cross that I chose to be used, in place of the normal episcopal cross, is the cross of San Damiano. I have a great love for and devotion to St. Francis, especially for that cross from which he heard the words, “Rebuild my Church.” Francis initially thought he was to rebuild the humble chapel of San Damiano, which was in ruins, but rather it was the church universal that needed the love, sacrifice and charism of this layperson who eventually was ordained to the deaconate but never became a priest. The power of renewal must come from all in the Church. The restoring of trust in the Church and/or in the clergy is the responsibility of all who profess their faith in Jesus Christ because it is His Church and we are its members.
If we look at what has happened, there are certain basic feelings that we have which follow patterns in our life when we sin. There is great regret for having done something wrong, for having sinned. Hopefully, sorrow follows when we are truly sorry and not just regretful that we have been caught, but rather that we are profoundly sorry for what has happened. Finally, because of the sacramental system that the Lord has provided for us, we can seek forgiveness in the sacrament of reconciliation. This pattern certainly needs to be applied in the present situation. It is not just because the Church has been “caught” in what many have called a cover-up, a term with which I disagree, however, the fact is that what has happened was worse than wrong. There is no way of justifying anything that happened. However, we cannot remain at the level of regret. Truly, sorrow must be expressed and we must seek forgiveness, not only from those who were abused but also from all the members of the Church.
There is one other step which is so important for those who believe and that is reparation. Reparation is the ability of the Body of Christ to restore itself through penance and acts of reparation. Since we are one body, we can make up for what is lacking in the lives of others. We can make up for the sins of others through our own prayer, fasting and giving great attention for the work at hand, making our Church a safe place for all of its members.
This we must understand that truly the Catholic Church today, since the Dallas Charter of 2002, is perhaps one of the safest institutions in our country to which children can be entrusted. Our program of protection and vetting of volunteers has produced an atmosphere where we certainly can trust the people who work with us. Not that it is impossible that something can happen; however, for the most part, we have done whatever is humanly possible to provide a safe environment for our children.
In our own diocese in Brooklyn and Queens since 2002, we recognize that two reportable instances of abuse have occurred by priests. It is difficult to categorize the abuse, but they were not the most egregious of cases, although the effects on those abused can be truly beyond the offense. It is so difficult to speak about these unnecessary and unprovoked betrayals by our own priests. The task before us now is to recognize what happened so that truly we can create a safer environment and do everything that we can to make sure that the future is different from the past. One point that I must emphasize, the media has reported the most salacious facts, especially for example in the Pennsylvania attorney general report. When the attorney general of the State of New York completes their review of the dioceses in New York, we certainly will be comparable to that abuse history. I, myself, have read all of the reports of abuse and they compare with that of Pennsylvania. It is not just what happened in the past, and how horrific it was, however, it is what we must remake in the future that is so very important; that is that the Church must be reformed as a safe place for everyone and a place where there is no betrayal of trust. Some professionals have called our history an epidemic of sexual abuse. This has been documented by the Causes and Context Study of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. From the study, we see an almost perfect ‘bell curve’ that now is flattening out on one end to reveal minimal reportable acts of abuse. Keep in mind, that one act of abuse is one too many. The social context has to be understood; although we are now aware that abuse did, in fact, occur prior to the 1960s, the highest incidence of abuse we have been able to obtain data on occurred in the years of the 1960s and ’70s and produced an epidemic that we have barely survived. How important it is that we know the historical facts so that we do not repeat history, but rather make better history.
Our direct reporting line – 1-888-634-4499 – and the training of over 38,000 volunteers presently working in the Diocese who have all undergone background checks and training through Virtus, has produced an environment that is safe as any in our country. Since 2003, we have vetted and trained over 62,000 volunteers.
Unless we regain trust, however, all of the efforts that we have made will amount to nothing. Trust is a personal gift that we give to others. We must learn again how to trust the Church, especially its ordained ministers. We must regain that trust by what we do, by how we handle any present or future acts of abuse of persons or authority.
As St. Francis, a layperson, began his quest to rebuild the Church, so too we must ask our lay faithful to continue to be faithful to the Church and help in the rebuilding of our Church. Criticisms and suggestions are never out of place if such criticisms and suggestions can assist in making the Church a safer environment. Each time the Church deals with the evil of abuse, we must put further out into the deep to understand the motivation of those who sin and prepare for a future generation of ordained ministers who are well aware of their humanity, so as to be able to forestall any abuse and allow their commitment to chaste celibacy to be the Evangelical Counsel that it is.