Any of you who are at least in your twenties probably recall the tidal wave of news regarding the sex abuse scandals that came in 2002. It stunned us all, not to mention that it brought upon Catholics a cloud of shame and embarrassment.
What resulted was a few things. First, it brought awareness of a horrific problem. Second, for some it brought legal justice, which financially crippled some dioceses. Third, it brought something called the Dallas Charter, an official statement from the U.S. bishops declaring a zero-tolerance policy for priest abusers.
From this followed a comprehensive and independent study conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It provided statistics, ranging from 1950 to 2002, revealing trends and distinguishing types of allegations, ages, gender, etc. Another thing that came from the fallout was that every Catholic seminary in the United States underwent a study. I recall a team of outside men and women spending one or two weeks at our seminary, interviewing every seminarian and staff member, investigating to see if there was a sexual culture within the seminary, also giving us the opportunity to express any concerns we had.
Also from this, dioceses began to put new safe environment practices in place. Some dioceses were more proactive than others. The Archdiocese of Seattle had actually been ahead of the 2002 wave of scandals. Under the leadership of Archbishop Hunthausen, many steps were already in place. This is because of his proactive response to abuses that had already been revealed in this archdiocese.
In this archdiocese, although I know of an accusation of inappropriate behavior from a priest with a minor, I’m not aware of any substantiated accusations of sexual abuses that have occurred since 2002. We occasionally see news headlines, perhaps giving us the impression that it’s something new, but in reality, they are unresolved legal proceedings from abuses from the past. In most cases, the offending priests have been long deceased. Though far from perfect, our archdiocese has done a reasonably good job of trying to address the problem.
Then came the report that we’ve recently heard mentioned in the news: The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. The headlines can be confusing, making a person believe at first blush, that suddenly the priests are back to their old ways of sexual abuse. As if reality isn’t bad enough, there’s no question that the media often seeks to present it in an even worse light. So, it should be explained that this report primarily presents two things: first, details of sex abuse cases prior to and including 2002. When I say details, I mean graphically and horrifically so. Secondly, the report reveals that while some bishops did a good job of trying to correct the problems, others did not. For the latter bishops, the report casts light on that great shame.
To be clear, while the abuses are not new, the ignorance or ineptitude and/or disgraceful inaction of some bishops is new news. The question being asked is: If the bishop’s statement at Dallas Charter was intended to make corrections to the priesthood, who is going to ensure the follow through on corrections among the bishops where it is needed?
In related, though separate news, there is also the troubling news of 88-year-old ex-cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, who is the subject of numerous allegations regarding inappropriate sexual relationships primarily with young-adult males. I recently read a response to this mess entitled
An Open Letter from Young Catholics, which states the following, echoing what many of us feel:
Dear Fathers in Christ,
In preparation for the upcoming Synod on Young People, the Vatican asked for reports from young Catholics around the world concerning their faith and the role the Church plays in their lives. Some of us are younger than others, but we were all children in the decades leading up to the sexual abuse crisis of 2002. In light of that experience and the recent revelations about Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, we answer the Church’s invitation to speak. Our experiences have given us cause for gratitude, but also for anger.
We are grateful for the way good priests and bishops lay down their lives for us day after day. They say the Mass, absolve us from sin, celebrate our weddings, and baptize our children. Through their preaching, teaching, and writing, they remind us that Jesus Christ has conquered evil once and for all. Their daily sacrifices give us blessings of infinite worth. For all of this, we are profoundly thankful.
We are also angry. We are angry over the ‘credible and substantiated’ report of Archbishop McCarrick’s abuse of a minor. We are angry over the numerous allegations of his abuse of seminarians and young priests. We are angry that ‘everybody knew’ about these crimes, that so few people did anything about them, and that those who spoke out were ignored. In addition, we have heard reports of networks of sexually active priests who promote each other and threaten those who do not join in their activities.....
As Catholics, we believe that the Church’s teaching on human nature and sexuality is life-giving and leads to holiness. We believe that just as there is no room for adultery in marriages, so there is no room for adultery against the Bride of Christ. We need bishops to make clear that any act of sexual abuse or clerical unchastity degrades the priesthood and gravely harms the Church.
We are scandalized by the fact that men like Archbishop McCarrick have held positions of authority in the Church. Indeed, we are alarmed by reports that Pope Francis acted on McCarrick’s guidance in creating cardinals and appointing men to senior positions in the Church....If the pope himself knew, we want to know that as well.
You are the shepherds of the Church. If you do not act, evil will go unchecked. As members of your flock, we therefore ask the following of you.
We ask you to agree to a thorough, independent investigation into claims of abuse by Archbishop McCarrick, both of minors and of adults. We want to know who in the hierarchy knew about his crimes, when they knew it, and what they did in response....
We ask that the silence surrounding sexual impropriety in the Church be broken. We ask that bishops take clear action when priests flout the Church’s sexual teaching and that networks of sexually active priests be rooted out. We ask that good priests be given the freedom to tell their bishops what they know, without fear of reprisal. Along with these actions, we ask that bishops engage in formal acts of public penance and reparation.
We also commit to the following. We will refuse to be silent when we see or hear of sexual assaults taking place anywhere in the Church and by any person, clerical or lay.....
Above all, we pray for holiness in our Church and in ourselves. We pray for good priests and bishops who can lead us on to the vision of God. You constantly remind us that Jesus Christ is the fountain of mercy. Please do not forget that he is also the judge of the world.1
In today’s Gospel, after revealing that he is the source of life that comes from the Eucharist, even to the extent of upsetting his followers, leading many to walk away, Jesus asked his remaining disciples, “Do you also want to leave?” Peter’s response reminds us that Jesus and his Bread of Life are the only way. This flawed Church is where he and Bread of Life are to be found. I thank God for Jesus’ Church, even in this mess. And the only faith I have in our Church is that it’s his, that he promised to remain with it and see it through in its mission.
To be clear, I don’t stand before you pretending to be a model of all that is good and right about the priesthood. But I trust our bishops will respond. Just as most priests are not abusers, and truly want to serve our Lord in holiness, I absolutely believe it’s true for our bishops. And although not all bishops are to blame for our troubles, all bishops must be active voices for the solution. As Jesus’ Church has needed reform in every age, let us pray and help to ensure it does so in this age.