by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Recent weeks have been painful for all who love the church and our Catholic faith.
Catholics in the United States were rocked by the Aug. 14 Pennsylvania grand jury report revealing over a 70-year period that 300 priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses had been accused of sexual abuse of more than a thousand children or adolescents. The accounts of what the victims endured are gut-wrenching and, frankly, depict despicable crimes perpetrated by those who were called to be protectors of God’s people.
While these were not new incidents that had only been recently discovered, the impetus of the grand jury report was to investigate how church authorities (bishops) had responded to victims, what consequences were imposed on perpetrators, and the actions taken to protect people from future harm. Sadly, the report showed many bishops were woefully negligent in their responsibilities.
The grand jury report came just a few weeks after the announcement that the Archdiocese of New York judged credible and substantiated a recent allegation regarding the abuse of minors occurring many years prior by then-Father Theodore McCarrick, who became the cardinal archbishop of Washington. Even more troubling were the simultaneous revelations that settlements had been made with adult victims of McCarrick by the Diocese of Metuchen and the Archdiocese of Newark where he had served previously as the diocesan bishop. Most of the adult victims were seminarians and priests.
This rightly shocked and angered Catholics of the United States. Understandably, it shook their confidence in their bishops. It has prompted many questions and concerns. How was it possible for McCarrick to advance in the leadership ranks of the church? Who knew what and when?
Understandably, many Catholics are angry, confused and saddened by this. Many are asking questions: Did we not go through all of this 15 years ago? Has nothing been done? Don’t the bishops get it? Many are tired and ashamed of hearing bad news about the church they love. For others, this is all new. In 2002, they were too young or not paying attention to these issues within the church. Confronted with these questions and concerns, what are we to do?
Our first response to any personal, familial or — in this case — church crisis should be to pray. Be assured that I am not suggesting that is the only thing we need or can do, but I believe it must be our first response. First and foremost, we must pray for healing and comfort for victims. Secondly, this is a moment to pray for the purification of bishops, priests and the entire church.
Our Lord tells his disciples when they are unable to liberate a young boy from possession by an evil spirit that in some confrontations against darkness, the only effective tools are prayer and fasting. I personally will begin a strict discipline of fasting and abstinence on Wednesday and Friday of each week, begging for the grace for me and my brother bishops to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in the renewal and cleansing of the church. I will also offer one Mass a week and one rosary each week for the healing of victims.
I invite every Catholic to adopt some additional practices of prayer and penance for victims and for the purification of the church. I also intend to offer communal prayer opportunities for these intentions.
Intensified commitment to the care of victims
It is painful for me to read the sordid details of the abuse of innocent children and young people. How miniscule my discomfort compared to the horror that the victims actually experienced! An essential part of our response must be a deepened commitment to care for the victims of these crimes committed by representatives of the church.
I want our archdiocese to lead the way in the care of victims. I am grateful to the excellent assistance that has been provided to many who have been victims of misconduct by the clergy and others in ministry. There is nothing that encourages me more than when I receive a communication from a victim, expressing gratitude for the care they have received. There is nothing that pains and saddens me more than to hear the disappointment from some victims with the inadequacy of our response to their suffering. I am committed to strengthening our ability to assist and accompany victims on the path of healing.
Improved accountability of bishops
Both the McCarrick scandal and the grand jury report have raised serious questions about the accountability of bishops. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has promised that the conference “will pursue the many questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick’s conduct to the full extent of its authority; and where that authority finds its limits, the conference will advocate with those who do have authority. One way or another, we are determined to find the truth of this matter.”
Cardinal DiNardo also announced he will present a plan to the full body of bishops that includes: 1) an invitation to the Vatican to conduct an investigation in concert with a group of predominantly laypeople identified for their expertise by members of the National Review Board; 2) develop new and confidential channels for reporting complaints against bishops; and 3) create procedures to resolve complaints against bishops that will be prompt, fair and transparent. I wholeheartedly support Cardinal DiNardo’s proposals to improve the accountability of bishops.
Every bishop reports directly to the pope. No other bishop has the authority to hold another bishop accountable. For instance, the three other bishops in the province of Kansas do not report to me. I do not have authority to intervene in the diocese of another bishop. My responsibility as archbishop is to convene the other bishops of the province to promote a spirit of cooperation and cultivate unity for the good of the Catholics and all the people in our respective dioceses.
It is inconceivable to me that the bishops who were involved with the settlements for McCarrick’s misconduct did not bring these matters to the papal nuncio (the Holy Father’s ambassador to the United States) and the nuncios failed to inform the pope at that time and those who assisted him with the care of bishops.
Just this past week, the former papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Vigano, released a statement that claims he and his predecessors, Archbishop Pietro Sambi and Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo (both now deceased), did inform the respective popes. In my experience of Archbishop Vigano during his tenure as apostolic nuncio, he was a man of integrity. There are also respected sources that are contesting elements of Archbishop Vigano’s statement.
This development makes it even more imperative that we embrace Cardinal DiNardo’s commitment to pursue the truth of why McCarrick was allowed to continue to exercise public ministry and continue in the College of Cardinals, when his sexual misconduct and abuse of power were already known. We must do all that we can to ascertain the truth and then allow the chips to fall where they may.
What has been done?
Sadly, one of the tragic consequences of these high profile scandals is the obscuring of the real progress that has been made throughout the church with our safe environment programs, our enhanced ability to investigate allegations of misconduct, and our increased efforts to accompany and assist victims.
When we receive an allegation of some form of sexual misconduct by a priest or any other employee, if it involves a minor, we immediately communicate it to the proper law enforcement agency as well as to our own Independent Review Board (IRB). We also enlist the expertise of a former FBI agent and Kansas Highway Patrol detective to investigate and help us determine the truth. Our investigation is always coordinated with law enforcement so as not to interfere with those responsible for investigating a crime.
The IRB is composed of a victim of clergy sexual abuse, an attorney who has long advocated for abuse victims, mental health professionals, law enforcement officials and one priest. The IRB is not an investigative body, although they always offer the opportunity for both the person making the accusation and the accused to meet separately with the IRB. The IRB is presented with the results of the investigation conducted by the former FBI agent. The IRB is not a decision- making body, but advisory. With the benefit of their counsel and that of others, it is ultimately my responsibility what action is to be taken with regard to a particular case. I am so grateful for the assistance of the IRB in responding to accusations of misconduct with minors. Their advice is invaluable.
In the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation, there have been calls for other states’ attorneys general to launch similar probes. This is a decision for an attorney general to make based on whether he or she believes it is an appropriate, necessary and wise use of state resources.
We have always in my tenure as archbishop and will continue to cooperate fully with law enforcement. To ensure that we have an accurate historical knowledge of how the archdiocese has responded to allegations of misconduct, I have decided to engage an independent law firm with the expertise and staff to conduct a review of our priest personnel files going back to 1950.
Transparency is imperative with any substantiated allegations of sexual misconduct by any church leader, regardless if the victim is a minor or an adult. I have told the priests of the archdiocese that our people have a right to expect us to live in a manner consistent with our promise of celibate chastity. As priests and bishops, we are public persons. In addition to the higher motivation to live a holy and virtuous life, we should not do anything that we are uncomfortable with being reported to our parishioners or appearing in The Leaven and/or the secular media.
At the same time, I have a responsibility to protect the reputation of our priests and other employees from false accusations. This is why we employ an experienced and competent investigator to help us to determine to the best of our ability the truth.
If a priest has been involved with some level of misconduct, not involving a minor, the archdiocese requires that he undergo a physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual evaluation. Usually, this results in their participation in some type of recovery program to understand the causes that made them vulnerable to misconduct and to develop the skills and identify the resources they need to live their priesthood with integrity.
If they are able to re-enter ministry, our experience is that it is best practice for the priest to be transparent with parishioners when he begins his new assignment regarding the reasons that occasioned his leave of absence. This has proven helpful for the protection and reassurance of parishioners, as well as for the health and recovery of our priests.
Conversion and renewal
This is a moment for conversion and renewal of the entire church, but especially for bishops and priests. The only way forward for renewal is to acknowledge and confess our past sins, as well as to make a firm purpose of amendment not to repeat them.
Both the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the earlier national study by John Jay College commissioned by the U.S. bishops in the wake of the 2002 scandal reveal that a high percentage of victims of clergy sexual misconduct were postpubescent males. In other words, much of the misconduct involved homosexual acts. We cannot ignore this reality.
Pope Emeritus Benedict gave guidance to seminaries and vocation ministries regarding the nonacceptance for priestly formation those with deep-seated homosexual tendencies. All candidates for the seminary have to be able to give evidence for their capacity of living celibate chastity with both integrity and joy.
The requirement of celibate chastity for Catholic priests is not because the church does not value marriage and the importance of family life. No, just the opposite! The church asks her priests to relinquish what is arguably most precious and most dear, precisely because it is most precious and dear. The priest’s willingness to commit to a life of celibacy makes no sense if Jesus did not suffer, die and rise from the dead for us. The church asks her priests to stake their entire life on the truth of the paschal mystery, the dying and rising of Jesus.
Celibacy is first and foremost to be a witness to the truth of the Gospel. The priest’s life is meant to be a living symbol that challenges his parishioners to place God first in their lives above everyone and everything else. Celibacy also allows the priest to be available and accessible to his people. A priest is able to go wherever his gifts are most needed by the people of God without having to weigh the necessary question of a husband and biological father whether this ministry is good for his marriage and children. It is this embrace of the charism of celibacy that increases a priest’s ability to become a true spiritual father to his parishioners.
It is not enough for those seeking ordination to the priesthood to accept reluctantly celibacy as a necessary burden to become a priest. If our heart is not into embracing the challenges and beauty of celibacy with joy, then we are setting ourselves up for failure and wounding our people.
Nor is it sufficient for priests to live celibacy faithfully, but not be able to teach with conviction and enthusiasm Catholic sexual morality as articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Our Catholic understanding of human sexuality is beautiful and guides those who embrace it to the path to authentic love and happiness. The priest needs to be able to articulate, in a convincing and compelling way, why heterosexual intimacy outside of the marital covenant is gravely immoral, as well as why homosexual activity is also always seriously sinful.
My priority in evaluating men for the seminary as well as the suitability of our priests for serving God’s people is their commitment and capability of living celibate chastity with fidelity and joy.
The gift of the priesthood
I have been a priest now for more than 43 years. It is an incredibly blessed life. Priests have the opportunity to be the human instruments that God uses to touch with his grace the hearts of his people. We are privileged to spend our entire lives striving to help others come to know the good news of God’s love revealed for them in Jesus Christ.
At the same time, it is not any easy life. Jesus does not promise his disciples an easy path. I tell our seminarians that being ordained a priest is, in effect, placing a target on your back for the devil. Satan will do anything to strike the shepherds in order to scatter the flock. The priesthood is not for the faint-hearted. It takes courage and generosity to serve God’s people as a priest. In my travels throughout the archdiocese, I witness and am edified by the zeal and dedication of our priests.
The reason for this current crisis is not primarily one of individual weakness, but failures of the accountability of bishops. We, bishops, are sinners in need of God’s mercy. The Gospels reveal the frailty of the apostles — the first bishops. By every human measurement, they were unqualified to accomplish the mission Jesus had entrusted to them — namely, to make disciples of all nations.
The Gospel narrative is strewn with examples of the apostles being slow learners, possessing unhealthy ambition, exhibiting jealous rivalry, succumbing to cowardice, abandoning and even denying Jesus in the face of danger. Our Lord prefers to use the weak in accomplishing his mission to make clear that the fruits realized are the results of God’s power, not the wisdom or talents of the church’s ministers. I certainly fit the profile of being a very weak and frail instrument.
This is not a moment for any of us to allow ourselves to yield to natural feelings of discouragement and despair. It is an occasion for all of us to recommit ourselves to living lives of integrity.
For me and my brother bishops, it is a time to renew our determination to strive to be shepherds who follow the example of Jesus, the good shepherd. Please pray for me and my brother bishops as we seek to make structural reforms that will ensure greater accountability on our part.
Jesus tells his disciples his yoke is easy and his burden is light — not because what he asks of us is not difficult, but because Our Lord promises to shoulder the yoke and carry the burden with us as we strive to follow him. Our confidence is not in ourselves, but in the fidelity of his promises to be with us until the end of time and to send the Holy Spirit to guide his church.