Bishop Says Church Serious about Getting Rid of Abusive Priests

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service [Rome]
Downloaded May 30, 2004

ROME (CNS) -- An international group of English-speaking bishops is serious about ridding the church of sexually abusive priests and is committed to making the Catholic Church a model safe environment for children, said an Australian bishop.

Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide was the organizer of a May 24-27 meeting in Rome of 30 bishops, religious superiors and church child protection officers from Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Great Britain, Ireland, the United States, Canada and Jamaica.

The bishops are committed to acknowledging the problem, making sure "people who do this are stopped, that the laws of the land are fulfilled and that the victims and those associated with them are cared for and looked after," the archbishop told Catholic News Service May 28.

"At the same time," Archbishop Wilson said, "it is not enough just to look back at things that have gone wrong, but we must work out a way in which the church can be a light to others by the way that it takes up the issue of child protection."

The May gathering was the group's fifth meeting since 1996 when the bishops decided they should get together after sharing by telephone experiences and suggestions for dealing with cases of clerical sex abuse, he said.

The archbishop said the sexual abuse scandal that broke in the United States in 2002 is not a sign that the issue was not being taken seriously even though a U.S. bishop had been part of the international group discussing the problem for six years.

"I'm in no position to judge anybody," he said. "All I can say is that through my experience of becoming a bishop and being sent to a place where there were really deep problems, it is one of those areas where you need to be very attentive all the time. And you cannot do it on your own. You need to surround yourself with people with expertise, insights into psychology and knowledge of child protection laws.

"It can happen that all of a sudden you miss something, and when you miss something it becomes a disaster," the archbishop said.

The past has taught bishops that it is necessary to monitor the situation constantly and to update policies and guidelines regularly, he said.

"It's an awful phrase to use, but you have to ensure there is quality control," he said.

During the closed-door meetings, participants review each other's policies and share "best practices" in reaching out to victims and dealing with priests accused of abuse, the archbishop said.

U.S. participants in the Rome meeting included Bishop Blase J. Cupich of Rapid City, S.D., a member of the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse; Kathleen McChesney, executive director of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection, and Sheila Horan, deputy director; and Mark Chopko, general counsel to the bishops.

Archbishop V. James Weisgerber of Winnipeg, Manitoba, co-chairman of the Canadian bishops' committee charged with reviewing and updating guidelines for the prevention of sexual abuse, also attended the meeting.

At each meeting, country-by-country reports are examined, and participants ask questions and offer suggestions about the issues raised, Archbishop Wilson said. In addition, each meeting has a particular focus -- such as outreach to victims or canonical procedures for dealing with abusive priests.

Archbishop Wilson said the meetings have given him hope as he sees how church people in different parts of the world "are really trying to get things organized, to deal with the issues created by the sexual abuse problem, but with a real focus on caring for the victims and looking to move to the positive work of enhancing child protection."

He described the group as "semi-authorized" by the bishops' conferences, who do not sponsor the meetings. However, the members usually are part of their conferences' child protection or sexual abuse committees, and they share the information gathered with their conferences, he said.

The group had been meeting every other year, although in May participants decided to move to an annual schedule, Archbishop Wilson said.

Over the past 15 years, he said, the bishops and other church leaders have been learning constantly how "to deal with the tragic consequences of abuse, to maintain faith with the community and to make sure that all the children committed to our care are never in danger."

Archbishop Wilson said dealing with the crisis has "an emotional effect" on the bishops and child protection officers.

"You're often reduced to tears," he said. "I'm haunted by the images of these kids experiencing the things they have.

"The other emotion is just plain anger; I'm so angry to think that this happens, and I'm angry at the people who do this," the archbishop said.

At the same time, he said, he realizes that the perpetrators are sick and that "everything is out of order in their lives."

"Sexuality is powerful, but when it is warped it is so destructive. It ripples out, impacting the victims, their families, the community and the whole church," he said.

The meetings are not held under Vatican auspices, although Archbishop Wilson said there is close contact and collaboration with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office most closely involved with handling cases of clerical sex abuse.

"This is an expression of the church around the world taking responsibility," the archbishop said.

Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the official at the doctrinal congregation most closely involved in procedures to remove abusers from the priesthood, participated in the Rome meeting, which focused on church law.

Archbishop Wilson said the bishops recognize that the sexual abuse crisis brings many responsibilities: caring for victims, dealing with perpetrators, ensuring that civil laws are upheld, continually monitoring the situation and scrutinizing and training candidates for the priesthood.

"The responsibility for ordination is the diocesan bishop's, and he has got to exercise tremendous judgment. You have to make a decision before God whether someone should be ordained or not," he said.

"If there is a doubt" about the suitability of a candidate, "it should be expressed in favor of the people of God. It is the people you must have uppermost in your mind," he said. "You have to have some pretty strong minimum standards and be really, really careful who you ordain."

The archbishop said he did not know of any other international group of bishops holding similar consultations, but he said he is convinced sexual abuse is not a problem unique to the English-speaking world, although "there might be some elements of our cultures that have an effect."

"Problems and difficulties with sexuality are part of being human," he said.

The English-speaking meeting demonstrates how serious those bishops are about "not just cleaning things up, as it were, but by leading us to a new experience where our values are put into action," he said.

Archbishop Wilson said the group so far has been unable to examine reliable statistics about incidents of clerical sexual abuse in each country to identify similar patterns in abusers, victims and settings such as schools, orphanages or parishes.

The archbishop praised the U.S. bishops for commissioning and publicly releasing a statistical study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and for conducting compliance audits of each U.S. diocese.

Many bishops' conferences would not have the financial resources to conduct such in-depth studies, he said, but the U.S. work should serve as a model for the research others are called to conduct.


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