Bishop Thomas Paprocki on Catholic Church Abuse, Pope Francis, Calls For Healing

By Sam Dunklau
NPR Illinois
September 07, 2018

Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield, Illinois

[with audio]

NPR Illinois' Sam Dunklau sat down with Bishop Paprocki of Springfield this week. He says he regrets the child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy that happened in the past, and calls on the Church to heal together.

For millions of Catholics across the US, the issue of child sexual abuse has cut deep for decades.

The release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing hundreds of such cases last month opened those wounds afresh, prompting renewed scrutiny of Catholic clergy and even calls for Pope Francis to step down.

Among those asking for more information is Illinois' own Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Springfield Diocese. Paprocki has long been an outspoken voice on issues like homosexuality and abortion. His stance on sexual abuse in the clergy is no exception. He believes the Papacy is hiding important documents on disgraced former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and is calling for an investigation.

SD: What do you make of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report? A lot of the American media reported it as "bombshell" allegations and revelations. What's your take on it?

Bishop Paprocki: "Unfortunately this is not something that we haven't seen before. There have been news reports over the last several years of unfortunate incidences, very terrible incidents of sexual misconduct with minors on the part of clergy...I think what is different or perhaps bringing this to another level at this time with the Pennsylvania report is the fact that it's so extensive, going over a number of decades.

Then, I think it's also heightened by the recent allegations regarding former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, that apparently he was involved in sexual abuse as well himself, and so the questions of how that implicates the hierarchy in all of this. So I think a lot of things have just converged at the same time that have brought this to a more serious level than it has been in the past."

SD: Do you think that what was discovered in that Grand Jury report is indicative of what's happening around the country? Do you suspect that it's as extensive as the Grand Jury managed to find in Pennsylvania?

BP: "Well, I think what I would say about that is, "Is this happening?" I would use the past tense. That this happened, more extensively in the past, because even in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, there were only two indictments in the last ten years. So I think what we're seeing is a historical pattern here of cases that emerged that kind of parallels what was happening in our society with the sexual revolution in the 1960s and 70s and changes that were taking place in our culture, and that apparently affected the clergy at that time.

But I think since the adoption of the Essential Norms and the Charter in 2002 and our zero tolerance policy, I think and I pray that hopefully we have learned better how to deal with these in the present as compared to the way they were handled in the past."

SD: The jury report cites the conduct of bishops in Pennsylvania as well as some of the higher ranking clergy members. Why do yo suspect leadership had been behaving in this manner? What sort of allowed a culture like this to form over so many decades?

BP: "Well, I think what happened was you had bishops who were confronted with these kinds of allegations and frankly probably didn't know what to do or how to handle them. Bishops are basically raised from the ranks of priests, and so we're trained in the seminary. We study philosophy and theology, and then working in a parish, you're celebrating the sacraments, you're dealing with the administration of a parish, and when you become a bishop, this may be the first time you've ever dealt with something like this.

So, in some ways, it's always easier in hindsight. It's easier for us now to say, well, what we know about the problem, and about recidivism rates, we know that it's one strike and you're out. They didn't know that forty or fifty years ago. Being confronted with those problems for the first time half a century ago, I don't know that they had the wisdom or the knowledge that we have today about this."

SD: This next question is more direct toward this Diocese, and to the extent that you can answer it: what does this diocese's history with this problem look like? Have there been instances that you're willing to discuss?

BP: "There have been, unfortunately. Like any other diocese, there have been cases. I'm aware of only one case that was reported during my time as Bishop since 2010. There was one case of an allegation where the priest was removed from ministry and a report was made to the proper authorities and the people were told. So that's the approach we take now. We tell the people, we tell the police, we call the Department of Children and Family Services, they make an investigation.

If somebody were to ask us how many cases we've had over the past 70 years, frankly I don't have that information because we haven't done that kind of a search of our records to find that out. Part of that question would be for what purpose are we going back 70 years to find something if in many cases the perpetrator is deceased? I think it's just a question of 'Are we just looking for sensationalism?' or are we looking for a solution to a present problem? In that regard, I would hope that the measures that we put in place are dealing with the present situation. But I'm always open to suggestions if there are new ways that make our parishes and schools even safer."

SD: What do you say to those who allege they were abused or had some sort of misconduct happen in the church and they're still alive, but it happened forty years ago. They're still dealing with the trauma of what they allege is the trauma of that event?

BP: "In those cases, we do try to do what we can to help people. We have a victim assistance minister at our Diocese. We do pay for counseling. So if someone says their lives have been damaged by this, we try to look at their unique situation and see in what ways we can help them to get their lives back on track."

SD: Earlier this past week, you had criticized Pope Francis' response to former Apostolic Nuncio Vigano letter as "not adequate." Between what Vigano claims in the letter that was discussed a lot last week and then the papal response, who among them is to be believed?

BP: "Well, I think that's what Archbishop Vigano is calling for. He's saying that he told Pope Francis himself in 2013 that there were issues with [former Cardinal Theodore] McCarrick. So he's basically saying that if the Pope didn't know it before then, at least he certainly knew it by 2013. The former Nunico says he has documentation of that. He may not have it personally, but he's saying that there are documents in the files at the Nunciature in Washington or at the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. So I think the proper response to that would be to say, 'Let's have an investigation.' He's claiming there are documents, let's have someone look in the files and try to find those documents and give an explanation.

I compare it to a situation if one of my priests were accused of sexual misconduct and I were asked to give information on that, I would want to go into the files. Especially if I were accused of covering it up, and someone told me, I would want to know what the basis of this claim. If there's documentation for that, let's produce it."

SD: Why then, if I may ask, is there this call to have this Pope resign as as result of what's been going on recently?

BP: "I think that from Archbishop Vigano's point of view, he seems convinced and believes in his heart that he told the Pope and the Pope didn't act on that. So, if that were the case, we've seen other church leaders resign, [such as] Cardinal Law and others who've had to resign because of their mishandling of cases. I think he's just putting it in the same kind of category."

SD: You in the last week have made some public announcements regarding your cooperation with Attorney General Madigan. You've said that you would "agree to speak with" Attorney General Madigan and cooperate with law enforcement. I'm wondering if this means you'll allow the Diocese or call for churches in the United States to be investigated by civil law enforcement?

BP: "I did speak with the Attorney General when she called last week, and she told me she wanted to make sure our policies were adequate to address the problems, and that we don't have any priests that are currently posing a danger to anyone. I said I totally share in those objectives, I'd be happy to sit down and again review the steps that we have taken, especially since 2002.

[We have] a predominantly lay Review Board that reviews these cases, [and a] hotline number that we have that people can call, and don't have to talk to me or a priest. I'm open to suggestions if there are ways to strengthen what we're doing. I know that our attorney for the Diocese has been in touch with the Attorney General's office and they're talking now about scheduling a meeting where we can get together and discuss this."

SD: I'm gonna go back to some comments that you've made on this. Your Excellency had told a Michigan legal group [in 2007] referring to claims brought by sexual abuse victims that "the principal force behind these attacks is the Devil." You explained that statement a number of times over the years; I'm wondering where you stand on it at this point?

BP: "It's always risky when we talk about the Devil because a lot of people have misconceptions about that. When I talk about this in terms of the lawsuits, I think that's been misunderstood as if somehow I'm demonizing plaintiffs, those who have been abused themselves, and saying that somehow they're doing something diabolical here. I certainly don't meant to imply anything like that. You know, people who have been harmed by this certainly have a right to proper reparation.

What I'm saying is more in the bigger picture, when you look at the millions and perhaps billions that have been spent in settlements and you think of all the good works of charity that could be done. Instead, we're closing schools and ecclesial institutions because we don't have the money. That's exactly what the Devil wants, he wants to try to frustrate our good works and the things that we're doing to serve the Lord. So that's the fuller explanation of what I mean by that."

SD: In a time when evangelization has been made very important in the Church, as important as it is to the Church's future, how do you in this Diocese or in conversations you've had with bishops around the country, reconcile for what has happened, albeit in the past, and despite all that, tell people it's OK to join the Catholic Church? That they needn't fear this sort of abuse?

"Well, I think we've seen over the course of the centuries, even in the Bible, how God brings good out of bad. Go to the story in the Old Testament of King David and his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, who winds up murdering her husband. Out of that comes Solomon, one of the best kings in the Old Testament. So God can bring good out of bad. I'm hoping and praying God will bring some good out of this, and I believe that there will come some good.

In this regard, last week I was giving an interview and the reporter asked me, 'What would you tell people that said they have lost their faith in the institution of the Church?' My response to that is ultimately, we're not called to put our faith in an institution; we're called to put our faith in Jesus Christ. The institution, the Church itself, is a means to an end. It's not an end in itself. So the Lord gave us the Church to help us get to heaven. He gave us priests, bishops, and deacons to administer the sacraments and be spiritual guides. But in the end, the question is our relationship with Jesus Christ.

My ultimate spiritual message to people is to not to give into the temptation to just walk away from the Church, because I'd say that's exactly what the Devil wants us to do. He wants us to give up and to walk away, but to do that would be basically to walk away from Christ. That's what I hope and pray people will not do."

SD: Shouldn't the church be accountable for what it's done or what it's been accused of doing, and to what extent ought the lay be involved with the clergy in solving the crisis going forward?

BP: "Well yes, I think the lay should be involved with that. I've been dealing with these cases since the 1990s when I was Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and we were one of the first dioceses with predominantly lay people. Bishops are accountable to the Pope; only the Pope can discipline or remove a Bishop. But that doesn't mean that you can't have some structure that would allow for a full investigation of an allegation and then a recommendation to the Pope. I've suggested that that be done through the Apostolic Nuncio offices themselves, that you have a recommendation going through that office, and then from the Nuncio to the Vatican and the Pope.

In the end, you can have civil law, you can have prosecutors prosecuting the perpetrators of individual cases, but civil law can't remove a Bishop from office. Only the Pope can do that. So that's why I think it has to be a joint cooperative effort between civil authorities and the church authorities."

SD: Do you have any final message for the faithful of the Diocese, or those who are sort of on the fence about all this? What should they think? Where should they stand?

BP: "I would urge everyone to stay true to the faith, and not give up hope. I know this is all very discouraging, but I assure you of every effort that we will make to address these problems. I promise you zero tolerance in our diocese and that I hope and pray that you will grow in your relationship in the Lord, and we will do our best to help you to do that."


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