The Church's Response to Clergy Misconduct

By Bishop Donald Wuerl
April 21, 2002

I would like to talk to you about the Church's response to clergy misconduct.

Welcome to "The Teaching of Christ". As you can see, our format is different today because the content of our program is very different from what we usually do.

For over twelve years we have discussed "The Teaching of Christ". We have looked at the Gospels and the Catholic tradition that has passed on that teaching and I have had an opportunity to speak to you in my role as Bishop, teacher. Today we are going to talk about a very difficult, but real, topic. We are going to talk about the sexual abuse of minors by clergy, and today I want to talk to you as a pastor and what I have to say is going to be heavily influenced by the experience I have had of meeting with the young people who have been abused and their families and what that has meant to them and, therefore, to me.

The first question, though, that we have to address, and the one that we hear often is, "What is this scandal all about?" This scandal is all about a small number of clergy who have abused minors, who have sexually abused young people. This is a small number of priests, a small number of clergy, but even one child abused is too many, and when we look at this we realize that this is a very, very terrible situation. But it is also a complex one because when we get into the issue of abuse, of an allegation, of questions about that, we get into the question of credibility. But added to this scandal is also the issue of reassignment. How is it that some clergy, against whom there was an accusation of molesting a child, were reassigned? I think one of the reasons all of us feel so intensely hurt by all of this is because we know the priests that we know, the priests we deal with, the priests who minister to us, they are good priests. Yet here we are, face to face with this enormous tragedy of some priests have abused young people and the reality of their reassignment. All of this is the question of the hour, what is before us.

But another question comes to mind and that is, "How could Church leadership have failed to respond properly in the face of this?" To even begin to answer that question, we have to look at how this has unfolded. We are talking about allegations that go back forty years. We are talking about allegations that go back into the sixties and deal with four decades ago. In those days, when an allegation was brought to a bishop, when an allegation was brought forward, many times it was considered, as we considered so many things then, to be a moral failure, a sin, just like we considered alcoholism and failure in that area to be a sin, something that you said to the person, "You need to get your spiritual life together and to get back on track."

Later, only later, did we learn that this was compulsive behavior, that this was rooted in the very psyche of the person and we were told if you run across a situation like this the person should be sent for an evaluation and then for treatment. Following the treatment this condition should be controllable, and so the person could be reassigned. The best of medical science told us this person could be reassigned.

But now we know the risk is just too great. We are dealing with a human pathology; we are dealing with something that touches the very core of the psyche of a person and we, even though we will always try to provide the care, we will always try to provide the support, we will always try to provide the healing for someone caught up in this, we need to pay attention first to the risk that a young person might face. And so, today we know so much more and we can act out of a much more enlightened position.

But another question, then, that comes immediately to fore is, "How widespread is this? How widespread is the problem of clergy sexual abuse of a minor?" One of the things that we have learned, one of the things that has surfaced in all of this discussion, and you have to remember that even in the face of great media re-presentation of the same stories over and over again, and we are recognizing that is happening, we are seeing it happen in the national media, regularly the same story run over again, there is the creation of an idea, there is the presentation of an image that this is rampant, that it is happening everywhere among all priests. The fact is the data says that there is no evidence that this is a greater incident among priests than in any other group of clergy, or, in fact, among the whole general population of the country, and there are substantial studies. One of them by a Professor Philip Jenkins speaks directly to this issue. But there are other studies, some of them even more disturbing, that speak about the whole question of child abuse in our nation as a whole, in the general populace as a whole. Some of those studies, one of them done out of the University of Chicago tells us that there are, and this is difficult to believe, but there are millions and millions of Americans who have suffered child abuse within their homes, from family members, from people they have trusted, and so this is a problem that we need to look at as a culture, as a society, as a nation. But it is not confined, nor is there any evidence, it is any greater among priests, among clergy, than in any other segment of our society. But that does not diminish the fact that it is a scandal when someone, a priest, who is expected to represent Christ, is expected to be a Christ-figure for our child, harms that child. One of the things that we have learned in this whole scandal is that child has to come first.

"For God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Jesus Christ. But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us."

One of the questions, one of the most significant questions, that arises is, "What response was made to the victims, what response have we made to those who were abused?" As strange as it may sound, one of the first and most effective responses was confidentiality. Many, many times the abused, or their family, came to the Church precisely because they were looking for healing. They were looking for wholeness. Confidentiality was a part of that. They did not want to go to civil authorities. They did not want to go to their neighbors, least of all, did they want to go to the media. They came to the Church because they sought some healing and they sought some remedy to this. The confidentiality was one of the first and effective responses; however, we have learned that confidentiality does not always serve us well. That, in fact, we may not always be able to guarantee that in the future, because it has not served us well. We have learned over the years how grave the harm has been and we have come to recognize that a young person may need a lot of counseling, or that young person may need a lot of time to go by for the healing.

And that brings us to the second response of the Church. The Church's response has always been pastoral, it has always been spiritual. That is who we are, that is why this tragedy arose in the first place. People come to the Church looking for God's grace, looking for contact with Christ, looking for the assurance that the Church brings, that we are doing God's work, and we continue to offer pastoral and spiritual care. At the same time, we continue to offer counseling, professional counseling, to those who have been abused.

But we have come to learn something now that, perhaps in the past, we were not as aware of. We may not be able, in the future, to guarantee confidentiality. We may not, in the future, be able to say, "This will not go any further." We have always encouraged people to take this to the civil authorities on their own, but it may be now that part of the response, part of the response to someone who has been hurt, is to take this to the civil authorities and let that intervention take place.

Another question that arises is, "What steps has the Church taken, what steps is the Church taking to see that this does not happen in the future?" Well, in long-range terms, one of the things that we have done over years is addressed the whole seminary formation program, the screening process. That is a significant change from fifty, forty, even thirty years ago. The psychological screening, the whole effort to address who is coming into the formation program and how psychologically healthy are they?

We have also addressed, within the formation program itself, with far greater intensity, the concept of the counter-cultural life of celibacy and the counter-cultural life of living a celibate life, of giving yourself totally to Christ. There may have been a time where that was presumed. That was just a part of priesthood and it was presumed. Today there is far greater intensity when we speak about that. That is some of the longer term responses.

One of the more effective and immediate responses, one of the steps taken on the part of the Church has been policy to see that the Church responds directly, quickly, effectively when a child abuse allegation is made. We have had, since the early nineties, very strong policy. Some may contest that it is too strong, but we have effective policy and over the years we have implemented it so that we are able to say to our faithful people, we are able to say to our priests, we are able to say to the whole community, there is no one reassigned to parish ministry against whom there is a credible, substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor. That is one of the most effective steps we have taken. In doing that we have had to grapple with the question of credibility. How do you assess credibility when you are talking about, on the one hand, one person's word, and, on the other, a denial of that. You have two people, both contesting an action for which there is no substantial proof and no witness.

We have chosen to raise the bar of credibility so that in that whole discussion, if we are going to err, it is going to be on the side of protecting those entrusted to the care of a priest.

But another question arises, "How specifically, as a diocese, have we responded?" I want to talk to you a little bit about our policy. I believe it is excellent policy. It grew out of a terrible experience we had a decade ago and we learned from dealing with allegations, that later were substantiated, that young people had, in fact, been abused. I met with those young people. I met with their families and out of that we came to learn the intensity of the pain, the intensity of the disruption of the spiritual life of that family and of the harm done to everyone involved. So we have implemented that policy and we have applied it over all these years in a good, effective manner.

At the same time, I have to say to you, we have never abandoned the priest. A priest, by ordination, is a member of our family and while that priest may never ever serve in a parish ministry again, that priest is not abandoned and thrown into the street. It is part of who we are that we minister to everyone. We have learned a great deal and in responding as a Church we have learned to open our hearts in compassion, in understanding, in care, in prayer, in spiritual ministry, to everyone involved: the minor, the families, the priest, and all of the members of this Church.

"Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness and so, for this reason, must make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people. No one takes this honor upon himself but only when called by God, just as Aaron was."

I am often asked if our Catholic people understand that this is an aberration we are talking about and I think the answer to that is a very clear one. Our Catholic faithful recognize, they realize that year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, they have been well served by good priests. This is an aberration and while the data shows that this is an infinitesimally small part of our Catholic priesthood, our people know in their hearts, our people know intuitively that that is true.

I have had a couple occasions to speak to our people about their priests. At the Chrism Mass I spoke to our people about the majority of their priests and how faithfully they have served them. A Cathedral of nearly two thousand people stood up and applauded their priests.

Recently in installing a pastor, at the end of the Mass I reminded them that they have been served over the years in that parish by good priests. Their response was the same: "Yes, yes, it is the overwhelming experience of this Church that we have been served by good priests, and, in spite of the repetition in the media over and over and over every day, of the same stories, about the same few priests, we know that these are a few and they are an aberration."

Catholics have stepped up to affirm that and I am deeply grateful, deeply grateful together with our priests that so many of our faithful people have stood up to affirm their priests and to recognize there are tragedies, there are failures, there are moments of terrible, terrible betrayal. But they are an isolated few in the midst of thousands, tens of thousands, who work very, very hard.

A question arises, "Will we be the stronger for this, will we be a better Church because of this?" As I was greeting people at the back of the Cathedral, on the steps of the Cathedral after the Easter Mass, a woman came up to me and said, "Bishop, we are going to be the better, we are going to be the stronger for all of this." I think she was right on target. We will be the stronger for it because we know a lot more now. We understand that there is no possibility of a reassignment for someone who has molested a minor. We are the stronger because we are the wiser for knowing that just will not work.

We are also much better informed and, so, we are the stronger because we are the better informed about compulsive behavior and what that means and how we have come to be able to deal with that out of our new wisdom, our new understanding. We are the stronger, we are the better because we now know that there are limitations to priestly assignment, priestly ministry. We have made the distinction between forgiving, making someone whole and then recognizing the consequences of what they have done, and we are the stronger for that.

We also are the better because we have learned how profoundly harmed a victim can be and the damage to that person's faith and what we need to do to rally around that person, to be there to support, to provide the care, the spiritual embrace of the Church, to restore and renew that person spiritually.

We are also, I believe, far, far stronger now that we recognize the limits of confidentiality and the fact that we may have to say to people when they come to us, "This cannot remain confidential. If you will not, we may have to take this to civil authorities."

There is another area, too, where we are the stronger. We have come to recognize in this entire media presentation of this that the issue has, in too many instances, shifted from the sexual abuse by a member of the clergy, to using this as a vehicle for a whole range of other agendas. We have come to recognize something that we have known for a long, long time, for centuries, that there is an animosity, there is a certain hostility to our Catholic faith, to our teaching, especially when we get into issues like pro-life, like social justice, we get into those issues that not everybody wants to hear about. We have learned that this whole moment has been a vehicle to carry on other agendas when facing the Church.

Are we the stronger for all of this? I think we are because one of the things we have learned is that throughout this entire issue, we need to keep perspective. Throughout this entire scandal we need to keep perspective. Yes, some very bad things were done. Yes, there was some failure in handling this, but in the bigger picture, the Church has always been there. The Church has always served well and the vast, vast majority of our faithful and our priests know that and continue to follow in the way that Christ directs us. We are a lot stronger because we have learned to keep a much richer perspective.

"'I am the good shepherd, I know my sheep and my sheep know me, in the same way that the Father knows me and I know the Father; for these sheep I will give my life. There shall be one flock, one shepherd.'"

Perhaps the most important question of all that we have to deal with is, "What does Christ ask of His Church and of His priests today?" What is it that Christ asks as our response? The Church, by its very nature, is the continuing presence of Christ in the world, and, therefore, our response is always going to be spiritual and pastoral. That is the heart of who we are. So our response is, first of all, going to be one of prayer. Jesus asks us to pray and we, as a Church, we need to pray, first of all, for those who have suffered, for any victim in this whole scandal. We need to pray for that person's healing, that person's wholeness. We need to pray for that person's continuing place in the life of the Church. We also need to pray for that person's family because families have felt the pain of this. We need to pray for the priest himself, the priest who has done this. Even in failure, even in this tragedy, the priest deserves the embrace of God's mercy and our prayers. We need to pray for all priests because they are all tarred with this same brush. We need to pray for the Church and for our whole country because we have come to recognize that child abuse is something widespread in our nation, in our homes, in our schools, in the areas where youngsters gather and we need to address that as a nation. We also need to reflect that at the very heart of our Catholic faith, at the very heart of who are is the recognition that it is in and through the Church that we come to salvation. We do not make this journey alone. We make our journey to salvation as part of God's family and that includes the shepherds, the leaders of this family, of this faith community.

So in this tragedy, we need to keep perspective; we need to focus on who we are and we need to move forward; we need to move forward in God's grace and that brings us to the final thought that I want to share with you, "Where is the Church today?" The Church, you and I, all of us, are where the Church always is—at the foot of the cross. We stand with everyone in need of the wondrous redemption and mercy of God. It was from the cross that Christ redeemed and restored, made whole and new again, and that is where you and I are. That is where we will always be, knowing that however grave a failure might be, the stronger is God's grace and God's love. That is where we are and we look to the future knowing God is with us and God's grace is strong enough for us to overcome anything and every failure.

Thank you for letting me be with you. Thank you for letting me share these thoughts with you and may you know, in your day, the love, the peace, the serenity of God.


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