Remarks at USCCB News Conference

By Bishop Wilton D. Gregory
President of the USCCB
February 27, 2004

Remarks by Belleville Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, on the release of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Study on "The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States 1950-2002"and the National Review Board's "Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States," USCCB news conference, February 27, 2004.

First of all, I want to thank my brothers for joining me on this panel: Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, Secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse; and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, chairman of the Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry.

These bishops not only hold important posts in the Bishops' Conference; but, even more important, as pastoral leaders, in their own ministry, they have faced up to the terrible problem of sexual abuse of minors by clergy.

Also with us is Father Ronald Witherup, the president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. Religious order priests make up a third of U.S. priests and their very significant voice belongs on this panel.

I want to express my gratitude to the National Review Board for its many endeavors over the past year and a half. The dedicated women and men on the Board made a commitment that took them well beyond what they could have expected, when I first asked them to serve. Their efforts have helped keep us on an even keel during the storm through which we have been passing.

I want to thank them especially for their Report, which they shared with us today. It provides us with the perspective of knowledgeable and insightful people who have immersed themselves in this problem and examined it carefully from all sides. It represents an enormous amount of time and effort given over to interviewing, discussing, and writing on the Board's part. I want to acknowledge Mr. Robert Bennett in particular for his contribution to the creation of this report.

I also want to express our gratitude to the Board for faithfully fulfilling the bishops' mandate, given in the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," to commission a study on the nature and scope of the problem of sexual abuse by clergy in the Church in the United States. And I want to thank the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York for designing and conducting this ground-breaking research.

In reviewing this study, I find that it adds to a tragic story, often told in broad strokes, the details that help us to understand the problem of sexual abuse by clergy more fully and to make sure that we have taken the steps to deal with it decisively. The picture that emerges sadly is one of those who broke faith with their people, their priesthood, and their religious vows to use their sacred position to prey on the young and the vulnerable instead of safeguarding them with the tender love of Christ himself.

We also see reflected in the John Jay Study and the Board's Report the fault of church leaders who failed to appreciate and effectively act on the gravity of the abuse problem. What might have appeared to be, over the decades, a limited problem in individual dioceses or religious orders gave rise to the sobering picture we are now confronting.

On behalf of the bishops and the entire Church in the United States, I re-state and re-affirm our apologies to all of you who have been harmed by those among us who violated your trust and the promises they made at their ordination. The heartfelt sorrow that we feel for this violation and the often ineffective ways with which it was dealt has strengthened our commitment to do everything possible to see that it does not happen again.

This commitment will remain a collective resolve on the part of the U.S. Catholic Bishops and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.

A recommendation appears in the "Charter Implementation Report," released last January, that each diocese make an annual report on allegations of abuse, their disposition, and their costs.
In the light of this Study and the Report, I am sure bishops will carefully consider this recommendation as an important element in preventing abuse and never again permitting the problem to overwhelm us as it did.

We have heard today a clarion calls to make sure that each diocese has in place effective outreach to victims. We did not need this additional evidence to know that many have been harmed by persons acting in the Church's name. But now, with this evidence before us, a priority becomes an urgent summons to act as fully as possible in reaching out to victims. Our vocation is to be ministers of reconciliation, a vocation which includes this community of suffering, made so by the misconduct which occurred in our midst.

Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has dedicated this present Lenten season to concern for children. In that spirit, I ask every bishop to make a concerted effort to reach out, in an individual, personal, and pastoral way, during this holy Lenten and Easter season, to all those abused as children and their families who have not yet been reached.

I also ask all victims who have not yet come forward to do so, if that is now your choice.

Along with the pain and anguish we feel in reviewing the past, we can also discern signs that the actions we have taken over the last 15 years have had a significant effect. At this present moment, there is evidence of far fewer instances of abuse in the most recent past. It may be that there are victims who will not come forward for some time.

But it is also true that these years saw immediate action on allegations, more sophisticated and effective treatment measures, and the removal from ministry of men who were offenders.

These same years saw advances in screening candidates for Holy Orders and in the formation of those who are accepted into our seminaries.

These actions, without a doubt, have made a difference.

I would like to conclude my remarks with words to our priests and Catholic people.

To our priests: Above all, I want to say to you that both your bishops and your people know that the vast majority of you are faithful, generous, and upright men whose lives of dedicated service are very much valued and appreciated. Together we are called to greater holiness of life and integrity of ministry.

As pastoral leaders so respected by those you serve, encourage your people to read these reports -- and also the Charter Implementation Report of last January 6. We have nothing to fear from the truth – or from the past, if we learn from it.

And to our people: as far as it is humanly possible to know such things, I assure you that known offenders are not in ministry. I can say with absolute assurance that the bishops now have in place the means of responding immediately to allegations, assisting victims, and removing offenders from ministry.

The terrible history recorded here today is history.

Your own bishop and all the bishops together, in cooperation with the Religious superiors of men, have put in place a comprehensive response to abuse of minors by clergy that includes:

making our church institutions the safest of environments for children and young people;

reaching out to victims;

keeping from ministry anyone who would harm the young;

and careful screening of candidates for Holy Orders and all employees and volunteers who may have contact with youth.
This study and this report, while painful to read, form a vital benchmark. We are determined that this troubling past will give way to a healing and reconciling future in which we will continue to fulfill our commitments to those who have suffered and to their families, to our children and young people who are our future, to the Catholic community, and to all of society.

This is our firm resolve, and in this spirit, we are ready for your questions.


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