To Heal, Restore and Renew
Pastoral Letter to the Clergy, Religious and Laity of the Diocese of Pittsburgh

By Most Reverend Donald W. Wuerl, S.T.D., Bishop of Pittsburgh

June 17, 2002

In Saint Paul Cathedral, as in so many of our parish churches, among the significant features are the stained glass windows. These works of art are made up of hundreds of individual pieces of delicately and brightly colored glass placed together in a way that allows some aspect of our sacred history and faith to illumine our lives.

Yet if even one small part of the window is broken our eyes are immediately drawn to the wound. The defect is what stands out. Much of the beauty of the entire window, its integrated wholeness and its message, can be lost because we concentrate on the broken piece.

The life of the Church is much like a stained glass window. God's holy Church, his family, is one but with many members with a variety of gifts. The Spirit brings us all together to form a living body through which the love of God radiates. It moves us to a unity that allows us to claim oneness with Christ and with each other.

In the Church each one of us is a part of the great picture because in baptism all are configured to Christ in his new body. Within the Church gifts are poured out in spectacular variety that enrich the whole spiritual community. Much like a stained glass window no one color constitutes the whole image.

Ministry of Love

God calls each of us to some particular way of carrying out the one great service or ministry of love. All believers are challenged by the Lord to 'abide in his love' (Jn. 15.10). In other words we all bring our particular talent, the shade and tone of our gift, to the overall splendor of the window into the world through which shines the light of Christ.

All this begins in baptism. The creative work of God and our re-creation in the Spirit is celebrated and brought about in the waters of baptism. The call from God becomes more pronounced as we grow older. Many are called to marriage and to family life. Some are called to a single life dedicated to a particular purpose. Others are called to manifest in religious life the outpouring of God's gifts on the Church. The Church speaks of the consecrated life as a call to show that God is already with us now in a way that manifests how He will be with us in heaven—in glory.

Still others among us are called to walk in a particular way in the footsteps of Christ by being identified with him as head of his body. A priest participates in Christ's mission in a unique way. Because one is called to minister in the person of Christ to the whole body, the Church identifies holy orders as a sacrament of service on behalf of the unity of the Church.

All of these pieces—lay, religious and clerical—make up the incredible, divine and human reality of the Church. These are all pieces of the glass coming together to form one magnificent window through which the light of Christ shines.

But we have recognized in recent days that some of the glass is broken. Some who were called to serve as an icon of Christ and who were ordained to be his presence in the midst of the community have failed their ordination promises. Through the damaged glass shines a harsh light which has caused not only the Church but also the wider community to focus on what is broken.

To Renew What is Broken

In this letter I want to share with you a number of reflections as we together work to heal what is wounded, to restore what has been shattered and to renew what is broken so that we can once again see the Church in its wholeness through which the light of Christ can more clearly and brightly shine.

This we are able to do more effectively in view of the recent meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas. Its principal focus was to deal with the abuse of a minor by a priest or deacon and to begin to restore confidence in Church leadership so that we can move into the future fully committed to our task to live Christ and to carry out those important ministries that bring him to the whole community.

At our Dallas meeting the bishops approved the 'Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People' which sets forth policies we all have adopted and now pledge to implement, and norms drawn from that document—'Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies'—which are to be sent to the Holy See for recognition as law for the Church in the United States. We also committed ourselves to a day of prayer and fasting for healing and reconciliation on the Vigil of the Assumption of Mary, Wednesday, August 14, 2002.

The Charter requires policies to promote healing and reconciliation with victims of sexual abuse of minors and to guarantee an effective response to allegations of sexual abuse of minors. It also calls for steps to ensure the accountability of our procedures and to protect the faithful in the future.

We have begun to review our own diocesan policies to make sure that they are in conformity with the principles set forth in the Charter. We are committed to implementing those principles. My conviction is that our present policies which have proved to be effective in reaching the goals enunciated in the Charter are in compliance with the Charter.

Response to the Victims

First and foremost, we must demonstrate concern for the victims who have suffered abuse and for their families. As a matter of policy and in conformity with the Charter, the Diocese offers pastoral and spiritual support to victims and their families, as well as professional counseling. This we shall continue to do in the heartfelt hope that we can bring some healing and peace, wholeness and reconciliation to anyone who has suffered such abuse. I again renew my invitation to anyone who has been abused by a priest to meet with me so that I might express the depth of my sorrow that this has happened and the sincerity of my desire for reconciliation.


In the past, one of our first pastoral responses when someone came with an allegation of abuse was confidentiality. In most instances the abused or their families were looking for healing. They sought wholeness. They asked for confidentiality. They desired closure. They wanted the Church to respond in a pastoral and spiritual way. Confidentiality was a part of that response.

Though we advised families to go to civil authorities, they expected confidentiality from the Church. Even the law recognized this situation. At that time Church leadership and pastors were not mandated reporters of such allegations. People who came to us did so because they wanted this matter addressed within the Church. They did not for the most part seek or want police intervention and certainly not media exposure.

All this has now changed. Part of the response to someone who has been hurt is to take the matter to the civil authorities. There must be a distinction between the determination of criminal activity and the suitability for ministry in the Church. The prior is a function of civil government, the latter a prerogative of the Church. We are in this difficulty in no small part because we followed our pastoral instincts and did not realize then as we do now that allegations of this type are investigated best by civil authorities. It is the policy of the Diocese in accord with the Charter that all allegations of sexual abuse of a minor are reported to civil authorities.

A Priest Who Has Abused a Minor Will be Permanently Removed from Ministry

Both the recently approved Charter and our diocesan policy agree that a priest who has abused a child can never again serve the Church in priestly ministry. In our effort to balance the many values at stake in this policy including the safety of those entrusted to our care, the credibility of the Church and the desire for the offending priest to be returned to ministry, we have concluded that we cannot risk harm to even one child. In making this severe judgment the bishops are affirming that the sexual abuse of a minor disqualifies a priest from ministry.

Again I want to reassure all of the faithful of this Diocese that in accord with our diocesan policy and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Charter that where sexual abuse of a minor—past, present or future—by a priest or deacon is admitted or established the offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from ministry.

This policy long effective in our Diocese provides verification for the integrity of the ministry of every priest and deacon at work in our diocesan Church. It allows us publicly to assure all of the faithful that this Church is served by good, dedicated, caring and faithful priests.

Removal from ministry is a harsh reality for any priest to bear. The question has been raised why the priest is not forcibly dismissed from the clerical state or 'laicized' or 'defrocked' as more popular language expresses it.

Theologically and in the eyes of God a person who has been ordained carries on his soul an indelible mark or 'character' that identifies him as a priest. This is also true of any baptized person. Even excommunication cannot remove the baptismal seal on our soul. So it is with a priest. Even when he is removed from ministry the ordination character remains.

Priestly ministry, however, is a different issue. A priest can be permanently prohibited from ever exercising his priestly character. He can also be forbidden to wear the signs of priestly office or present himself as a priest. All of this is now imposed upon the ordained man who has abused a minor.

Forgiveness, Wholeness and Consequences

In helping our people and our priests understand why it is that some may not be able to serve in ministry again, it is necessary to clearly distinguish between forgiveness, wholeness and consequences. Forgiveness is something we are all called to share. It is a quality of Christian life and a condition for salvation. It is, however, distinct from wholeness, which is something towards which we strive through spiritual direction and which may require professional psychological counseling, care and even psychiatric treatment. Both forgiveness and wholeness, however, are distinct from consequences. Some actions carry with them consequences that perdure even after we are forgiven and have attained a certain level of wholeness. One consequence today of the sexual abuse of a minor by a priest is a prohibition from ministry.

Response to the Accused

At the same time, we will never abandon a priest and throw him into the streets. By both baptism and ordination he is a member of our family. We must minister to everyone and open our hearts in compassion, care, prayer and spiritual ministry to all involved in such a tragedy and whose hearts have been broken: the victim, the families, the priest and all the members of the Church.

Jesus came to bring us the fullness of redemption—union with him and therefore with his Father. Even a priest who is no longer able to serve in ministry can continue spiritually to contribute to the good of the Church and the salvation of souls through embracing the cross that he must now bear. We must never forget that at the heart of identification with Christ is the cross.

Response in Priestly Formation

We have taken a number of definite steps in response to this scandal. In long-range terms, we have addressed the seminary formation program and the screening process of potential candidates for the priesthood. We need to assess as best as is humanly possible their psychological fitness for the demands of the priesthood. Nor can we presume an understanding of the value of celibacy as a part of the priesthood. Within the formation programs themselves we need to present celibacy and the living of a celibate life—giving oneself totally to Christ—with far greater intensity.

The Future

Where do we go from here? We begin with the lived experience that the Catholic faithful recognize that year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, they have been well served by good priests. This scandal is an aberration, and the entire Catholic community knows that to be true.

Let us turn our vision again to the entire stained glass window. Its dimension is huge, its richness exceedingly fine and its impact on all of us something of which we can be proud. No matter how much media focus is placed on one small shattered sliver of the window, the Church is far more wondrous. We are all aware of this in the depths of our being. It is in the light of the whole picture that we must go forward and focus on the true work of the Church which is the proclamation of the gospel and the salvation of souls.

Our Catholic Identity

What is at the root of the fidelity of Catholic people to their Church even when we are aware that a small number of clerics have betrayed their ordination promises? What is it that allows Catholics to see the goodness of the Church even while recognizing the personal failure of a few priests? Put another way, do we put our faith in the individual priest or in what he represents—the priesthood?

At the heart of our Catholic faith in the Church is the recognition that it is both divine and human. It is a glorious gift contained in an earthen vessel. Nearly 2000 years ago Jesus established the Church. This was to be the institution, the structure, that would carry on not only his mission and ministry but also his very presence in the world until the end of time.

Out of his followers he picked twelve apostles upon whom he would build his Church. Through them and their successors the Gospel would continually be made present generation after generation. It is clear that Jesus was aware that he was dealing with frail humanity. He chose men, not angels, to shepherd his flock.

Christ at Work in His Church

When we ask how is it that Catholics continue to remain firm in their faith even in the face of the failure of some priests, and perhaps even a breakdown in leadership among some of us bishops, the answer rests in the realization that we believe Christ is at work in his Church even if it is marred by some. In the same way, we believe that Christ is at work in the sacrament of marriage even though some have betrayed their marriage vows.

We do not go to Eucharistic liturgy, the Mass, primarily to hear the priest, to experience his God-given gifts, to bask in his personal accomplishments. We go to Mass because Christ is present at that celebration. We go to be with him. It is the Lord Jesus who comes to us in the Eucharist.

Christ promised that his Holy Spirit would be with his Church until the end of time to preserve it in all truth. He never assured us that every believer, including priests and bishops, would be sinless. But he did guarantee that his teaching would not be adulterated, falsified or lost. It is a wondrous gift passed on in earthen vessels.

The Gift of the Priesthood

At the installation of every pastor in this Diocese, I speak to him and to the parishioners present reminding them that the priest is to stand in the midst of that faith community as the image of Christ. The priest is to teach, to be the spiritual leader and to administer the sacraments especially the Eucharist by which we participate in our salvation. Yes, this is an exalted image of Catholic priesthood. It is the image painted by Jesus.

No small part of our pain and sorrow in this scandal grows out of our experience of so many good priests. In parish after parish our people have demonstrated, and continue to do so, their affection and esteem for their priests. We have been well served by good priests.

As we reflect on the experience of this Church for so many years, we need to pray for our priests and at the same time encourage them and thank them for responding to God's call, for their continuation of Christ's ministry in the world and for the demonstrated selfless service in meeting the sacramental, spiritual and pastoral needs of the faithful.

I am persuaded that the polls that speak of the fidelity of the Catholic faithful do in fact reflect their conviction. 'Catholics and Americans in general said they saw the sexual abuse of children as a persistent and tragic problem in many walks of life, not something more pronounced among the Catholic clergy.' The great majority of Catholics indicated that 'the recent scandals, however, caused no notable questioning of the basic tenets of the faith.'

The one thing the polls cannot truly assess is the depth of faith in the mystery of the Church which is a divine reality at work through human agents. Only living faith can recognize the great treasure borne in earthen vessels. Belief sees beyond the failure of a few men and holds fast to the mystery of God's goodness at work in this world.

History teaches us that from the beginning there have been Christians, including priests, who have not lived up to their call. But with our Holy Father we proclaim: 'So much pain, so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier Church.'


I want to conclude this pastoral letter with words of encouragement to our priests, words of assurance to all the faithful, and a prayer for everyone who has been caught up in this scandal and has been hurt by it.

The Church, by its very nature, is the continuing presence of Christ in the world. Our response, therefore, is always spiritual and pastoral. That is the heart of who we are. So we must respond in prayer. Jesus asks us to pray and we, as the Church, need to pray. We pray, first of all, for those who have suffered, for any victim in this terrible 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. Families have felt deep pain and need our prayer and our support.

In the name of this diocesan Church I reaffirm our profound regret that such acts of abuse have taken place and again apologize that this has happened within the Church where one should find care and Christ's love not spiritual harm and abuse.

We need to pray for the priest himself, the priest who has committed these terrible acts. Even in failure, even in this tragedy, the priest must seek the embrace of God's mercy and our prayers as we all must when we have fallen into serious sin. We need to pray for all priests so that they are not all tarred with this same terrible brush. We need to pray as well for healing within the Church.

We must pray also 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, wherever youngsters gather and that it is committed by people from all walks of life. We need to address that as a nation and a caring society. In our Diocese we are taking steps to help prevent child abuse in every aspect of the Church through the development of a comprehensive strategy.

We also need to reflect that at the very heart of our Catholic faith, at the very heart of who we are, is the recognition that it is in and through Christ living and acting in his 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.

It is with both hope and thanksgiving that we claim the name 'Catholic.' Our hope is founded on the realization that even in our human frailty Christ remains with us. Our gratitude is for the grace that Jesus so freely bestows on each of us so that we have the possibility to remain faithful to his call. As we pledge ourselves anew and work towards the healing of what is wounded and the restoration of what is broken, let us do so in solidarity of faith, hope and love.

Like the stained glass window with which we began these reflections, we are all part of the wholeness of the Church through which the light of Christ is meant to shine. Let us pray for and support each other that we may truly reflect the gospel of Christ and the love of God. May God strengthen our efforts and bless them with fulfillment.

Faithfully in Christ,

Donald W. Wuerl
Bishop of Pittsburgh

June 17, 2002

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