U.S. Bishops Meeting:
Policies and Prospects
The annual spring meeting of the United States bishops in Dallas last week was widely reported. What the bishops did was to set a uniform policy for all U.S. dioceses in order to protect children and adolescents from sexual abuse; to help victims of such abuse, no matter when it occurred; and to handle each case in cooperation with civil authorities, whether or not an alleged incident is a crime. Many of the elements of the new national policy have been part of Chicago practice for over ten years.
Chicago practice has to change, however, in those cases where the Archdiocesan Review Board decided that an allegation about conduct that happened years earlier was judged to have some credibility, even if the priest denied it or disputed it, but that the priest, properly monitored, was no threat to youngsters in his ministry and did not have to be removed. Such judgments are no longer possible under the new policy. Every priest against which an allegation of past misconduct has been made personally by an accuser (an anonymous accusation is rumor or hearsay, not an allegation) is to be removed temporarily from ministry while his case is reviewed. During this process, the priest has the right in canon law (as in civil law) to defend himself and to appeal, and this process often takes some time. During this time, he has the right to counsel and to his salary.
When I became Archbishop of Chicago, there were eight priests in monitored ministry, supervised according to provisions set ten years ago by our Review Board. They were judged not to be a threat to minors; the judgments were made responsibly, according to the policies set in place by Cardinal Bernardin. Now, however, our local policies are being refashioned to conform to the new national policies, and these new policies will be used to review the cases of the eight priests. This will be a painful process. It will also be a public process because the media will follow it closely. Some of those who called for a policy with little mercy will condemn its implementation as merciless.
One of the great supports to the bishops during our meeting in Dallas was the prayer of so many Catholics in the Archdiocese and around the country. All of us received letters from people, including many children, who were praying for us. I am most grateful for the prayers during Mass, the holy hours, the recitation of the Rosary, the personal sacrifices offered to God here in the Archdiocese. Prayer sustained the effort to craft a policy which would remove all taint of scandal from our ministry and yet not betray the Churchs mission of forgiveness and reconciliation. No policy would be able to respond perfectly to the current crisis, but I believe that the new policy enables us to move forward in truth.
Not everyone wants us to move forward at all. The scandal of sexual abuse of minors by some priests serves well those who want the Churchs moral voice silenced; the consequent legal efforts that impact the Church financially will serve those who want her institutional presence weakened. The effort to handle these crises takes much time and many resources and keeps us focused on our own sins rather than on the mission Christ has given us. All of these factors can be seen, in the light of faith, as penance and purification. This time will leave us humbled and better instruments of Christs purpose in the world. But it will be painful.
The pain of both priests and people in the Church might serve not only to conform us more closely to Christs suffering but also as a lens or focus for recognizing the abuse of children in our society. The terrible pain of victims of sexual abuse has been made public. Everyone should know now that the sexual abuse of minors is more widespread than many would have imagined a few years ago. Each time an adolescent minor girl appears at an abortion clinic, there is a case of statutory rape, reported or not. Every family counselor has tales of children sexually abused in households that give every appearance of good health. None of this excuses in any way the sins that have created this shameful scandal in our own household of faith. All of it, however, is the context in which we have to move forward.
We have to move forward together into a future that is not at all secure except for our certitude that Gods love is constant. Let us all keep one another in prayer. God bless you.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Archbishop of Chicago
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