Pope Francis has written a letter addressed “To the People of God” about the sex abuse crisis in the Church. You can read the full text of the letter here.
“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). These words of Saint Paul forcefully echo in my heart as I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons. Crimes that inflict deep wounds of pain and powerlessness, primarily among the victims, but also in their family members and in the larger community of believers and nonbelievers alike. Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient. Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated. The pain of the victims and their families is also our pain, and so it is urgent that we once more reaffirm our commitment to ensure the protection of minors and of vulnerable adults. …
“I am conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to come up with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable. We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future. …
“Consequently, the only way that we have to respond to this evil that has darkened so many lives is to experience it as a task regarding all of us as the People of God. This awareness of being part of a people and a shared history will enable us to acknowledge our past sins and mistakes with a penitential openness that can allow us to be renewed from within. Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change. The penitential dimension of fasting and prayer will help us as God’s People to come before the Lord and our wounded brothers and sisters as sinners imploring forgiveness and the grace of shame and conversion. In this way, we will come up with actions that can generate resources attuned to the Gospel.”
The Church is experiencing a day of reckoning, and thank God it has come!
Now, the question is, how will we respond to this grace, this opportunity to weed out the chafe from among us and restore and renew the commitment of the People of God to proclaim with passion and courage the truth of God’s good news in Jesus Christ our Lord?
I believe certain things must happen:
First, effort must be made to encourage victims to report their abuse in a climate of safety and concern for reconciliation and healing. As well, due process must be respected so that those accused are accorded the right to privacy and dignity until and only if the accusations against them are proved credible. There is concern among some that “credible” accusations have come to mean “not entirely impossible,” even if highly unlikely, and our society too often conflates an accusation with a finding of guilt. We do not ensure the reconciliation and healing of abuse victims by creating other victims of faulty due process. There are those who would take advantage of the Church’s vulnerability on this matter to profit personally. Experts in criminal investigation need to be employed to ensure true credibility to all accusations of abuse. When credibility is ensured, the abuser should be named publicly and suffer criminal prosecution and appropriate ecclesial punishment, and any other victims encouraged to come forward. Counseling should be provided to all victims at the expense of the diocese and every effort made to achieve true reconciliation with the faith.
Second, the reforms that led to a remarkable decrease in the numbers of children abused since the early 1990’s need to be strengthened and every diocese and eparchy must re-commit itself to their full implementation. Just a couple of months before the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report was published, the audit for diocesan compliance with the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” adopted in 2002 was published, in which the auditors raised concerns that some diocese had become somewhat complacent in their implementation of the Charter, figuring that abuse was mostly a matter of the past. I wrote about that audit here. While all but one diocese and all but three eparchies participated in the audit, and every diocese that participated was found in compliance with the Charter, complacency cannot be accepted. Full implementation and vigorous participation in the annual audit cannot be considered optional.
Third, the Vatican and the bishops need to hold accountable those who knew of the abuse and either assisted in covering it up or kept silent about it, allowing men such as Abp. McCarrick to continue to rise in leadership in the Church. And by “hold accountable,” I mean remove them from their current position of leadership, even if that means demanding the resignations of bishops and cardinals. Catholics will not take any attempt to reform and heal from these horrors seriously if those who allowed the abuse to continue are immune from consequences.
Fourth, and in light of the third point, a national board or panel made up lay persons who have experience in investigating criminal abuse and who are completely dedicated to the Church’s teaching on sexual morality ought to be created to investigate who knew about the abuse and who covered up abuse. Their findings and recommendations can be submitted to the papal nuncio, who will submit them to the Vatican.
Fifth, there has arisen in recent years, even in the face of the abuse crisis, an attempt by many in the Church, including bishops and priests, to mitigate the teaching of the Church on sexual morality, with pastors and parishes tolerating or even supporting outrageous and public acts of sexual immorality. This must stop. There must be no compromise on Church teaching and no attempt to tolerate immorality out of some false sense of pastoral sensitivity, much less out of fear of being labeled a bigot by the enemies of the Church. Bishops need to be clear to their priests, and priests need to be clear to their parishioners, that the moral teaching of the Church will be proclaimed boldly and consistently. St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy, exhorting him to “guard what has been entrusted to you” (1 Tim 6:20), meaning the truth of the faith, and he wrote to St. Titus, bidding him to “teach what befits sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). The doctrine of the Church is not the play-dough of pastors, to be molded according to their whims. It is the foundation of our faith and our salvation. Hold to it. Preach it.
Finally, no one, whether in formation for the priesthood or the diaconate, ought to be ordained unless they are fully committed to the whole truth of Jesus Christ, including the moral teachings of the Church, and who have been shown, by appropriate psychological assessment, to be sexually mature and in command of their impulses, at least as far as their contacts with others is concerned. No one is perfect, but we cannot afford to ordain to active ministry those who cannot be trusted to do right by others.
I’m not pretending that this list is exhaustive, and there are those who are far more expert on these matters than I who, I am sure, can propose other things that must be done to address the crisis. But, I view these six items as the minimum that must be done in order to restore the credibility of the Church and the trust of the People of God in our leaders.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.