My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
It has been several months since I have written about the sexual abuse crisis in the church and our response to it, so I would like to use the recent meetings of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as an occasion to provide you with some updates. Specifically, I want to share the steps we have taken in our local church, as well as the universal church, since I last wrote about this topic.
In my column in January, I shared that releasing the clergy disclosure list began a new chapter in our diocese, focused on transparency and healing. Part of that transparency has been informing the public when we have added names to the list. This has happened twice in the intervening months. In both cases, we reported these additions through The Compass and our website was updated (gbdioc.org/clergydisclosurelist).
While I would prefer that we never had to add names, we anticipated when we shared the initial list that it might lead others to come forward with allegations of abuse, which is what occurred in both cases. I know that true healing only occurs when these evils are brought to light, and I continue to encourage anyone who has been harmed by clergy to share this information with law enforcement and with the diocese.
We have also taken steps in recent months to work towards healing for those who have been harmed by sexual abuse. In late January, Catholic Charities, in conjunction with Trauma Recovery Associates, conducted two workshops for priests, pastoral leaders, spiritual caregivers and mental health practitioners. This training helped prepare our parish ministers, as well as local mental health professionals, to provide care for individuals who have suffered as a result of abuse. In addition, in April we held a retreat with “Journey of Hope” for survivors of sexual abuse and their family members, as we have in the past few years.
Besides steps we have taken locally, there have been some developments within the universal church. In February, Pope Francis brought together the leadership of bishops’ conferences from around the world to a summit on sexual abuse within the church. As a result of that meeting, in May the pope issued Vos estis lux mundi (“You are the light of the world”). This document, which carries the force of canon (or church) law and applies to the global church, outlines the procedures that must be followed in cases of sexual abuse.
While much of what Vos estis requires was already part of existing practice in the United States under the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” it includes additional measures that strengthen the existing requirements. This includes expanding the definition of vulnerable adults to include seminarians and others who could be subject to an abuse of power, providing a clearer process for investigating misconduct by bishops, and requiring internal reporting and whistleblower protections for those reporting abuse or intentional mishandling of cases of abuse.
This past week, at our annual spring meetings, the bishops of the United States spent time discussing the pope’s new guidelines, along with other steps that we will take to root out the evil of sexual abuse. As a result of this discussion, we approved the following:
- Implementation directives which will guide how we will put into practice Vos estis.
- Protocols for dealing with bishops who have been removed from office or resigned for reasons of sexual abuse or intentional mishandling of cases.
- Commitments by the bishops to hold themselves to the same standards as priests, deacons and lay personnel.
- A national third-party reporting system to receive allegations of sexual abuse and intentional mishandling of cases by bishops.
Within these action steps, the bishops strongly reaffirmed their commitment to utilizing lay experts for publicizing and investigating allegations, as well as notifying civil authorities when allegations are made.
While I am pleased at the steps we have taken this past week and in recent months, I want to echo what I said last November regarding policies and procedures. The healing that we need in our world today, and in the church specifically, will not come through policies and procedures; it will only come when we abandon ourselves to Jesus Christ. It is his loving embrace of us which brings the healing that is so needed today.
Finally, I would like to end by speaking directly to those who have experienced any kind of abuse in their lives, but especially within the church. From my heart, I want you to know that you are loved by Jesus. He sees all of your pain. He sees who you really are and you are beautiful.
I want you to know that I will never be the same having seen the pain of so many people hurt by this tragedy. Your strength of heart and faith has changed me.
I want you to know that you are welcome to come and share your pain with us. It doesn’t matter your background, whether you have faith or no faith, you are welcome to step forward to share your pain with us. This is what we must do as a church wounded by this tragedy.
May all of us find healing in the loving embrace of Christ!
Follow Bishop Ricken on Twitter at @BpDavidRicken.