Sin, faith and healing: Pastoral reflections on the listening sessions by Bishop McElroy

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The Catholic community enfleshes in countless ways Christian discipleship lived in family, society and public life and constitutes a profound pathway for our pilgrimage on this earth and unto eternity. The continual recognition of these realities in the comments at the listening sessions point to the depth of faith and closeness to God that pervades our diocese on so many levels, and places the challenges of this moment in its proper context of fruitful discipleship and service.

At the same time, our recognition that the grace of God pervades the life of the Church in so many dimensions does not free us from recognizing the sinfulness that has characterized the Church’s culture, structures and actions regarding the sexual abuse of minors by clergy. It is not enough to point out that the reforms adopted in 2002 regarding zero tolerance, reporting to police agencies, and the initiation of educational programs for children and adults have overwhelmingly improved the culture and incidence of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and laity in the life of the Church. Catholic leadership must continue to bear a historic responsibility of shame and profound regret at this moment and moving forward because for so many decades it allowed a culture of reassignment of priests who had abused minors to destroy the lives and wound the souls of tens of thousands of boys and girls, young women and young men.

A renewed focus on the healing of victim-survivors

Since 2002, the Diocese of San Diego has reached out to victims of clergy sexual abuse, providing counseling, immediate reporting to police authorities, and prompt action in following up on allegations of clergy sexual abuse. But the listening sessions have made clear that this effort must be dramatically expanded.

The first steps to accomplish these goals have already been undertaken. To expand this level of support to victims and survivors, the diocese is moving from a part-time victim assistance coordinator to a full-time coordinator who will work with survivors of clergy sexual abuse and their families to form support groups, provide ongoing counseling and ensure that allegations are brought both to the appropriate law enforcement jurisdiction and investigation by the diocesan Independent Review Board.  The diocese has also made a commitment to provide and pay for counseling for any victim of clergy sexual abuse no matter where that abuse took place. Finally, in November, the Diocese of San Diego published a list of all priests of the diocese and all priests of other dioceses or religious orders who had served in diocesan assignments, for whom we have received credible accusations of the sexual abuse of a minor. It is my hope that this publication will be both a step toward transparency, and even more importantly, a step toward healing for the victims and survivors of these priests.

Better communication regarding diocesan policies

Those who came to the listening sessions had many questions about the staffing and role of the Independent Review Board that judges the credibility of allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests and deacons. Our current board contains one survivor of clergy sexual abuse, one priest, a retired judge, two attorneys, a layman expert in Church law, a counselor and a social worker. One of the attorneys is a prosecutor with experience in sexual abuse crimes. There are four men and three women. The board has chosen a professional investigator who receives allegations, interviews witnesses, seeks corroboration and makes a report to the board, which in turn evaluates the evidence and makes a determination about the validity of the allegation, which is forwarded to me for action.

A finding that a priest has sexually abused a minor automatically means that that priest will be removed from public ministry permanently. The board process is audited by a national firm every year, and in greater depth every three years.

The listening sessions provided insights that have led the diocese to enhance its process of investigation and evaluation of claims of sexual abuse. Questions about the comprehensiveness of the historical data in diocesan files that arose in the sessions led the diocese to engage a firm specializing in this work to go painstakingly through the files of the diocese to seek out any information contained in them that points to sexual abuse of minors in the past, or danger signs that indicate a substantive risk of breaking behavioral boundaries. This review has begun and will be completed in February. In addition, the Review Board will now review all allegations of sexual misconduct by priests against adults where there is any indication of harassment, coercion, spiritual manipulation or disparities of power and position. (Previously, the Review Board’s sole focus was evaluating allegations involving minors.) This is a direct result of the concerns raised in the listening sessions about the need for increased vigilance and action against sexual abuse against adults.

Challenging the culture of clericalism

The participants in the listening sessions pointed to a moral blindness born of a clerical culture that led pastors and bishops to ignore the reality of sexual abuse and reassign abusers. The combination of a misplaced desire to forgive, ties of friendship and a common vocation, and a desire to avoid scandal for the Church are at the core of the sinfulness that has brought us to this moment.

One antidote to this moral blindness lies in the substantive expansion of lay participation at all levels in the Church. Thus, throughout 2019, we must undertake a comprehensive dialogue within the diocese about how to expand the integration of lay voices and lay perspectives into all levels of decision-making in our Local Church.

The call to accountability for bishops

The scandal surrounding Cardinal Theodore McCarrick demands a public accounting of the history that led to his appointments. It also demands that new structures and a new culture of accountability for bishop  be established in our country immediately. One of the great disappointments of my life as a bishop was the failure of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at our November meeting to establish a process of substantive accountability for bishops regarding their personal sexual misconduct or their oversight of cases of sexual misconduct within their dioceses. We bishops must work together with the Holy Father to construct a structure that fully incorporates lay insights and lay judgment, and even more importantly, renews our culture as bishops to guarantee that clerical blindness never obscures our obligation to protect the members of our flock from sexual abuse.

The issue of homosexuality

In 2003, the bishops of the United States asked the John Jay College of the Law, one of the most eminent institutions in our country undertaking research on legal justice issues, to analyze the data on clergy sexual abuse in the Church. Their findings clearly stated that homosexuality was not the substantive source of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. This is consistent with numerous studies across the spectrum that have concluded that a homosexual orientation does not predispose a man or woman to abuse minors.

I share the belief expressed at the listening sessions that a gay subculture within the priests of our diocese or among our seminarians would be a threat to a healthy Catholic community, both because it undermines Catholic teaching on sexual morality and represents an obstacle to priests in achieving authentic celibacy in their lives. But I have not witnessed the presence of such a subculture in my three years as bishop of San Diego. And I give thanks daily to God for the quality of the priests, seminarians and the seminary program with which He has graced our diocese.

The screening and ongoing evaluation of our seminarians is rigorous and expansive. It includes a battery of psychological tests, programs to form the whole person in the image of Jesus Christ, in-depth evaluations and oversight by priestly, religious and lay formators throughout the five or more years during which our seminarians prepare for the priesthood. One of the key elements of that formation focuses on the ability to collaborate effectively with lay men and lay women. And an essential element of this formation is the discernment by the seminarian and those who are evaluating him that he can live a life of celibate authenticity in the priesthood, forsaking all sexual activity out of love for God and service to His Church.

Spiritual renewal

The vigilance, structures and educational efforts that will form our efforts to address sexual abuse as a Church constitute the external elements of response to sexual abuse. But the core of that response for us as people of faith must be spiritual and rooted in our faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The themes of compassion, justice, concern for the powerless and the vulnerable, hope and forgiveness must suffuse our ecclesial culture so that they animate a culture of reform that is based in the Gospel, and this alone can anchor effectively a plan of action that is authentically Christian in its identity and architecture. Penance and reform, contrition and honesty, missionary zeal and the willingness to place our trust in the Providence of God when that Providence bids us to change, all must be markers of renewal and reform in the Diocese of San Diego as we move forward.

The listening sessions that took place during October and November testified to the depth of faith, love for the Church and belief in the ongoing presence of God in the world that exists in the Catholic communities of Imperial and San Diego counties. They also testified to the anger and disillusionment that have been produced by the failure to effectively protect minors from sexual abuse, and by the blindness of the clerical culture that has particularly surrounded bishops in their decision-making on these issues.

Throughout the history of the Church, moments of crisis have also been moments of renewal and reform. Let us pray that these times of turmoil may bring about genuine reform of the Church we love and the faith that sustains us.