Bishop’s Address to Employees of the Diocese: “We Are Called to Protect God’s Children”

These are the prepared remarks of Bishop Robert W. McElroy for the meeting on Aug. 13, 2019, with all of the 2,500-plus employees of the parishes, schools and organizations in the San Diego Catholic Diocese.

On May 7, Pope Francis issued a profound challenge to the Church to confront in a comprehensive way the monstrous crime of the sexual abuse of children and young people. In a statement entitled, “You are the Light of the World”, the Holy Father demanded a response from the entire Church that involves not merely changes in procedures, but personal and institutional transformation. The pope’s words are clear: “A continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed, attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church, so that personal sanctity and moral commitment can contribute to promoting the full credibility of the Gospel message and the effectiveness of the Church’s mission.”

It is this enormous and clear challenge that brings us together today.

The specific challenge of Pope Francis in his statement to the Church and the world has three crucial elements for us, as those called in a special way to be workers in the life of the Church.

The first element is to understand in all of its depth and historic virulence that the sexual abuse of minors by clerics constitutes a crippling contradiction to the Church’s very identity and mission of bringing the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.

The second element of the challenge of Pope Francis to us today is to recognize that while the Church’s mission to eliminate sexual abuse must begin with the internal life of the Church and the sin and scandal of clergy sexual abuse, our efforts as disciples of Jesus Christ must also reach into those structures of societal and family life that generate and protect the sexual victimization of minors throughout our society.

And the final element of the Pope’s challenge, which is striking in its comprehensiveness, is his declaration that the war against the sexual abuse of minors, and indeed against all forms of sexual abuse, involves every single person in the life of the Church. That is why I have taken the step of calling together for the first time in the history of the Diocese of San Diego every employee of our parishes, schools, agencies and institutions, to begin a process of action and reflection designed to enable each of us in our roles as workers and disciples in the life of the Church, to work collaboratively toward eradicating the scourge of sexual abuse and helping survivors of abuse to heal.

Grace and sin in the life of the Church

As a disciple of Jesus Christ who has been a priest and bishop for the past 40 years, it is abundantly clear to me that the Church is, as it sees itself to be, both a grace-filled and a sinful institution. You are workers in the Church because you have witnessed the elements of light and grace, faith and peace that our work brings to the world. You are catechists and youth leaders because you have seen the light of faith come alive in the hearts of the young. You are pastoral ministers because you have witnessed the healing power of the Gospel in the lives of parishioners and the Eucharistic community.  You are priests because you discern those magnificent moments of profound grace in which God touches human hearts and souls through your words and actions. You are collaborators in the diocese’s outreach to the poor and the marginalized, the unborn and the undocumented, the imprisoned and the scorned, because you recognize that Christ’s call to embrace humanity precisely in its moments of greatest vulnerability is an essential part of Catholic faith. You are religious and deacons because you know that witness to Christ in every dimension of your lives is a magnet calling women and men to ever closer relationship with Jesus Christ.

But amidst the enormous graces that are interwoven throughout the life of the Church are human failings, often magnified by an ecclesial culture and institutional structures that blind the Church to sins and failures in reflecting the life of the Gospel.

In our own day, the Church’s blindness to, tolerance of, and participation in the patterns of sexual abuse of minors by clerics constitute the most grievous sin in the life of the Church, a sin that we must recognize, understand and eradicate.

It is essential to recognize, both for the sake of truth and in respect for the faithful service of the vast majority of priests who have served selflessly and virtuously the parishes, schools and agencies in our diocese and nation, that the percentage of priests who have sexually abused a minor is approximately the same as the percentage of men in our society in general who have sexually abused a minor, about 4 percent. Both percentages are shamefully high, but it is important to recognize that the overwhelming majority of priests have not abused minors, just as the overwhelming majority of men have not.

The great sin of the Church in its recent history lies not merely in the reality that some priests sexually victimized minors, but in the reality that the Church failed to staunch that victimization because many priests who had been shown to have sexually abused a minor were reassigned to ministry after their crime was known.

How could this have happened? There were several factors. One factor was the psychological evaluations of these priests, which often pointed out that the abuse took place during periods of depression or while abusing alcohol, thus pointing to hope that that priest might be sufficiently treated so that he could be assigned in a secure environment. Another very important factor was that when a priest was accused of the sexual abuse of a minor, the bishop always met with the priest but for legal reasons the bishop almost never met with the survivor. This meant that few bishops had the searing experience of reliving firsthand with a survivor the horror of their victimization. The sexual failings of bishops in their own lives and the fear of scandal for the Church were also significant factors in preventing the Church from responding humanely to victims of sexual abuse by priests.

But it was the pervasiveness of a clerical culture that was primarily responsible for the pattern of reassigning priests who had abused minors to ministry. Bishops knew the priests who had been accused, often they had gone to school with them or were friends with them. They found it impossible to believe that such a priest would harm a child in this way. The Church’s canon law often worked to protect guilty priests and frustrate the rights of victims. The theological teaching that ordination was an irrevocable lifetime vocation prevented bishops from understanding and acting upon the recognition that a single act of the sexual abuse of a minor is a moral crime that must bar a priest from public ministry for the rest of his life because the safety of children demands it.

In 2002 the Church in the United States confronted the sin of reassigning priests who had committed sexual abuse upon a minor. Amidst a wrenching national convulsion that began in Boston and spread across the country, the nation’s bishops concluded that radical reform on the cultural, legal and institutional levels in the life of the Church was essential to end a pattern of sexual abuse that had placed the safety of God’s children second to the well-being of priests who had abused them. These steps toward reform were not perfect, as we learned last summer when Church law had to be toughened to discipline bishops who had either committed sexual abuse or not moved actively enough to detect and punish abusers in their administrative roles as bishops.

But the reforms of 2002-2003 were successful in utterly transforming the law, discipline and outreach of the Church in the United States regarding the sexual abuse of minors. Church law was changed to require that every bishop remove permanently from public ministry any priest who had been proven to have sexually abused a minor even one time. Dioceses were mandated to have predominantly lay review boards to evaluate all cases of clerical sexual abuse of a minor. Today, our diocese, like most, lists publicly all of its priests who have been credibly accused of the sexual abuse of a minor. We have not received a credible allegation against one of our priests for any incident of sexual abuse of a minor that occurred within the last 20 years.

It is essential to recognize that the reforms of 2002 pertained not only to clergy sexual abuse, but to the sexual abuse of minors by anyone within the life of the Church. Throughout the United States dioceses began a massive program of screening employees and volunteers who work with minors regularly in the life of the Church. Dioceses undertook comprehensive training and educational programs for both parents and children to alert them in age-appropriate ways to signs of inappropriate touching or emotional manipulation.

The diocese of San Diego and dioceses throughout the country appointed victim assistance coordinators to receive reports of sexual abuse of all kinds that pertain to the life of the Church.  Recently, we have expanded the scope of our diocesan Office of Victim Assistance, so that proactive programs of education can be enhanced at the parish level and healing groups for survivors and their families can be formed.

Today I am promulgating as a binding policy within the Diocese of San Diego two standards of conduct pertaining to communications and social media that seek to advance the protection of minors. It will be forbidden for any employee or clergy in the diocese to communicate privately with a specific minor whom he/she has come to know through ministry without copying that minor’s parent or guardian.  Moreover, it will be forbidden for any cleric or employee to have any direct interaction on any personal media account with any individual minor whom they have met through their work in the Church.

The issue of monetary compensation for victims of clerical sexual abuse of minors has been a complicated and difficult one for the dioceses of our nation and for our own local church.  In 2002, the state of California changed the law to allow for a limited period a wide range of lawsuits seeking compensation against private institutions employing those who had sexually abused minors many decades before. In the following years, the diocese of San Diego compensated victims almost $200 million for the suffering and damage they had experienced as a result of their abuse. Half of that compensation came from insurance coverage.

The law does not currently allow lawsuits against the diocese for acts of abuse that took place many decades ago.  But as the leader of our local Church, I recognize that there is a series of just claims that are currently time-barred, yet which should be compensated. For this reason, in September the diocese of San Diego will establish an Independent Compensation Program for past victims of the sexual abuse of minors by priests of the diocese. This fund will be administered by Kenneth Feinberg, who established a reputation for fairness in overseeing the government fund for 911 survivors and the BP oil spill. It is my fervent hope that this pathway will provide a just and effective method of compensation for those who have been injured by priests of our diocese over the years.

Family, society and the sexual abuse of minors

The urgent and comprehensive mission that Pope Francis has called us to in the drive to eradicate the sexual abuse of minors must begin with the willingness to confront patterns of clergy and lay sexual abuse within the internal life of the Church.  But it would be a profound mistake to conclude that the Church’s mission to confront sexual abuse of children and young people ends there.

For the scourge of sexually abusing minors, which constitutes a silent and hidden epidemic in our own society, resides overwhelmingly within the family and societal life. Studies show that one in five girls and one in 20 boys is the victim of child sexual abuse. Three out of four adolescents who have been sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well. More than 20 percent were victimized by a member of their family.

The effects of these horrific patterns are profound and lasting in the lives of those who have been victimized: Tremendously elevated rates of alienation, low self-esteem, distorted perceptions of sexuality and suicide.  Young men who have been abused are five times as likely to cause teen pregnancy and three times more likely to have multiple sexual partners.

The fine programs that so many of you have been involved preparing young people to detect signs of sexual predators and inappropriate actions are a major contribution that the Church has been making to help children and young people preserve their safety and well-being. But they are not enough. If we are to respond meaningfully to the call of Pope Francis to be agents of change in confronting the sexual abuse of minors in our world, we must substantially increase our focus on the abuse which abounds in our society.

First of all, we must name it for what it is: An epidemic in our society that operates in the shadows.  We, as a local Church, must be willing to illuminate the scope and nature of sexual abuse in our society and make it a much more substantive element of our outreach to parents and to children.

I recognize that this will be very painful, and distressing to many in our parish and school communities. Sexual abuse within societal and family life is a sensitive topic on so many levels. But to ignore its presence and crippling effects in our society is to be complicit in the epidemic of silence that overlooks the prevalence of abuse in the world in which we live. The sinful silence of the Church in the past must be the spur for demonstrating ever-greater dedication to shining light on the sexual abuse of children in the present, not less.

Our willingness to bring greater focus to the issue of sexual abuse of minors will require new initiatives within our catechetical and formational programs. It will also require much deeper bonds of cooperation with law enforcement, our public schools and the agencies that have the capacity to shed light on the nature of the sexual abuse of children and young people, and on the best ways to safeguard young people from predators.

But the most important element of the Church’s role in helping to eliminate the sexual abuse of minors in family life and society is to reach our parents with facts about the dangers to their children, the resources that are available to help them in the event that one of their children has been abused, and pathways to healing for victims and their families.

We, in the life of the Church, in our parishes and schools, have a unique opportunity to bring to parents a message that is vital for the protection of their children. For that reason, I am appointing a task force chaired by our Chancellor, Marioly Galván, and our Director of Schools, John Galvan, to focus upon designing pathways for our local Church to bring to our parents and families a deeper understanding of the pervasiveness, patterns and damaging effects of the sexual abuse of minors.

Finally, in the past months, our diocese has reconstituted and expanded its office of support and healing for those who have been victimized by sexual abuse. For the past four years, this office focused upon outreach to specific victims of abuse within the life of the Church and seeking healing for them and their families. Now, the focus of the office includes these elements but also building a program to establish healing and educational groups throughout the diocese that touch upon the general epidemic of the sexual abuse of minors.

Involving the whole of the Church

Pope Francis entitled his May exhortation to eradicate the sexual abuse of minors in Church, family and society “You are the Light of the World.” There is great significance to this.

First of all, the Holy Father is emphasizing the utter incompatibility of any sexual abuse in the life of the Church with the essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Secondly, Pope Francis is pointing to the reality that the elimination of the sexual abuse of minors requires shining the light of truth and vigilance upon the scourge of sexual abuse, which lurks within the shadows. We cannot be passive observers in the fight against sexual abuse, for passivity lets those who sexually victimize children operate freely and in the darkness, killing the souls of those whom they victimize.

Finally, Pope Francis’ decision to entitle his statement “You are the Light of the World” points emphatically to his conviction that the work of eliminating the sexual abuse of minors is the work of every member of the Church. “A continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed, attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the church….”

We are gathered here today to give witness and meaning to that directive.

On many levels, the primary responsibility for acting concretely to protect children and young people in our parishes and institutions has been assigned in a specific way by society to professionals who work regularly with children and young people. These professionals are, by their jobs and training, classified as mandated reporters and are responsible in law to report well-founded suspicion of the sexual abuse of a minor to local law enforcement or child welfare agencies. Those within the workforce of the diocese who fall into the category of mandated reporters include all employees who are: clergy, teachers, instructional aides, coaches, youth ministers, childcare employees, counselors, playground supervisors and youth choir leaders. Volunteers are not mandated reporters in law.

I wish to underscore that for mandated reporters, the legal responsibility to report is binding, and I would consider it a deep moral wrong as well as a violation of the law for a mandated reporter to fail to report in a timely manner.

But I wish to speak now to those of you here today who are not mandated reporters in law. The fact that you are not legally required to report well-founded suspicions of the sexual abuse of a minor does not in my mind excuse you from taking action to protect a young person whom you know to be at dire risk. Thus, as a moral mandate, I am calling you as an employee of the parishes, schools and agencies of the diocese of San Diego to also report any instance in which you come to a strongly founded belief that a minor is being victimized sexually.

The epidemic of the sexual abuse of minors thrives because it operates in the shadows. If any of us stand by and do nothing, then the evil of victimization triumphs. One of the most tragic dimensions of our history of sexual abuse by priests is that when the cases finally came to be formally investigated, many coworkers confessed that they had seen very troubling indications of abuse but had turned away and kept silent, not wanting to become actively involved. It cannot be this way in the life of the Church today regarding our mission to eradicate the sexual abuse of minors within the Church, family and society.

I understand that for many of you, the moral mandate to remain vigilant and to report could be intimidating. You have not had all of the training that those mandated in law to report have had. In addition, it is essential that in the effort to be vigilant in reporting incidents of the sexual abuse of minors we not become so focused on finding abuse that we fall into a pattern of damaging the reputation of innocent adults by prematurely leaping to conclusions.

Thus I would suggest that if you are not a mandated reporter, but come across evidence which points in your mind to the existence of the sexual abuse of a minor either within the life of the Church or in their family or social lives, and you are unsure how to proceed, you consult with one of the experienced mandated reporters at your school, parish or agency to come to clarity on what you should do. I would ask those of you here today who are not mandated reporters to keep in mind that both the moral law and the civil law urge you to report known or suspected instances of the sexual abuse of a current minor to child welfare services.

The greatest challenge to all of us in the life of the Church regarding the sexual abuse of minors is to transform our culture regarding the nature, scope and effects of the sexual abuse of minors. The history of clerical sexual abuse in the Church is a source of shame to the community of faith which we treasure and to the Lord who founded it.

We cannot erase the horror of this history, nor can we restore the shattered souls and hearts and lives of those who have been victimized. But we can move forward as Pope Francis calls us to, utterly resolved to continually expel the sexual abuse of minors from the internal life of the Church, and equally resolved to help transform families and society to purge the epidemic of sexual abuse that rages in our midst.

We stand here today as coworkers in the vineyard of the Lord. You are accomplishing so much in building up the kingdom of God in our local Church through your talents, your sacrifices, your vision and your collaboration. Every day I marvel at the wonders of God’s grace which I witness in my pastoral visits, through which the merciful, healing joyful love of God is made manifest here in San Diego and Imperial Counties. Let us make our diocesan-wide challenge to the sexual abuse of minors another of these marvels of God’s grace, in which we aspire, collaborate, sacrifice and labor to protect the little ones who are closest to the heart of God.