The expectations surrounding the meeting in Rome on April 23-24 of the U.S. cardinals, the leaders of our bishops’ conference and members of the Roman Curia were enormously unrealistic. Those hopes ranged from a quick and final plan to end decades of child abuse in the church to a Third Vatican Council look at every conceivable issue facing the church across our country. Because few had their expectations met, many declared the meetings a failure and a setback.
That is not the way I see it. I believe that several important things happened in Rome during those two days:
Pope John Paul II spoke words of solidarity, prayer and pastoral concern to victims of abuse in the church. He made it clear that there is no room in the priesthood or religious life for anyone who would harm the young; and he expects the bishops of the church to take every possible step to put an end to abusive behavior.
The leaders of various Vatican offices understood that child abuse is not a problem confined to the United States, but a worldwide problem for the church; many of them acquired insights into a terrible and hidden problem that has plagued the church for a very long time. They offered their assistance in crafting church processes for dismissing guilty clergy from the clerical state quickly and for making official visitation of seminaries and religious houses of formation.
We were clearly sent home to prepare for the Dallas meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and to produce tangible results. I am convinced that the Holy See is waiting for the U.S.C.C.B. to develop a comprehensive plan that can serve as an impetus for other bishops’ conferences that have not yet put their own plans in place.
The eyes of our Catholic people, and others around the world, have now shifted to Dallas. The Dallas meeting must be an overwhelming success, and we bishops must leave there in full agreement on a number of action steps. My personal hopes for the Dallas meeting are divided into three sectionssix overall goals to guide us forward, six concrete action steps that I believe we must take and three longer-range agenda items that still need the church’s attention.
1. We as bishops need to acknowledge and apologize for decisions made in the past regarding priestly abuse that were not in the best interest of young people and the church. True, many of us made decisions based upon the best professional knowledge and advice available in past years, and that knowledge has grown and changed greatly since then. Our decisions in 2002 are far different from those of the 1970’s and 1980’s. But still, the overall healing of the church would be enhanced by our admission that at times mistakes were made.
2. A genuine expression of apology to all who have become victims of sexual misconduct and abuse in the church. We can never state often enough how deeply sorry we are for the immeasurable loss, pain and suffering so many have suffered over the decades because of clergy sexual misconduct and abuse.
3. We must renew our pastoral outreach to all victims and their families and extend opportunities for counseling and other needed personal services. The current national crisis has brought to the surface many hurting past victims, and they need the church’s collective care and concern.
4. We must be able to assure our Catholic people that their church is a safe place for all, especially children and young people. No parents or guardians should feel the slightest hesitancy in entrusting their children to the church’s ministries and care.
5. Dallas will be a unique ecclesial moment for the church, one that allows us to bring alive the vision and spirit of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The council envisioned involving all of God’s people in the entire life of the church. Now is the time to invite our laity and women religious to join us in finding the right path forward. The Holy Spirit is poured out upon all through baptism and confirmation, and that same Spirit will assist us greatly through our gifted people. The problems and the scandal may be clerical, but the solutions must be ecclesial.
6. We bishops must take the lead in organizing special days of prayer, healing and penance and invite all our fellow Catholics to join us as humbled disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. We must not, and cannot, seem to advocate some type of corporate fix to a terrible church problem. We bishops must enter fully into this purification process by emptying ourselves and acknowledging our sinfulness; only then will the redeeming power of the risen Jesus sustain us forward. Special days of prayer, healing and penance across the country will help the church greatly.
1. National Lay Misconduct and Abuse Commission. One of the ideas that emerged in Rome and gained enthusiastic support is the establishment of a special National Lay Commission to help oversee the next steps in the process of correcting past problems and assuring against new misconduct in the church. The bishops should approve the establishment of such a national commission, and if possible, even announce some of its members at Dallas. These lay men and women should represent the wide spectrum of expertise needed to help shape the church’s full response to misconduct in the church, as well as represent the geographical regions of the country. Their charge would be to develop both the needed minimal national standards to handle misconduct allegations and accountability systems to make certain all dioceses are in full compliance.
We have been blessed here in Los Angeles over the past 10 years with a nine-member boardseven laypersons and two prieststo oversee the development of our policies and to implement appropriate recommendations in cases of alleged abuse or misconduct. Their insights are invaluable to me, and many other dioceses across the country use similar lay boards with great success. Our board is being expanded to 15 members, mostly lay, with increased authority.
2. Zero Tolerance. I personally subscribe to a policy of total zero tolerance for anyone in church ministry or service who abuses a minor. Our Holy Father’s words were quite clear: People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young. I interpret that to mean zero tolerance, past, present and futureno exceptions.
Some may suggest possible what-if exceptions to full zero tolerance. But just ask any Catholic lay persons. They are adamant that the church must adopt a national zero-tolerance policy. A new threshold has been set, and I believe that our national standards should unequivocally call for zero tolerance. In a rare case, should a diocesan lay board decide to make an exception for very special circumstances, then so be it. But the national policy should be clear and consistent with the Holy Father’s call.
3. Minimum National Procedural Standards. It is important that at Dallas the bishops agree to all of the essential elements that would comprise national procedural standards. They would include such things as the expanded use of lay boards to handle such cases in the future, the need to work closely with law enforcement agencies at all levels and the like. These elements would build upon those already put in place over the past several years.
These essential elements would be given to the national commission, proposed above, as part of their work. Those elements could be improved upon, added towhatever is needed to make them most effective across the country to assure that everyone who comes in contact with the church’s ministries and apostolates is safe.
4. Systems of Accountability. One of the continuing calls from our Catholic people is for the establishment of systems of accountability to make certain that each diocese has in place the needed procedural standards and process to deal with allegations of misconduct and abuse, as well as to make certain that preventive systems are in place for seminarians and priests.
The national commission could recommend some possible models, maybe small review teams functioning at the provincial level, to help everyone in the church know that the needed processes and standards are in place, are working and are kept up to date.
I would welcome such systems of accountability, since they would help us bishops expand our systems of governance to be far more inclusive of the entire church.
5. Encouragement for Our Priests. Ninety-eight percent of our priests across the country are dedicated and virtuous. They have not been and are not now involved in any form of sexual abuse or misconduct. But all are being painted with the same broad brush: guilty until proven innocent. They are hurting, they feel ashamed of their fallen brothers, and they are taking the brunt of much public ridicule and criticism. We must reach out to them, encourage them, gather them for prayer and keep them involved with the overall purification and healing process.
Our people overwhelmingly support our priests at the parish level, since they have experienced them to be dedicated, caring and hard-working priests of Jesus Christ. Surveys show that our priests enjoy a far higher level of support than we bishops. We truly need each other in new ways today.
6. Preventive Measures. The seminary visitations will be very helpful to make certain that all our seminaries and houses of formation have in place clear, stringent application processes. Once admitted, mature seminary candidates need a deep and thorough formation in human sexuality, in establishing healthy relationships in their ministry and in priestly chastity and celibacy. No one can be promoted to sacred orders who has not proven that he can maturely assume the duties of lifelong celibate and chaste living.
Post-ordination programs must be enhanced and expanded to assist all our currently ordained priests. There has been unevenness over the years in seminary formation programs, and we need to reach out to our priests with ways to deepen their spiritual lives, to help them develop healthy friendships and working relationships and to offer support for their celibate lifestyle.
It is my hope that we will be able to accomplish all of the abovemaybe even more. The special committee headed by Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis has its work cut out for it, and I offer them my prayerful cooperation in moving a concrete agenda forward.
There are three additional areas that need the church’s attention at the national level, which I mention here lest they somehow be forgotten.
1. Research Projects. The church needs to commission several top-flight research projects across the country to find out what factors led to this incredible betrayal within the church over a period of at least several decades. What questions need to be asked? What information needs to be gathered? How could priests, committed to modeling the life of the Good Shepherd, end up sexually abusing the most innocent of Christ’s flock? While our full attention at the moment must be focused upon reaching out to the victims and preventing any further abuse, we cannot leave aside the research projects that must be launched in a coordinated fashion.
2. Hemisphere Gathering. We are acutely aware that the problem of misconduct and abuse in the church is not confined to the United States. My experience in Los Angeles demonstrates that this is a worldwide problem for the church, and we have had too many experiences of misconduct by priests from other countries.
Following up on the Special Assembly for America of the Bishops Synod in 1997, I recommend that there be a hemisphere-wide gathering of lay leaders, women and men religious, deacons, priests and bishops to discuss this phenomenon and to make certain that the church throughout America is taking all the necessary steps to prevent such misconduct everywhere in our hemisphere. The church in Canada, for example, has exercised excellent leadership over the years in developing national policies and strategies for dealing with this difficult problem. We have much to learn from one another, and we all have a collective responsibility for the church throughout the hemisphere.
3. Special Care Centers. Is there a need for the church in our country to create a few special care centers to house priests who have been found guilty of the abuse of minors and who have been removed entirely from ministry, especially since many are near or at retirement? Does the church have a role in providing a supervised setting for these men in their senior years? Would children be safer if such men were in special care centers instead of living in the broader communityoften alonewithout any church supervision? The question needs further exploration.
We bishops are facing the worst scandal and calamity in the history of the church in our country. Its origins, repercussions and the loss of the church’s leadership role are unparalleled. The expectations and the longings of our Catholic people for our meeting in June are also unparalleled. We cannot fail.
Those are my hopes for Dallas.