My dear people of God,
In August and September, the Catholic Church in the United States was sent reeling by three successive scandals. First, there was a shameful report in Pennsylvania that revealed the Church had failed to protect children from child sexual abuse for decades. It was small comfort that the evidence demonstrated the problem was virtually eradicated after the 2002 actions of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Secondly, the appalling story of the misconduct of the retired Archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, was revealed and questions were legitimately posed as to how this man advanced in the Church hierarchy while seemingly exploiting both youth and young adults. The third and final scandal involved allegations from the former Vatican nuncio that high ranking officials within the Church had been aware of McCarrick’s behavior and not acted.
In response to these scandals, I set out to listen to the people of our diocese, scheduling four listening sessions across the diocese. I have had very positive experiences in listening sessions held before the 2015 Synod on the Family and the 2018 Synod on Youth and Vocational Discernment. Approximately 330 people attended these recent sessions held in Owensboro, Bowling Green, Hopkinsville, and Paducah.
The conversations in these sessions largely mirrored what we are following in the national media. Catholics are angry, saddened, and confused by the unthinkable sin of priests abusing children and by the failure for so long of our nation’s bishops to adequately confront the problem and effectively offer healing to victims.
In the October 2018 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic, we published a statistical profile of the history of this scandal in our diocese. This publication has understandably helped many victims who had not previously reported their experiences to come forward. In some cases, these victims only wanted to be acknowledged. In other cases, they were asking for counseling assistance to further their healing. In all cases, they wanted to be assured that the Church is acting responsibly now and that we do everything we can to prevent anyone else from being harmed.
The statistics published are humiliating to us all. As bishop, I can review again and again some of the decisions made, certainly prior to 1980, and must admit that I will never understand how, in some cases, the abuse continued even after being identified. Yes, there were often testimonies from psychologists and mental health professionals attesting that an offender had been adequately treated and could therefore safely resume public ministry. Yes, it is true that most cases ever reported have been reported decades after the abuse and oftentimes after the abuser was deceased. No matter how you look at the story, it is a story of terrible sin.
The participants in the listening sessions were good and faithful Catholics who want their Church to be authentically the People of God witnessing to the saving deeds of Jesus Christ. Though angry and disillusioned, they were not people giving up on the Catholic faith or the Catholic Church. Many assumed that because most priest abusers were never prosecuted, the Church continues to cover up allegations. While that may have been valid in decades past, since 2002 the Diocese of Owensboro reports every report of abuse – even those dating back to the 1940s and those where the accused priests are long dead.
While we still receive historic cases of sexual abuse reported long after the victim is an adult, we have received reports from four victims since 2002 where the victims were reporting as a child or underage youth. All four of these were reported to child welfare enforcement authorities, and the two priests identified have been permanently suspended from any public ministry and will not again have any priestly assignment. One important point made to me is that even in these cases we have not done a good enough job of accounting to the people. Clearly this has resulted in some believing that the priests involved have not been treated justly. I will consult with the Diocesan Review Board about ways we can better give an accounting to the public and still protect the identity of victims.
With the conclusion of the local listening sessions, I felt better prepared to participate in the November meeting of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops where the bishops were to concretely address the concerns. The bishops were to discuss standards of conduct for bishops (responding to the McCarrick scandal), and to identify a process whereby allegations of misconduct by bishops could be reported. I felt like I had heard the voices of the people of our diocese and thus was ready to add my voice to these discussions.
The bishops’ meeting in Baltimore opened with an announcement from our conference president that the Vatican, specifically the Congregation for Bishops, had asked that the U.S. Conference delay any decisive actions until after the February 2019 meeting of conference presidents from around the world for which Pope Francis has called. I was speechless. The conference membership was shocked. There were vocal protests from some bishops that the Vatican was tying the hands of the American bishops to address our crisis in a timely fashion. I agreed and still agree.
But I am pleased that our discussion about these issues did unfold. There is broad consensus among the bishops about the need for standards of conduct for bishops and a reporting system where people can voice concerns about a bishop’s personal conduct or his mismanagement of cases. (It is for another article I suppose, but when we propose standards for conduct, I begin by asking, “Can we simply begin with the Ten Commandments?”)
It is not my responsibility to put a “spin” on actions of the Vatican. But allow me to offer some reflections on the Vatican’s intervention after a few days of thought. As American Catholics (people and priests and bishops), we sometimes believe that an American issue must always be the most important issue for the universal Church. Can we allow that the Vatican is challenging us to listen to the larger Church and consider our issues in a broader context? At the same time, we know that bishops from some parts of the world insist that child sexual abuse is unknown in their cultures. Knowing that we are dealing with human sickness and evil, perhaps our American tragedy can inform other nations and cultures to acknowledge problems they have yet to admit they have. In other words, can the catholic (small “c”) church, catholic meaning universal, benefit from input from around the world? Can we as Americans humbly acknowledge that others may inform us in important ways?
One might say that our resolutions are on hold. I certainly wish that the USCCB had left our meeting last month with concrete and measurable results. But I still feel hope. That hope is grounded in the good work the U.S. bishops accomplished in the adoption of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. That hope is grounded in the statistics that show that the incidence of reported sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy has been reduced by more than 90 percent.
Above all, that hope is grounded in confidence in the promise of Jesus that he would be with us always, even to the end of time.
Most Reverend William F. Medley
Diocese of Owensboro
Originally printed in the December 2018 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Copyright © 2018 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic