It has been more than 10 years since 2002, when the news about clergy sexual abuse of minors dominated news headlines across the country and changed forever the way the Catholic Church would be viewed because of this issue. I’m sorry this Love One Another is a little longer than usual, but there is so much ground to cover with this topic that I ask your patience. And, although you usually receive my email on Tuesdays, I send this today because I wanted you to hear this news directly from me.
This has been an especially poignant topic in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee as hundreds of courageous abuse survivors have come forward to tell their story. I beg the forgiveness of those who have been harmed. For myself and in the name of the Church I give those abuse survivors and their families my sincere apology.
The challenges facing the archdiocese are many. First, acknowledging the scandalous and embarrassing facts about how men, who were trusted priests, shattered that trust through their sinful and criminal behavior. Second, learning how some in advisory and leadership roles made ill-advised decisions, even if that only became clear in hindsight. Then there have been financial challenges – settling lawsuits, failed mediation attempts and, ultimately, my decision to file for Chapter 11 financial protection in 2011.
However, there are things the archdiocese can be proud of. In the 1990s, the archdiocese was one of the first in the country to implement a formal response to abuse survivors, to hire staff to support their needs, and to publish a Code of Ethical Standards for church employees. The archdiocese has supported legislation to include clergy as mandatory reporters of abuse from the time a bill was first introduced in the mid-1990’s until it was eventually signed into law. Even before this legislation was passed, the archdiocese had its own policy requiring employees, including clergy, to report suspected child abuse to the proper civil authorities. Our policies and protocols ensure that all abuse allegations involving someone who is still alive are immediately reported to civil authorities. Safe environment education programs were developed and are now mandatory for children and youth in every parish and school. Criminal background checks and sexual abuse awareness training are required for every bishop, priest, deacon, staff member and volunteer who works with minors. Most importantly, no priest with a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor can in any way exercise public ministry in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Another way we have addressed this crisis is to be open in sharing facts about what happened in the past, what we are doing today and what we pledge to do in the future.
My predecessor, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, was candid in his sharing of information, including providing a public listing of all diocesan priests with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor. Since my arrival as your archbishop in 2010, I have tried to maintain that same direction in my ministry. Building upon our commitment to transparency, today I have authorized the public release of thousands of pages of documents that contain information and details about clergy sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The documents will be posted to the archdiocesan website by July 1, 2013.
These documents have already been provided to attorneys for the claimants and creditors in the Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding. They are taken directly from priest personnel files, files of the bishops, vicar for clergy, and other sources within the archdiocese. These documents include the depositions of Archbishop Weakland, Bishop Sklba and Cardinal Dolan, which were taken in the Chapter 11 proceeding. Each of the bishops has told me they welcome the opportunity to have the depositions in the public view as a way of getting out the truth of what happened and each has voluntarily waived their right to have these depositions remain under seal as was promised by the court.
My hope is by making these documents public, we will shed much-needed light on how the archdiocese responded to abuse survivors over the past 40-plus years when confronting this issue and that they will aid abuse survivors and others in resolution and healing.
A primary concern is protecting the identity of abuse survivors who do not want to be identified. During these next months, we will meticulously review these documents to ensure that the privacy of abuse survivors and their families is respected.
A difficult challenge in reading these documents is trying to set the context and culture of the time they were produced. How sexual abuse is acknowledged and addressed today is far different than in past decades. Depositions, for example, are not objective, but are one-sided by their nature. To try and ensure the documents are judged fairly, the archdiocese will create an objective timeline of events for each diocesan offender on the list of clergy with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor. These timelines will be supported by the actual documents being released and our hope is to work with the claimants’ attorneys to create these timelines.
Much of the information in the documents is not pleasant to read. As a shepherd, I worry about those who will feel outrage, anger and embarrassment. I share those emotions. But none of these things should diminish the good work that has been accomplished these past 10+ years as we have worked fervently with abuse survivors to bring healing and resolution. I believe sharing these documents publicly will finally bring to a close a criticism that the Church continues to hide or conceal information, or that there are “secret files” tucked away in our archives. I can assure you, there are not.
So what will people find in reading these documents? Here’s a summary:
• The incidents of abuse date back 25, 50, even 80 years.
• The vast majority of perpetrators were not known to the archdiocese until years after they committed the abuse.
• Reports of abuse were often not brought to the archdiocese or civil authorities until decades after they occurred.
• In the 1970s and 80s, priests were often removed from their parish for “medical reasons,” sent for counseling, and then reassigned to another parish, with the recommendation of their therapist or medical professional.
• The majority of priests who were reassigned after concerns about their behavior, never abused again, but some did.
• The archdiocese consistently paid for therapy for individuals harmed.
• Civil authorities did not always pursue investigations and neither did the archdiocese.
• Even when priests were prosecuted and found guilty or pled no contest, they did not always receive a jail sentence.
• People often reported concerns about a priest that were not abuse, but rather concerns about unusual or questionable behaviors, boundary issues or uninvited attention/affection -- what we know today as possible signs of “grooming.”
• In the early 1990s, a more formalized approach of outreach to abuse survivors and in dealing with offenders began to emerge.
Some of you might ask, “Why? Why keep bringing this up? Let this be over and move on.” Part of me would like it if that was even possible, but I know the effects of clergy sexual abuse of minors will never be over. The release of documents is something abuse survivors have asked for and if it can help us keep moving forward, I am willing to do it. Our response to abuse survivors, whether of clergy or others, will be part of the mission of the Church forever.
Other people will feel justified indignation; believing that these documents verify that the Church was sweeping this issue under the rug. I won’t debate that issue; we will let the facts stand for themselves within the culture and societal practices of the times. But, I do know this. What we have seen in the Church, we have now begun to see in other institutions. One thing we do know is that the Church is now an example of reform. Have you ever seen an institution change more radically in its approach to an issue as the Catholic Church has done regarding sexual abuse of minors? In the past, the Church may have been an example of what not to do, but now, the Church is an example of what to do and a model for other institutions in our society to follow.
We must remember that our Church is a Church of sinners, comprised of imperfect men and women. Our faith remains in the One who is perfect – the head of the Church, Jesus Christ. And, as Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John, “then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
You have my assurance of prayers for you during this joyous Easter season, as we continue our journey in faith and following the Lord’s command to LOVE ONE ANOTHER.
Note: This blog originally appeared as the April 3, 2013 "Love One Another" email sent to Catholics throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki. If you are interested in signing up for these email messages, please click here.