Most Reverend Jerome E. Listecki
Archbishop of Milwaukee
This is Child Abuse Awareness month and this week is Safe Environment Week in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, where we pay special attention to the measures adopted over the past 10 years to ensure children are safe in our parishes and schools.
Last night, as a way of marking these events, I celebrated a Mass of Atonement, joining our prayers to the sacrificial act of Jesus, to pray for those who have suffered from clergy sexual abuse, for the community that carries the pain associated with their brothers and sisters, for the reform in the heart and mind of those clergy who have abused, but most importantly, for a sense of understanding that God’s love can accomplish a reconciliation in our lives and in our community.
In preparing for the Mass, which was hosted by St. John Vianney Parish in Brookfield, I began thinking about how our attention to Safe Environment is one of the good things that has come out of the evil that was perpetrated upon innocent children. The Safeguarding All of God’s Family program has provided training to more than 50,000 adults who have contact with our young people and, in addition, more than 100,000 children received safe environment education in their curriculum.
We have heightened our awareness about sexual abuse and tried to reach out to abuse survivors in the best ways possible. We have worked with law enforcement to ensure our policies for handling reports of sexual abuse are the best they can possibly be. We have an annual audit of our practices to make certain we remain in compliance with all the demands of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
Everything we do is an effort to restore the trust and credibility that was so badly broken in 2002 as news reports highlighted the Church’s response to past abuse allegations. We want to restore that confidence so people truly know the Church has changed, not just by its words, but by its actions.
But trust is fragile. As hard as we work to build it, it can be shattered again in a moment, and with it, all the good work that has been accomplished can be dismissed as meaningless.
I’m afraid that’s what happened as news reports highlighted the situation in Wauwatosa, where a priest was allowed to remain in ministry as civil authorities from another state investigated an allegation from the 1970s, which was just recently brought forward. To complicate things, the priest is not a diocesan priest, but a member of the Salvatorians, and the allegation was initially brought forward by a third party, not the victim (now an adult), and the victim was not willing to cooperate with civil authorities, so no allegation had been substantiated.
But then a report about the same priest came from one of our schools, from a teacher, thankfully, who was following their Safe Environment training. Although charges were not brought by civil authorities, in looking at the complete picture of the priest’s history, we see a priest who was repeatedly warned about boundary issues. None of these behaviors were sexual abuse, but collectively they call into question allowing this priest to remain serving as pastor of two parishes, each with schools or daycare programs.
While our decisions followed the letter of the law in accordance with existing policies, I am not sure they followed the spirit of the law with regard to our pledge to be vigilant in keeping children safe. So, as I read the newspaper and reflected upon the comments some parishioners made to me, I could feel the Church’s credibility crumbling again.
So last night I acknowledged that we are called to place our imperfect lives before our God, asking that He continue the work of reconciliation in us. Our prayer for atonement is more than words. We are different people today and a different Church because of the acknowledgement of the sins and crimes committed by some.
Pope Francis, at his first Mass in the Cathedral of St. John Lateran in Rome, said: “God is always for us, he never grows tired. Jesus shows us this merciful patience of God so that we can regain confidence, hope – always! A great German Theologian, Romano Guardini, said that, God responds to our weakness by this patience, and this is the reason for our confidence, our hope. It is like a dialogue between our weakness and the patience of God; it is a dialogue that, if we do it, will grant us hope.”
We, therefore, rely upon this hope to make us better, knowing that we can never do it on our own. We cannot let one incident overshadow the progress that has been gained. To make sure our actions match our words, I have directed our staff and will ask our Diocesan Review Board and my other advisors to review this situation, along with our policies for responding to allegations.
The sign of the cross is a sign of love. It is only through love that true healing can be achieved. This act of love reaches out to all of us through the obedience of the Son. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that all who believe in him might be saved.” And, because of that love we are called to LOVE ONE ANOTHER.
Note: This blog originally appeared as the April 23, 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.