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US Bishops Meeting & Clergy Sexual Abuse

November 16, 2018

To the Priests, Parish Directors, Deacons, Lay Leaders and the Faithful of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Many of you have been following the issue of clergy sexual abuse as news from across the country has once again placed this issue in the forefront of Catholic minds.

Having returned yesterday from the meeting of U.S. Catholic Bishops, I know the anger and frustration that exists amongst so many Catholics, including this bishop!  I share your feelings of anger, especially because I believe the U.S. Bishops adopted a credible and sound response to this crisis in 2002, with the so-called Dallas Charter – a response we have strictly followed in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. 

As a bishop, to learn that some of my brother-bishops have not followed the demands of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, angers me to no end. 

Last week in Baltimore we learned that the Vatican asked the U.S. Bishops to delay any vote on new standards or actions until after a February 2019 meeting of Bishops in Rome.  I don’t have any inside connection to the Holy Father, but my hope is that the Pope is thinking he wants this issue addressed globally…universally…not country-by-country, which would create different standards, expectations, policies and protocols around the globe.  Nonetheless, the announcement created an atmosphere of skepticism with regard to Rome’s understanding of the severity of the crisis. 

At the same time, however, I am buoyed by the comments of Santa Clara University professor and psychologist Thomas Plante, a 30-year veteran of work in clerical sexual abuse and a member of the National Review Board from 2008 to 2012.  Professor Plante lauded the track record of the Dallas Charter and the work of the bishops' conference since 2002 as "excellent and very productive once implemented."

Plante notes that these strategies are working, with good data to prove it, noting that: “the number of abuse cases since 1982-83 have dropped like a rock, and since 2002 they are really down to a trickle.”  Even one case in the Church is too many.  Yet, Plante notes that “there is less child abuse in the Catholic Church today than just about any other comparable organization."   Praise God!

Although this we can be proud of, in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee there have been four allegations of clergy sexual abuse occurring post-2002.  Two allegations involved one priest and did not involve physical contact with a minor.  That priest was prosecuted by authorities and he is now laicized.  Another incident involved a priest viewing child pornography.  He was arrested and his case was presented to the Vatican who directed he be fully restricted from ministry and confined to a life of prayer and penance.  The third incident of alleged abuse came in 2018.  The priest was charged and the case is pending in the court system. 

We take all allegations seriously.  Any allegation against a priest that is still alive, is referred immediately to the civil authorities.  Perpetrators are held accountable and outreach to abuse survivors is a priority, as is providing for independent therapy and counseling.  Since 2002, the archdiocese has provided tens of millions of dollars in financial compensation to abuse survivors through mediation.  The names and files of diocesan priest perpetrators have been posted on the archdiocesan website since 2004.  I want our response to sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to continue to be based upon transparency, accountability, competency, justice and trust. 

What I have heard from Catholic leaders, priests and parishioners is not a question about our current policies and protocols, but rather concern about past cover-ups and accountability for bishops who did not take appropriate action.  Bishops across the United States have a credibility problem.  There have been failures in both leadership and management practices.  The behavior of former Cardinal McCarrick is abhorrent and is the exclamation point on all those emotions.  A thorough investigation is necessary and the results must be transparent.

To insure we continue to hold ourselves to the highest standards, I want to increase the involvement of lay Catholics in decisions about clergy sexual abuse.  Currently, we have our Diocesan Review Board that has been in place since 2003, and oversees the Archdiocese of Milwaukee's policies and response to sexual abuse.  We also have our Community Advisory Board, that reviews and advises me on outreach and activities related to clergy sexual abuse and makes recommendation for improvements.  I want to expand this group to involve more lay members and charge them with holding me accountable for our actions in this area. 

In doing so, I want there to be a systematic series of checks and balances to ensure appropriate oversight is present when dealing with allegations of sexual abuse.  I want best practices to be adopted so such oversight is long-lasting, beyond my time as your archbishop.

I also support the establishment of a national code of conduct for bishops and the establishment of a "special commission" to review complaints against bishops that includes lay leaders.  In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, we have a Code of Ethical Standards for Leaders.  It notes that Church leaders have a responsibility to report ethical misconduct on the part of other Church leaders.  Every bishop, priest, deacon and lay leader in the archdiocese must sign this code of conduct and both I and my auxiliary bishops have done so. 

Lastly, I want to look at our Priest Placement process and determine if the involvement of more lay people would benefit the pastoral assignments of our priests. 

Please know that I am listening to you and I take your comments and concerns seriously.  At the end of October, I held a listening session with about 50 lay people from across our archdiocese.  Their comments were powerful and their sincere love of Christ and His Church – in spite of this crisis – was inspiring.  I plan on holding some additional sessions as we move into next year.

As we move toward Advent, I ask each of you to pray for the Church and its leaders in a special way, asking God to give us the gifts of the Holy Spirit -- wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord – to guide us in all we say and do. 

May God bless you and your families, and please know of my prayers for each of you.

In Christ,

+Jerome E. Listecki
Archbishop of Milwaukee

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