Homily – 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – 2018
September 2, 2018 - One of the most difficult messages I ever had to convey as a priest was in July of 2004, when the Archdiocese of Milwaukee released the names of all of the priests who were restricted from ministry due to credible charges of the sexual abuse of minors. At the time, I was serving at Saint Frances Cabrini in West Bend, and some of the priests who formerly served the parish were on the list, including its founding pastor. I can still recall the looks upon the faces of the parishioners – looks of shock and horror, disgust and anger, devastation and tremendous disappointment.
Those images haunt me still. And, I hoped and prayed that I would never have to give that kind of message again.
Tragically, I must. The recent revelations regarding Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report and the Letter from the former Papal Nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano once again raise news of such a scandalous nature that they cry out for a response. As if the matter of the ongoing nature of sexual abuse and harassment in the Church was not heinous enough, the manifestation of manipulation, lies and cover-ups by some members of the Hierarchy point to a lack of moral leadership that is sinful.
First and foremost, with a humble heart and the best of intent, I would like to attempt to acknowledge what some of you must be feeling. I can only imagine the depth of the pain and the level of upset, made even more severe because it is happening again. The very thought of another of another round of damage to the Church which you love so dearly must rise to heights of either outrage or despair. Know that you need not be ashamed of such strong feelings. You have a right to them. For, once again, you are being forced to suffer for something horribly wrong in which you had no part. And, the very leaders of the Church you trusted to protect you have let you down. We Bishops have failed you.
As a Bishop and a representative of the Church, I want to apologize and express my most profound sorrow. There is no greater pain than that of a parent watching a child suffer, and, as your Spiritual Father, my heart is breaking for you. If only I could lift the agony and hurt which weighs so heavy upon you.
And, yet, as sincere and heart-felt as such words of sorrow are, I also know that they are only words. And, words are not enough in such a serious case. As Saint James writes in our Second Reading today, we must take action. We must be do-ers of the Word.
In that regard, I would like to join the other Bishops of our nation in making a commitment to the efforts currently being undertaken by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the Archbishop of Galveston-Houston and the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is earnestly pursuing a three-fold plan to address the problems which we are facing.
First, there will be an intense and extensive investigation into the questions surrounding the insidious case of Cardinal McCarrick to discover answers which will prevent such an occurrence from ever happening again, assuring the protection of minors, seminarians and others who are vulnerable.
Second, there will be developed a reliable and effective procedure for reporting cases of abuse and misconduct by Bishops. This matter was not properly developed in the Statement of Episcopal Commitment which was created in the year 2002. Critical to this procedure will be the promotion of third-party reporting mechanisms which will guarantee that reports of wrong-doing are not deflected or simply not addressed.
And, third, accompanying the just-mentioned reporting procedure will be a better system for resolving complaints against Bishops. There must be a way to make the canon laws which guide such procedures more prompt, fair and transparent.
It also will be important to include three criteria in pursuing this three-fold plan.
The first criterion will be genuine independence. Any mechanism for addressing a complaint against a Bishop must be free from bias or the undue influence by a Bishop, which might deter complaints, hamper their investigation or skew their resolution.
The second criterion relates to authority in the Church. Because only the Pope has authority to discipline or remove a Bishop, we will assure that our measures will both respect that authority and protect the vulnerable from the abuse of ecclesiastical power.
And, the third criterion, will be the substantial involvement of the laity in developing and implementing this three-fold plan. We must utilize the expertise of the laity in the areas of forensics, investigation, law enforcement, psychology and other disciplines to ensure the highest quality of the components of the plan. Your participation also will help reinforce the first criterion of independence.
In addition to the plan being promoted by Cardinal DiNardo, I also would like to affirm categorically the recent audit of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Minors, which was released at the spring assembly of the USCCB in June. This audit, conducted by impartial review, calls for a renewed energy and consistency in the application of the features of the often-called “Dallas Charter,” which have proven so helpful in creating a more secure climate for young people in our parishes since 2002. Some of the features of the Charter include a zero-tolerance policy toward priests and deacons who abuse, safe environment training for those who work with children and youth, background checks of Church employees and volunteers, Diocesan victim assistance coordinators, prompt reporting of charges to the police, Diocesan lay review boards and counseling services for victim-survivors. The Auditors noted the effectiveness of these features, but they also warned about the danger of becoming lackadaisical in their application. They were adamant that the level of vitality applied to the continuation of these features not wane or dissipate. The vigor of the report of the Auditors recalls the tone of Moses in our First Reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, where, on the eve of entry into the Promised Land, he challenges the Chosen People to never waver in observing the statutes and decrees enjoined by the Lord. Our loyalty to the safety features of the “Dallas Charter” must be characterized by the same sacredness of commitment.
I suspect that there are some who are less than enthusiastic to hear talk about investigations and plans. No doubt some would prefer more immediate and dramatic action. And, yet, as Cardinal DiNardo points out, our response must be thorough and comprehensive. Without such due diligence, we may end up lacking accurate information, which would allow innocent men to be tainted by false accusation and the guilty to be left to repeat sins of the past.
Amidst the consternation of this crisis, I sometimes have heard people express thoughts of leaving the Church. More than a few have said, “That’s it. I can’t take it anymore. I’m gone.” And, while I certainly understand the exasperation which leads to such expressions, I kindly would ask Catholics to remain steadfast. The fact of the matter is, you ARE the Church, and – as you have heard earlier in this homily – YOU are integral to the success of addressing these problems. For too long we have not valued enough the charisms which you bring to the mission of the Church. Your expertise and independence will provide the necessary objectivity to dig deep enough to get at the root causes that have enabled the sexual abuse crisis to fester and be so prolonged. As Jesus indicates in our Gospel Reading today, we have problems which are greater and require solutions more than a mere washing or cleansing. We must get at the heart of the problems, from which come such things as evil thoughts, unchastity, deceit, licentiousness, arrogance and folly. We must remove the evil from deep within which defiles.
And, yet another reason I ask for your remaining in the Church, is just as important. The vulnerable need you. They need your compassion, care and protection. In our Second Reading today, Saint James speaks for all of the fragile and frail on the margins when he writes, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Finally, I close this message with an invitation. On behalf of Archbishop Jerome Listecki, I would like to invite you to a special prayer service, “A Vigil of Reparation for the Sins of the Bishops of the Church, Shepherds who Have Led Their Sheep Astray.” This time of prayer will take place here at the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist on Saturday the 15th of September, beginning at seven o’clock in the evening. Let us turn to the Lord in prayer, trusting in His promise that He has set our Church on the rock of faith, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.