Herald of Hope
September 17, 2018
Bishop Jim Schuerman
“As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep.” (Ezekiel 34:12a)
The image of the shepherd in the Sacred Scriptures is that of one who protects, guides and unifies the flock. The shepherd is not some distant authority, who rules by decree; rather, he is one who knows his sheep, calls them by name, leads them to verdant pastures, and defends them, even to the point of laying down his life. He seeks the lost, binds the wounds, and leads the flock along the right path.
Jesus identifies himself as the true shepherd of the flock. “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11) Jesus spent his ministry healing, preaching and teaching. He tended to the needs of the flock. When his hour came, Jesus laid down his life for his sheep. He took upon himself the sins of the world, and accepted death on a cross.
After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to the Apostles and commissioned them to be shepherds for his Church. On the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus addressed Simon Peter, who had denied him three times. Three times, Jesus asked him, “Simon Peter, son of John, do you love me?” Peter professed his love for Jesus three times, each time receiving words of commission from Jesus: “Feed my lambs;” “Tend my sheep;” “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-19)
The successors of the Apostles, the bishops, have received that same commission — to feed the people with the Word of God and the Sacraments, and to guide and protect them along the path that leads to holiness and salvation. The shepherding role of bishops is a sacred duty, but what happens when bishops fail to carry out that commission?
Sacred Scripture laments those charged with the responsibility of shepherding the flock, who prove themselves unworthy shepherds: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds, rather pasture sheep? You have fed off their milk, worn their wool and slaughtered the fatlings, but the sheep you have not pastured. You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost, but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally.” (Ezekiel 34: 2b-4)
The recent news stories concerning the grand jury investigation of sexual abuse by the clergy and cover-ups by bishops in Pennsylvania and the allegations about the predatory activities of Archbishop McCarrick have left us angered, saddened and disgusted. That priests and bishops have been involved in criminal activity undermines the moral authority of the Church and hinders the mission of evangelization. Some members of the hierarchy charged with shepherding the flock have failed to protect the most vulnerable, choosing to protect the institution over the individual. These tragic events underscore the need to do all that we can do to protect the most vulnerable among us.
How can we assure the faithful that the bishops will be held accountable? Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, along with Archbishop José Gomez, vice president of the Conference, and Cardinal Sean O’Malley, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, recently met with Pope Francis to present the bishops’ plan to respond to the sexual abuse crisis. First, this plan includes a full investigation of questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick, including an Apostolic Visitation working in concert with an independent lay commission chosen for expertise and forensic skills, and empowered to act. Second, this plan will work on building mechanisms that will make the reporting of abuse and misconduct by bishops easier. Third, this plan will advocate for better procedures to resolve complaints against members of the hierarchy. An essential criterion for making this happen will be substantial involvement of the lay people, who bring expertise in the areas of psychology, investigation, law enforcement and other relevant skills and disciplines into the process. Indications are that the meeting with the Holy Father yielded positive and fruitful results.
Along with the plan proposed above, it is of the upmost importance that the bishops maintain strict adherence to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (known as the “Dallas Charter,” which was established in 2002 and revised in 2005, 2011 and 2018). The Charter has proven to be extremely effective in the protection of children and young people against sexual abuse by clergy. However, it is essential to remain vigilant, that we not grow lax and repeat the mistakes of the past.
What should the bishops be doing now? Letters that I have received from concerned Church members offer a wide array of suggestions. It is clear that the faithful believe that while acknowledgement of wrongdoing among members of the hierarchy is critical, verbal apologies are not enough. Some form of public reparation on the part of the bishops is necessary. Prayer, fasting and penance are effective signs of the desire for reform and change. One member of the faithful spoke strongly about the need for an extended period of public acts of humility and repentance on the part of bishops, including setting aside the signs of authority and privilege such as mitre, zucchetto, cassocks, choir robes, episcopal rings and pectoral crosses. A good number of people mentioned that it is essential for the Church to address the abuse of power and privilege and to take steps to put an end to the culture of clericalism that contributed to covering up crimes committed by clergy.
In all of this, it is essential that we not lose sight of the survivors of sexual abuse. Along with the other bishops, I urge victims of abuse by anyone in the Church to come forward. Contact our Victim Assistance Coordinator or local law enforcement. Together as members of the Church, we must continue to support and pray for victims of abuse.
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