A famous quote by George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher who lived from 1863-1952, states, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
On Monday, Nov. 9, Chief Judge Susan V. Kelley of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin confirmed the plan for reorganization in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Chapter 11 proceeding. This is a new moment in the history of the archdiocese. However, it brings little satisfaction.
It is a moment that has exacted its cost on everyone through the terrible crimes and immoral actions perpetrated by some priests who perverted their position as priest and pastor and abused our young.
The victims and their families have suffered; they are — and should be — our first consideration. The church community has suffered through shame for their church; in the loss of confidence in their leadership; in the terrible disappointment in priests they trusted; and in the bishops whose decisions were flawed, at best, and corrupt at worst.
The public scandals made their way into the movie theaters, television, radio, books and newspapers. I know of some priests who had nothing to do with the clergy abuse scandals, but who refused to wear their collars in public because of the backlash generated by the publicity.
Even the late night talk show hosts suddenly punctuated their opening monologues with “jokes” about pedophile priests.
Sin has its effects, and this type of sin destroyed the sense of community and the trust which naturally had been enjoyed by so many. The stories of the abuse survivors were painful to hear, because they were testimonies of individuals whose trust was violated. Yet these testimonies changed the church and created an environment which has raised consciousness about this issue.
It was their courage, the telling of their stories, that challenged the leadership in the church to create safeguards necessary for the protection of our children. So are we different today than we were 15, 30, or 50 years ago? Yes, without a doubt, we are.
There is a fear I heard expressed by some that since the archdiocese has now finished bankruptcy, it will not maintain the same level of scrutiny in protecting children under their care as it has these past years since 2002. There’s a fear there will be some “slippage” in our vigilance.
As I have said publicly many times, we are a different church today than we were years ago. The attention to the issue of clergy child sexual abuse is embedded in our DNA.
In 2002, the Dallas Charter was established by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. I was a young bishop and an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Chicago. I remember clearly the commitment made by the bishops to address this issue and the challenges to incorporate it into legislation of every diocese in the United States.
Today, background checks are administered on every clergy member and employee of the archdiocese, parish and other Catholic institutions. Formal Safe Environment Education is required of anyone who works with or who is entrusted with the care of our children.
There is an archdiocesan office staffed by a Victim Assistance Coordinator who addresses the needs of those abuse survivors who come forward, and who coordinates the payments for therapy and counseling.
The Dallas Charter demands that an on-site audit of policies and procedures be conducted every three years in each diocese. In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee we have committed ourselves to an on-site audit every year. The auditors have issued letters of compliance each year and have even asked if they might share some of our procedures with other dioceses in the United States.
A Safe Environment Coordinator holds the various parishes and schools accountable for the implementation of Protecting God’s Children. This program educates employees and volunteers in their responsibilities toward our young and the accountability that adults have for reporting any suspected abuse to lawful authorities that is demanded by church and civil law.
Our seminaries include formational requirements for all seminarians, emphasizing their role as pastors and associates who will be working with children and young people. Knowledge of their responsibilities toward children and establishing boundaries necessary for proper care of the young help to fashion a seminarian who understands how to support children in their maturation.
All priests, deacons, auxiliary bishops and the archbishop, along with all parish and school employees and volunteers who have regular contact with minors, must read and sign a statement of ethical conduct. This code of conduct is for the protection of the young entrusted to their care. It also protects them from any possible misinterpretation of conduct.
The Diocesan Review Board, composed of professional laymen and women, review investigations of any sexual abuse accusation against clergy — current or historical.
Any priest or deacon accused of current or past sexual abuse is removed from his assignment until an independent investigation can be conducted.
A trained professional investigator assesses the allegation. The findings are presented to the Diocesan Review Board and they make their recommendations to the archbishop.
The Community Advisory Board is composed of individuals who have an interest in the relationship of the community to the questions raised by clergy sexual abuse. They have offered advice to the archbishop, who meets with the board regularly and seeks their collective wisdom as they view the problem of abuse through a social, therapeutic, historical and pastoral lens.
A Mass for Atonement has been celebrated annually for the last six years. We as a community find the beginnings of reconciliation through a spiritual submission to the forgiveness of our God and a willingness to do what is necessary to accomplish healing. A sexual abuse awareness week was added to the schedule of our parishes and schools. A theme is selected and our students submit presentations that reflect an understanding of that theme. It is remarkable to view the expressions offered by the students and the insights they gain through their education.
All these programs and actions are woven into the very life of the archdiocese. There is a concern and appreciation for the problem of child sexual abuse. In the past, few people would have the knowledge or understanding of this issue. Today, through programs and education, many are trained so they have this knowledge and understanding. We will continue our vigilance because those within and outside of the church will hold us accountable. We invite their scrutiny.
We will also remind ourselves of our history, which will help us avoid repeating the sinful and criminal actions of our past.