In a few days, more than 6,000 pages of documents will be released and posted to the website of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Attorneys for abuse survivors have determined that these documents demonstrate how the archdiocese handled allegations of sexual abuse, responded to reports and dealt with offending priests. It will be painful on many levels. It may contribute to re-living the abuse of victims at the hands of priests. It will disturb the faithful who have placed trust and confidence in archdiocesan leadership. It will embarrass and shame the good priests who have offered their lives in service to the church.
Shortly after I announced the decision to release the documents related to diocesan priests with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor, I offered an Atonement Mass at St. John Vianney Parish in Brookfield. A person approached me after Mass and expressed appreciation for the decision. The individual believed it would aid in the healing process of victim survivors. I pray that the release of the documents achieves that goal in some small way.
Along with many of my brother bishops and priests, we cannot express our sorrow enough at the harm caused by those clergy who violated their priestly office. They committed sins and crimes against minors, hurting them personally and damaging the faithful of the church.
I became a bishop shortly before the Dallas Charter (2002) was enacted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It was a time of great discernment; everyone wanted to confront the issue in a manner that would bring reconciliation and the corrective measures necessary to bring reform.
It was in the early 1980s that the problem of sexual abuse of minors by clergy started to gain attention. Like many, I found it difficult to imagine that something like sexual abuse of a minor could ever happen, even more unimaginable by a priest.
Perhaps many were blind to the signs and deaf to the voices of abuse victims; some in leadership treated the abuse as a moral problem which could be rectified by the sacrament of reconciliation and spiritual direction or rehabilitation through therapeutic counseling and then restoration to ministry.
It was only through a developing understanding that we recognized that this is a deep-seated psychological problem and that there are long-term effects of abuse. A gradual awareness called for the perpetrators to be held accountable for this criminal activity.
I have often compared our historical understanding of child sexual abuse to our knowledge and treatment of alcoholism. What we know and how we treat alcoholism today is vastly different then the way we addressed the problem in the 1950s. Our understanding of addiction, the psychological and sociological effects, has grown. Today we treat it as a problem which must be addressed on many levels.
Some people do not realize how dramatically the church has changed over the last 15 years.
- Church leadership has instituted programs of Safe Environment which instruct all who work with youth about the awareness of the problem and their responsibility.
- Criminal background checks are performed on all employees and on all volunteers who interact with children.
- A victims assistance office is established to aid victims who come forward seeking help.
- The bishops of the United States commissioned the John Jay report, the most extensive study of the problem of sexual abuse of minors by any institution in the history of the United States. This was done in an attempt to understand the historical context of the problem in order to avoid the problem ever happening again.
In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, I am assisted by a Community Advisory Board comprised of individuals with expertise in the fields of pastoral ministry, psychological and personal experience. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee coordinates with local authorities on past or current allegations.
I know it sounds self-serving, but the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has historically established programs ahead of the national trend. It consulted experts. It initiated Project Benjamin, a commission that attempted to address the problem and offer advice on what the church could do to address the problem.
But with all that has been done, we as a church – the priests, religious and faithful together – must remain vigilant. We must learn from the mistakes of the past so that we become an example for others who have yet to address this problem within their respective institutions.
We are different because of the courage of victims who came forward and brought this problem to light.
The presentations of the documents have attempted to refrain from disclosing the identity of victims, most who wish to remain anonymous. We must be careful to avoid resurrecting past moments of pain.
As people of faith, we know of the power of prayer and it is the power of prayer that we invoke for the healing of those victims of clergy sexual abuse. It is the power of prayer that we use to help restore our parish communities to spiritual health and it is the power of prayer that, as Christians, helps us to pray for the conversion of the lives of the perpetrators who have damaged the Body of Christ, his church.