ST. FRANCIS – As promised on Wednesday, April 3, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee released nearly 7,000 pages of documents related to 45 priests who sexually abused children. They were published at www.archmil.org Monday afternoon, July 1.
The documents, taken from priest personnel files, files of the bishops and vicar for clergy and other sources in the archdiocese, include the depositions of Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, Bishop Richard J. Sklba and Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, part of the archdiocese’s Chapter 11 proceedings.
While the documents provide, often in graphic detail, a view of perpetrators and their actions, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki noted these men are not the church.
“When you’re in a family, every family will have individuals, to put it mildly, they’re not proud of – how they act, what they do,” he said in a Friday, July 5 interview with your Catholic Herald. “They are family – you acknowledge that – but at the same time they’re not the family. Those are not the values that hold the family together.”
Reconciliation inside, beyond church
Archbishop Listecki hopes the release of the documents will serve as a step in healing and reconciliation of the priests’ victims.
“I realize the hurt that has been imposed upon the victims of child sexual abuse and that hurt comes out of not only criminal action, but, in our minds, sinful action, that needs to be addressed and there needs to be an outreach in terms of reconciliation,” he said, noting that the reconciliation needs to be “an ongoing aspect of our awareness of this problem.”
That outreach, according to the archbishop, extends beyond the church.
“My hope is that not only will we reach out to those who have been hurt by the church, but reach out so that the church and people and our society see the church as an avenue for reconciling the abuse that might have taken place in their home or the church or other institutions that they might see the church as a safe haven for them to begin the process for reconciling,” he said.
‘Issue given to church’
If the church is a leader in addressing sexual abuse of children in the larger society, it might be that God called it to do so, according to the archbishop.
“We have to name sin and we have to consistently do it, and understand that perhaps God is using us as an instrument to bring light at this time to a critical aspect in our society that sometimes isn’t being addressed by the society,” he said. “If this is an issue that has been given to the church to lead at this time, even through the difficult waters of its own involvement in this, then we have to lead, which means we have to make sure we raise the awareness of people.”
Archbishop Listecki said the archdiocese has raised that awareness by training more than 39,000 people in its safe environment program, Protecting God’s Children, hiring a victim assistance coordinator, and establishing Safe Environment Week so that parishioners are aware of what the church has done in this regard.
Praise for good priests, laity
The archbishop remains concerned about the impact the sexual abuse scandal has had on the “good priests of the archdiocese.”
“I feel for them because I know what a struggle it is to be a church in a secular society and what a struggle it is to be a priest in a secular society and to hold forth, and we have a great number of good, good priests here in the archdiocese,” he said. “I feel for them because what they get painted with is that broad stroke of the perpetrators who were priests and now they have to feel, as I do, the embarrassment of that situation.”
Archbishop Listecki said he has been “encouraged” by the laity throughout the bankruptcy.
“I encounter so many people who are trying to live the Gospel and to share it with their families, to convey it to youth, to teach it, to bring the sacraments to the sick and elderly, that sense of being able to witness to the faith – if those individuals are able to do that at that level, I certainly, as a leader, ought to mirror that in the role I have as archbishop.”
He continued, “You take a look at the faith and how many people can stand tall for the faith and witness the faith. Do we have bad actors and those perpetrators? Absolutely. The value is in those individuals who have confidence in the message of the Gospel and they’re willing to live it out.”
Length of process frustrating
Archbishop Listecki admitted he has been “frustrated” by the length of the process.
“I share that with everybody else,” he said. “But we realize in a process like this we have to make sure that in every step we take that this is beneficial for the whole community.”
In October 2010, the archdiocese attempted to mediate a settlement of claims, but attorneys for 16 claimants rejected the $4.6 million settlement.
“What you begin to see is that the only ones who will stand to gain out of this are basically the attorneys, and we’re spending all this time proving that what I said right away at the beginning of mediation is the truth,” the archbishop said. “This is what we had as the state of the archdiocese, this is what we were willing to turn over; that could have been given immediately to the attorneys and the claimants at that time. They didn’t accept it – for whatever reason.
“Speaking as an attorney, I can’t get into the attitudes of the attorneys or their clients; my presumption is they’re trying to represent the claimants,” he said. “We were honest and open in what we held forth, and that honesty is always questioned.”
Context for decisions
Archbishop Listecki said he hoped those who read the documents will keep in mind that the knowledge about sexual abuse of children at that time was not as developed as it is now.
“You can’t just look at what the knowledge is today and apply that knowledge to individuals 15, 20, 25 years ago,” he said, noting that as understanding of the problem improved, the responses in the documents reflected that. “What you have to do is take a look at the context of it during that period of time.”
He likened it to advancements in medicine.
“Doctors did not treat heart patients in the ‘40s the way they would treat them today,” he said.
Prayer is sustenance
Noting that he didn’t get “too high or too low” as the bankruptcy progressed, the archbishop credited the peace and balance he experiences to prayer.
“None of us live in this world and confront the challenges of this world without prayer. You’ve got to have a relationship with God. It’s one of the things, as priests, we encourage the faithful to develop because it’s not always going to go the way we want it to go,” Archbishop Listecki said. “It’s going to be how God chooses to use us as an instrument in the face of these things. Prayer is first and foremost.”