Credibility is the key to leadership, according to Spokane Bishop Blase Cupich, and if the church can’t talk about sexual abuse of children, it loses credibility on all matters, including poverty, war, justice and morality.
Bishop Cupich, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Protection of Children and Young People, was one of the speakers at the conference “Harm, Hope and Healing: International Dialogue on the Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal,” hosted by Marquette University’s Law School, April 4-5.
Challenge of Philadelphia
“I’m worried about how a decade after the charter we have a situation where 21 priests have to be pulled,” he said. “I’m upset, and I know many bishops are. We’ve been working so hard, and then this happens. The question is – what did happen? And are there other Philadelphias? We’re going to ask those questions. My fear is that it could be worse.”
The bishop admitted that the full extent of the Philadelphia situation is not known, but he noted that the archdiocese had recently received a clean audit.
“So what happened? Did we not have actual access to the files? Were we not given appropriate information?” he questioned, adding that he is awaiting an investigation by the National Review Board.
During the Q-and-A session, the bishop was asked about potential consequences for church clergy and officials.
“I know we bishops feel very strongly about this,” he said. “This can’t happen again. There have to be consequences.”
The bishop cited as an example “the phrase pro bonum ecclesiae – for the good of the church. Priests are laicized under that rubric,” he said. “Bishops are removed from office for financial mismanagement, personal moral difficulties, or if they take an issue contrary to the teaching of the church. So we have the framework to act on this.”
In his presentation, the bishop drew on the two major focal points of the Dallas charter: healing and community.
“Healing is the first imperative. Opting for healing was a public admission” that people were hurt, he said. “And second, we cannot respond to the crisis by ourselves. We need a community. When we internalize, we find the resources to deal with all the vexing issues facing the church.”
Healing cannot be done alone
“Healing is the first obligation,” the bishop said. “Healing gives direction to everything we do. We cannot do the healing on our own, or on our own terms. Yet, there has been a much needed effort to bring healing in this decisive moment in our church,” he said, adding he was encouraged by the restorative justice conference.
“Voices came alive – victims, people in the pew, our priests, (the international community), those working in victim assistance programs. The heart wrenching stories we’ve heard have touched us at a very soul searching level; at a visceral level,” said Bishop Cupich.
“I’m reminded of a man who sat across from me, and recalled what it was like to be 9 years old in a small rural town, and have his pastor force him each Sunday to stay, after serving Mass, to ‘clean up,’ only to be repeatedly abused,” the bishop recalled. “And then sitting down to Sunday dinner, at home, next to the pastor. This went on for five years. He was my age, but when he was telling the story, I saw a 9-year-old.”
That’s why bishops are to listen with patience and compassion, and share profound solidarity and concern, he said.
“Healing is not an arbitrary or random choice. Healing is the lynchpin that holds the charter together. It’s the cornerstone … the first point on the arc of a new trajectory,” said Bishop Cupich.
As bishop of Spokane, he said he contacts victims every year to connect, to know how they were harmed, to find out how they are doing.
“All victims are still suffering, in some way. It’s callous and obtuse that people suggest they ‘just get over it.’ And we cannot just say, ‘We did this. Goodbye. Keep warm and well-fed.’ We have to have an ongoing ministry. And we’re going to be enhanced if we do that. We’ll be better ministers,” he said, noting that conferences like the one at Marquette and ongoing meetings between bishops and victims keep things fresh.
He said it’s also important that the church admit that it doesn’t have all the answers.
“We have to listen to mental health professionals, law enforcement, legal minds, social workers and yes, journalists and opposing counsel (and) our own Catholic people, who want the bishops to assure them that their young children are safe in our churches and our schools,” he said.
Lessons learned by the bishops
Bishop Cupich shared with his audience a reflection he wrote for America Magazine on what bishops have learned since the charter was crafted.
- “We’ve learned that damage to victims is deeper than non-victims can imagine,” he said. “It is crushing precisely at the stage in their lives when they are most vulnerable – when they are tender with enthusiasm, hopeful for the future, and eager for friendships. The spunk, élan and verve that we so admire in children and find endearing is exactly what is crushed.”
- “We’ve learned that self-deception is an inherent part of the disease of abusers. Many managed to convince themselves that they genuinely cared about the children,” he said. “Claims that abusers are contrite and will never abuse again are never to be taken at face value again.”
- “We’ve learned that what happens in one place, happens to us all,” he said. “We learned how parents and family members and communities are alienated from the faith and God by abuse. We are always going to be judged by the worst Catholics in a crisis, not the best.”
- “We’ve learned that despite the justifiable anger felt by victims, bishops need to reach out to them,” he said. “Meeting with victims can be challenging for all, but they can also be moments of great grace and insight.”
- “We’ve learned that while many have been hurt by priests, they’re angered even more by the bishops who failed to put children first,” he said. “People expect religious leaders to be immediate and forthright. We need to be mutually accountable and transparent.”
Fear of charter fatigue
While some criticize that things are moving too slowly, Bishop Cupich said he doesn’t feel that’s the case. Rather, he said a greater risk is what conference presenter Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin called “complacency.”
“There is a real risk of regression. We are seeing ‘charter fatigue’ creeping into our churches, dioceses and communities. We should not overlook institutional inertia.”
“Safe environment programs involve meticulous record keeping and updating resources, vigilance and repetition,” he said. “We can’t treat the charter as a check-off list: ‘We’ve got it done, everything’s marked, we’re done with it.’ That would be a mistake,” he said, explaining that the charter must be a living document. “Since the Dallas charter, more than 125 new bishops have been ordained. Meanwhile, parents are opting out, and pastors are growing frustrated. They’re convinced the crisis is over. My fear is that there is a lull, to the point that only when we see something in the headlines do we get concerned again.”
“If we regress, children will not be safe,” he said.