Editor’s note: On July 1, more than 6,000 pages of documents related to diocesan priests who have substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor will be made public. The documents are taken directly from archdiocesan priest personnel files, the files of the bishops, the vicar for clergy and other sources within the archdiocese. On that same date, Bishop Richard J. Sklba’s deposition on what occurred will also be released. In the following article, Bishop Sklba provides a context for the documents and his deposition.
As a church, local and global, we continue to seek the divine healing so needed at this painful moment in our earthly pilgrimage. That healing can never occur without truth. For that reason, I welcome the opportunity to offer a few words of introduction to my deposition (Nov. 2 and 3, 2011) which I requested be unsealed.
As forthrightly as possible, I wish to offer three initial comments.
First and foremost, I offer my personal sympathy and sincere apologies to all victims, their families and friends for the pain caused by sexual abuse of minors by clergy and church personnel. I have expressed that sentiment repeatedly for the past quarter of a century. I do so again. Many have suffered, but none as profoundly as have the victims. Helping victim-survivors has been my first and most important concern.
Secondly, I respectfully invite everyone to join in the quest for ever deeper understanding of the full history of this tragedy. Things have changed dramatically in 40 years. This growth in understanding the causes and the effects of this shameful scourge has been a benefit for everyone, and the courageous voices of victims, painful as it may be for them, remain a blessing for all. Knowing the history of efforts to address the sexual abuse of children over the past decades can also help us as a church and as the larger community to avoid any repetition of this sorrow.
Finally, although the decisions I made and the actions I took to deal with clergy offenders were done in good faith and in light of the knowledge available at the time, I deeply regret any initial judgments which added to the pain of victims of this tragedy. Even in my retirement, I recommit myself to do everything possible to make sure that this heartbreak never happens again.
The experience of giving the deposition a year and a half ago made it very clear that the purpose of any deposition is not simply the search for truth, but a quest for information which might be unilaterally useful in a legal trial. For that reason, I believe it to be a service to victim-survivors to share my efforts in the larger historical picture of our many archdiocesan steps over the years to respond as best we could to this moral crisis.
Any past statement or action can be taken out of its historical context, but without that larger picture, together with the voices of all participants, the complete story of the church’s effort to deal with this tragedy and to help victims will not be properly understood.
Like everyone in our society, my own understanding of this tragedy and its harmful effects has grown and my sorrow deepened for the damage it has caused to so many.
With Bishop Leo Brust, I served as an archdiocesan Co-Vicar or Delegate for Clergy from February 1985 through September 1991. Someone else preceded us in that responsibility, and several others assumed its duties thereafter. Bishop Brust as the other vicar also shared with me the duties of offering support and challenge to the strong and successful, expressing concern for the elderly, infirm and overburdened as well as initiating disciplinary action on occasion to errant clergy involved in sexual abuse.
Each of us also made our own individual recommendations to the Clergy Placement Board for assignments each year. Each of us did our very best to respond to allegations of sexual abuse in a timely and proper fashion, given whatever we knew about the sin of sexual abuse at the time. Although we shared information regarding allegations readily, I was subsequently very surprised to discover after Bishop Brust’s death some information concerning older allegations of sexual abuse of minors about which I had no knowledge.
Assist victim survivors, hold offenders accountable
With regard to sexual abuse, we had two goals, namely, 1) to assist victim-survivors to receive justice and healing and 2) to hold substantiated clergy offenders accountable according to the practices of the day. Each of us was delegated to discover the truth, to provide a remedy and to be part of a solution for victims and their families, as well as to address the perpetrator in accordance with the knowledge of that time. As a matter of fact, the full range of the needs of victims only became clarified in subsequent years as a result of our growing experience and deepening understanding.
Over those 40 years, society’s general attitude toward perpetrators of sexual abuse moved in a trajectory from understanding abuse as sin with the possibility of forgiveness, to psychological flaw with hope of treatment, to deeper issues of addiction and finally to criminal activity. All these factors were present from the beginning, but the initial community reaction only gradually shifted. As documented in the press, even law enforcement authorities at times asked churches to reassign offending clergy elsewhere after appropriate treatment. Since then, everyone has learned a great deal regarding the deep harm of sexual abuse.
During my years as Co-Vicar for Clergy, to the very best of my recollection, I made a continuing effort to hand over to civil authorities any clear allegation of sexual abuse of those who were minors at the time; there were a few occasions, however, when initial evidence was very contradictory and when parents invoked the good of the child and strongly requested that no report be made to police.
Nevertheless, eventually clergy were added to the statutory list of mandated reporters so that any discretion about reporting to authorities (except for confessional matter) was removed. If a victim came forward with an allegation after having become an adult, he or she was encouraged to contact those authorities on their own. Initially the adult survivors often found it so difficult to make such reports that they threatened formal denial if I took action on my own. The stories of abuse regularly broke my heart. The accused clergy were confronted and action taken.
Healing through Project Benjamin
In 1989 a group of professional consultants was established by the archdiocese under the title of Project Benjamin, including victim advocates, counselors, civil authorities and victims. Together over the years we sought common understanding of the tragic issues as well as strategies for healing victims and instructing the larger community about this scourge. No specific cases were reviewed, but good practices and proper protocols for timely response were developed. These sometimes served as models for other dioceses across the country.
In 1992 I convened a different group of professional psycho-therapists paid to provide a confidential review of treatment plans in order to assure that victims were provided with the very best therapy available. That service was subsequently terminated because a few victim advocates and critics saw it as potential manipulation rather than good professional care. Subsequently, an alternative form of review was devised to continue that same service to victim-survivors.
As the deposition demonstrates, after a quarter of a century I simply can no longer recall with legal precision precisely what I did on any given day by way of a response to an allegation. I regret that. I do know, however, that my constant practice was to hear the allegation respectfully, together with whomever the accuser might wish present by way of support, to presume the truth of the allegation unless manifestly proven otherwise, and to offer other professional resources for counseling and spiritual care.
Early in my years as Vicar, an accused offender was initially placed under restrictions and sent for counseling. The major consideration was always concern for victims. Later, as our knowledge of risk increased, contracted former judges and then retired police were used to investigate the cases further. A substantiated offender was removed from his pastoral position and action was taken in each case.
As difficult as it may be to imagine today, a panel representing civil authorities, victim advocates and psychologists was convened in the later 1990s to explore the strict conditions required before any possibility of reassignment of offenders might be considered.
Protocols were developed, but no specific cases were ever considered by that group. In a few instances reassignment did in fact subsequently occur, but always after sharing the background with parish leaders, lay and clerical alike, who agreed to serve as adjunct on-site monitors. That practice was discontinued in 2002.
Recommitment to healing, truth, accountability
The Gospel’s mandate of forgiveness, though important, could not override the Lord’s concern for his little ones and the church’s accountability for good ministerial conduct.
Like others, I now know that our church has made serious mistakes over the years, even as all of society struggled to understand the severity of the effect of sexual abuse, and to respond in an ever more appropriate fashion to this crisis. In retrospect, for example, I regret the time needed to recognize and balance out the conflicting requirements such as respect for a victim’s request for initial confidentiality, the range of parental concerns, the need to evaluate the evidence, the differing and changing legal procedures and the decision to take the appropriate action according to the knowledge of the time.
Time was required for everyone to understand the whole picture. Unfortunately, victims sometimes bore the cost of that delay. I believe that part of my service to victim-survivors now is to offer this larger historical context so that they will know of the church’s recommitment to healing, truth and accountability. I hope that these comments help in some small way to provide that context.