Fr. Connell’s “Open Letter to All Roman Catholics and All Other Interested Persons”

When Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki was scheduled to meet with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Review Board for the first time March 4, Fr. James Connell, a member of the board, visited the Web site of the La Crosse Diocese to see how the norms and procedures in regards to dealing with cases of sexual abuse by priests compared with those in Milwaukee. That moment of curiosity led him to a problem with the diocese’s required standard of proof.

“They’re asking for this high standard of proof, whereas, a lower standard of proof is what the church expects and if somebody actually has reached this (lower standard), but not this (higher standard), La Crosse may have been saying, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to go any further,’” he said in an interview with your Catholic Herald.

The archdiocesan vice chancellor, canon lawyer and pastor of St. Clement and Holy Name of Jesus Parishes in Sheboygan said he wasn’t looking for something, but rather “happened upon it.”

After contacting local and national church officials, and not getting what he considered a satisfactory response, he released “An Open Letter to All Roman Catholics and All Other Interested Persons,” dated June 17, explaining his concern that children and young people might be at risk in the Diocese of La Crosse. The timing of the letter resulted from his decision to see what the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board said in response to his concern, an item on their June meeting agenda.

“I have received a letter from them that they understand what I’m saying, but there is nothing they can do about it,” Fr. Connell said.

Fr. Connell referenced Canon 212, Paragraph 3 that states his responsibility to share this information with the Christian faithful: “According to knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.”

On the same day Fr. Connell sent his open letter, the La Crosse Diocese and Archbishop Listecki issued statements about his concerns with the La Crosse Diocese’s standard of proof. The statement from the diocese said, “despite any conjecture to the contrary, the Diocese of La Crosse is confident that all aspects of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People are being applied and enforced and that its children are safe.”

Archbishop Listecki’s statement said it was his priority as bishop of La Crosse to “implement effective policies to ensure the safety and protection of children and young people and to hold perpetrators accountable for their criminal and sinful actions,” and that it’s the case in both his former and current diocese.

“I personally pledged to Father Connell that the Diocesan Review Board in La Crosse, as well as the new bishop of La Crosse, upon his installation, would examine its policies to determine if changes were needed and review those with the new diocesan bishop,” Archbishop Listecki’s statement continued, “Since then, the leadership of the diocese, along with its Review Board, has re-examined past cases to ensure the safety and protection of young people. The Diocesan Administrator of the Diocese of La Crosse has communicated this directly to Father Connell.”

Bishop William P. Callahan, who will be installed as the 10th bishop of the La Crosse Diocese Aug. 11, also released a statement that said it is his priority as a priest and bishop to protect and keep the children and young people safe. In his statement, he said that he would make sure the charter is effectively implemented – review board activities and policies included.

“I remain steadfast to our commitment that no priest with a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor ever serves in public ministry,” the bishop said in his statement.

“La Crosse is one thing and that has been taken care of….” Fr. Connell said to your Catholic Herald, explaining his trust in Bishop Callahan to address his original concern once he’s installed, but since releasing the first letter, Fr. Connell sent “An Addendum to my Open Letter to All Roman Catholics and All Other Interested Persons” on June 22 stating another concern.

The addendum explained that he contacted William A. Gavin, president of the Gavin Group Inc., June 21, the firm the USCCB engaged to audit the charter, to “express my request for a review of the audit procedures themselves, as they relate to the functioning of the diocesan review boards.” Fr. Connell told your Catholic Herald it was the reasonable thing to do.

“My thought was, if one diocese – La Crosse – can be doing it wrong for whatever reason, other dioceses maybe could be doing it wrong and I just wanted to be a catalyst to the Gavin Group, you know, please take a look at your procedures to make sure you’re checking this in other dioceses, so this would get caught,” he said.

That evening, Fr. Connell said he received a phone call from Gavin. After they began talking, Fr. Connell said Gavin interrupted him. “He said, ‘Father, you have got to understand something … we are only allowed to audit the charter; we are not allowed to audit the essential norms.’”

The commonly known charter, which encompasses two documents that the USCCB created in 2002 – the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” or what Fr. Connell described in his addendum as a “well-constructed statement of mission, expectations, principles and tasks that is morally binding but does not stand as law itself,” and the “Essential Norms for the Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons,” or particular law in the U.S. – should both be subject to audits, Fr. Connell said.

“I feel deceived…” he said, explaining that every year that Catholics have been told the archdiocese received the letter from the Gavin Group telling them it passed the audit and is in fine shape, when a major piece has been missing.

“In other words,” he wrote in the addendum, “the USCCB prevents the auditors from verifying compliance with that which is legally binding, according to church law, on the dioceses and their bishops, the Essential Norms. What else does the USCCB stop the auditors from looking at? Actually, I wonder how many of the bishops understand the true scope of the audit work.”

Fr. Connell told your Catholic Herald that while the charter is a good document of policies and procedures, steps and things that should be done to protect children and teach parents, “Why bother to audit part (of the charter), I mean they (the bishops) chose to do the auditing of this charter, why did they exclude the norms?”

Recently, Fr. Connell sent an e-mail to Cardinal William Joseph Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, asking if he would “please see if he could convince the USCCB to change their policy” so that both parts of the charter are included in the audit, and is waiting for a response.

“I can only hope that he will actively work to bring about a change in the USCCB audit policy,” Fr. Connell wrote in an e-mail to your Catholic Herald.