Reflecting on the ordeal of the abuse crisis

By Bishop Joseph M. Siegel

During one of the deanery listening sessions following the Prayer Service for Healing and Reparation, I was asked what I have learned from the ordeal of the clergy sexual abuse crisis that has engulfed the Church over the past few months.  I have reflected a great deal on this question over the days since that gathering.

I would respond that first of all I have been reminded how devastating child sexual abuse is for survivors and how it impacts their lives.  In meetings with victims and their families, I heard stories of how these assaults affected them physically, emotionally and spiritually.   We can never lose sight of the pain and struggles of those abused and how we need to assist them in their healing with our prayers and support.

At the listening sessions and in correspondence, I heard the anger and hurt of Catholics as they responded to the Pennsylvania grand jury report as well as the accusations against Archbishop McCarrick.  Much of this frustration is justifiably aimed at bishops for failing to adequately address allegations when presented to them.  While the Charter of 2002 had put in policies to protect young people as well reporting mandates to deal with allegations against clergy, we still need to address more effective accountability for bishops. This will be the agenda for the USCCB November meeting in Baltimore.

At the same time, I recognized that the emotions of those who asked questions or wrote me were coming from their deep love for the Church.  They were angry because of the damage done to their family of faith and they want that family to be healed.  Those who were present weren’t giving up on the Church, but want to see changes made that will enable us address problems manifested by this scandal.  That realization gives me great hope and confidence that with God’s grace, we can together, as bishops, clergy, religious and lay faithful, renew the faith and so fulfill the Lord’s call to be missionary disciples who share the Good News of the Gospel with the world.

I also learned from these listening sessions the great love and respect our people have for their priests who are faithful to their calling and in their ministry.  They recognize that scandal has hurt priests as well, as the vocation to which they have given their lives is diminished by the sins and crimes of some of their brothers.  I encouraged the participants to express that concern to their parish priests and to assure them of their prayers and support.

On a more personal level, the past few months have also deepened my understanding about what it means to be a diocesan bishop.  As an auxiliary bishop in my former diocese, I was not responsible for making final decisions and being accountable for them.  Now, while I have some wonderfully wise and competent advisors, I am ultimately the one who must review the facts presented in a given situation, weigh the various viewpoints, examine the impact on persons or groups and, with God’s help, come to a conclusion on what steps need to be taken. I am also the one who receives the feedback. I certainly have been praying harder than ever for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I have more profoundly learned as well about what it means to be part of the “college” of bishops, joined to my brothers in the episcopacy in this country and around the world.    Just as the holiness and pastoral successes of one bishop reflect on all of us, so the failures and sins of a brother bishop cast a shadow on all of us.  As a consequence, I know that I must share in the consequence of those failings in leadership and do my part in seeking forgiveness and doing acts of atonement and reparation.  It is a humbling experience, yet one that I hope will help heal the Church and repair the credibility of bishops as leaders and teachers.

I think I can speak for all my brother bishops in saying that we have all learned much these past months. By the time you read this, we bishops will have completed our fall meeting and, with God’s help, will have taken what we have learned and established firm policies and protocols to mark the path forward for the renewal of our family of faith.   As this process of reform continues, please continue to pray for the Church and for her leaders.  May the Lord, who is always faithful, guide and direct us in the months ahead.