The Bishop Writes

"The bishop responds"


by Bishop William S. Skylstad

(From the Feb. 27, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

(Editor’s note: This material will be translated into Spanish and printed in the March 20 edition of the Inland Register.)

In the last several months all of us in the Catholic Pastoral Center have worked hard to restore your faith and trust both in your Church and its leadership here in the Spokane Diocese. All the depressing news, both locally and nationally, about priests violating their trusts and committing criminal acts of abuse against children and vulnerable adults, has affected me deeply.

As you know, we decided to confront this issue directly. We undertook and are still embarked upon an approach to the work that is centered on victims. I met with victims and their families, I apologized, I offered counseling and other support, and I listened to the best of my ability. As I heard these stories, I felt tremendous sadness. But above all, I experienced heartfelt empathy for each person. I prayed that somehow a healing process could begin.

We understood, though, that we had to reach out to all the parishioners in the diocese to ensure that you truly understood not just the current policies and program we had in place to prevent abuse, but also the new norms and policies coming from the U.S. Bishops Conference, which were designed to further ensure that there would be no further cases of abuse, that not one more child would be harmed. We promised you that we would redouble our efforts regarding programs aimed at education and prevention of this terrible tragedy.

A key element of this outreach was the video distributed to all parishes of our diocese. The video presentation featured the chair of our lay Review Board, Judge Phil Thompson, and myself, talking to you about the new norms promulgated by the Bishops Conference and the critical role of the Review Board. Additionally, we attached a survey asking for your comments.

You have responded. I assure you, I have heard you.

Indeed, almost 3,000 members of a diocese that only has 25,000 families returned surveys or participated in parish discussions. Far more impressive than the sheer number was the fact the responses were so thoughtful and sincere. Many were innovative. Several of you took the time to write me a personal letter to express your thoughts. To each of you who participated in your own way, my sincere thanks.

Your words are a constant reminder of the fact that parishioners rightly feel a sense of ownership in the Church. It’s clear that members of this diocese believe, as one put it, “We are the Church,” and you are determined not only to weather this storm, but to emerge as a stronger people and with a stronger Church.

Regarding the surveys, a substantial majority of you, over 84 percent, said you were satisfied with the plan and that if it is properly implemented, it will significantly increase your trust and confidence in the Church.

That said, a small but significant minority, almost 8 percent, expressed little confidence in the plan, and let me know in no uncertain terms that you were very unhappy with me as bishop.

While no one enjoys being severely criticized, those strong words of dissatisfaction were in fact heartening to me. The fact that parishioners in this diocese are comfortable in sending a strong, critical message to their bishop reaffirmed my belief that parishioners feel free to voice their feelings and opinions, as they should. That comfort with speaking out is already playing an important role as we strive to build a better Church.

First, let me briefly touch on those aspects of the plan that received the strongest support, then come back to the criticisms, for it is important to acknowledge and to respond to criticism as well as support.

By far what received the strongest support from you were the Diocesan Review Board and the Zero Tolerance policy on sexual abuse. Approximately half of you listed those as the things you “Like Most” in the plan.

Diocesan Review Board

One parishioner expressed the sentiments of many when she wrote, “The laity board is the most important piece to me. It lends credibility to the entire process for people who have lost faith in the clergy.” Support was also voiced for the fact that the Review Board has the authority to go public if they disagree with a decision of mine.

Many of you not only stated your strong support for the Diocesan Review Board, you also made suggestions for diversifying its membership and clarifying its purpose.

Numerous suggestions were made to expand or change the makeup of the Review Board, though some suggestions conflicted with others. For example, several of you praised the fact that the Review Board has members who are not Catholic, while others voiced opposition to any non-Catholics.

There were calls for more professionals and calls for fewer professionals; recommendations for and recommendations against having law enforcement aboard.

A number of people specifically said there should be women involved in all aspects of implementing the plan, and especially more women on the Review Board. Women, one respondent said, have “a unique understanding of emotional responses of children,” and not employing that quality would be folly. It should be pointed out that half of the members of the present Review Board are women.

Other suggestions included having at least one board member from outside the Spokane metropolitan area. It was also noted that the Review Board currently does not have any people of color, and that it should. Those comments also reminded me of both the incredible diversity and the geographic reach of what we call the Spokane Diocese. Surveys came from Pasco, Brewster, Walla Walla, and from Colville, to name just a few.

Moreover, almost 10 percent of the surveys that were returned were in Spanish. It was gratifying to see that members of Hispanic heritage took time to comment, knowing full well that Sister Myrta Iturriaga would translate all for me to see. There’s truly something wonderful about that kind of faith and confidence. These responses from our Hispanic community demonstrate how much alike we are, especially parents, regardless of race or ethnicity, when it comes to the critical issue of ensuring that children are truly protected and safe.

Along with strong backing for the Review Board and suggestions on how to improve it, however, there was a fair amount of confusion about the duties and authority of the board. Our review of the surveys told me we have to do a better job of educating parishioners about the actual workings of the board, its duties and responsibilities. We will be addressing this in the future.

Zero Tolerance Policy

The other item that was most-often mentioned as one you “Like Most” is the Zero Tolerance policy of not tolerating any sex abuse. That policy requires the permanent removal from active ministry of any priest who has ever sexually abused a minor. Many, many parishioners said there is no room in the Church for any tolerance of any sexual abuse, period.

Yet backing of this policy was not universal. Some people wrote that while they abhor such behavior and want every possible measure taken to eradicate and prevent it, there should be room for forgiveness. “Jesus didn’t have a zero tolerance policy,” one parishioner wrote. “Why should you?”

Among the other items most frequently mentioned as segments of the plan that you “Like Most” were:

• Taking immediate action upon abuse being alleged, and handling such allegations as a crime, particularly by involving civil authorities.
• Many of you mentioned the issue of accountability for bishops, especially bishops who have engaged in covering up problems, often by moving priests from parish to parish. While the norms make it clear that priests will be called to account, they are not so clear on how bishops will be held accountable. The audits that will be conducted by former FBI official Kathleen McChesney, monitoring how well bishops are implementing the rules and policies, should help, but the question remains: What happens to a bishop who fails a compliance audit? Many bishops recognize that this is an issue which needs to be addressed.
• Consideration of the needs of victims was also frequently mentioned. While we have a victim-oriented approach, more must be done and will be done to reach out to victims, their families and advocates. Our Vicar General, Father Steve Dublinski, has been involved in important discussions with victims and their family members, as has our consulting psychologist, Dr. Bill Barber, on ways we can build bridges towards each other and not allow the media or others to portray this situation as “us against them.”
• The open and honest approach taken by the diocese. Many of you commended us for stepping forward and identifying the names of priests who had betrayed their trust and committed crimes, not only by reporting their offences to the authorities when we had reason to believe accusations were credible, but also by releasing the names to the press. If one single other person might step forward by knowing that their abuser had been identified and that there were others who shared their tragedy, then it was worthwhile to do.
• Screening of potential priests. Many of you targeted the issue of whether the Church properly screens those who would be priests. Many of you, however, recognized that the few perpetrators of these abuses were priests who came to the Church pre-Vatican II, when it was often the practice to recruit men at a young age into a priesthood track. For well over a decade now we have done a better job at Bishop White Seminary of ensuring that candidates for the priesthood are more developmentally mature and more psychologically integrated, confident of who they are, their sexuality and their commitment to priestly life.

Aspects of the Plan Liked Least

Two items dominated what respondents “Like Least” about the plan to deal with sexual abuse in the diocese.

One is the fact that the abuse ever happened in the first place and that the Church was slow to respond. Several of you scolded Church leaders – and me specifically – for the abuse having happened and voiced anger that the situation wasn’t dealt with more swiftly.

One critic charged, “Bishop, your lip service to be politically correct does not impress this old Catholic one bit. You hid and ignored predators.”

I neither “hid” nor did I ever “ignore predators.” Many people do not recognize how skillfully pedophiles can hide their behavior from another priest working in the same parish, just as some people in families hide their sexual misconduct from other family members for years. There are some who do not know me who will forever wonder how I could not have known about Patrick O’Donnell’s predilections and criminal acts when we worked together for 20 months at Assumption Parish many years ago. Those who know me believe me when I say that I did not know about his problems or criminal activities.

The bigger issue for me is the charge that as a diocese we were slow to respond to the overall problem. Hindsight is always 20/20, so, perhaps we could have responded more quickly, but overall we tried our best to respond swiftly and forcefully when we became aware of the complaints and the problems.

The other issue that received an enormous amount of comment concerns the treatment of the priests, during and after the process, if they have been charged with abuse or suspended pending an investigation. These concerns were voiced both in the “Like Least” section and also the suggestions for improving the plan.

Members of this diocese were clear that they will not tolerate – and will not allow the Church to tolerate – any sexual abuse. At the same time, many, many of you are worried that priests may be falsely accused, and worry about the fallout from such accusations.

Some other comments received:

• “Don’t hang priests out to dry.” Only where there was solid, credible evidence did we take action against an accused priest and publicly release the names of those still living. Of course, our zero tolerance policy means we forward all reports to the civil authorities as soon as we receive them. We have also constantly reminded folks of the vast majority of priests who honor their promise, obey the law and work hard each and every day to serve God and their fellow human beings with dignity, grace, strength and perseverance.
• “Are priests guilty until proven innocent?” My answer is no, but an apt analogy would be that followed by almost all school districts, who, when a teacher has been accused of inappropriate behavior, conduct an initial investigation to determine whether the charge might be credible, and then suspend the teacher with pay while the civil authorities conduct their investigation. It is deemed to be in everyone’s interests not to have the teacher in the classroom until the investigation is completed and either charges are filed or the teacher is exonerated. In reviewing the survey responses though, this was another area where there was not a good basic understanding of the rights and protections priests have not only in civil law but in canon law. We intend to address this further in coming months.

Some Surprises

There were some things that surprised me in the responses to the video.

A surprisingly high number of you said you believe priests should be allowed to marry. A few reasoned that celibacy is one of the things that lead to sexual abuse problems.

“Allow priests to be married,” one of you wrote, adding that priests are “good men, so why not allow them to be wonderful models in today’s society as great husbands and fathers, and raising families in the church.”

This is a well-intentioned sentiment frequently mentioned in the national press. Suffice it to say, many express this sentiment and believe that it might somehow have avoided the tragedy of priestly pedophiles abusing children. Studies indicate, though, that pedophilia has little to do with whether one is married or not – it is a deep, probably incurable sickness about which professionals are in disagreement.

Somewhat to my consternation, some of you also confused the issue of whether one is a homosexual with pedophilia. Again, research does not indicate whether or not pedophilia has anything to do with whether one is heterosexual or homosexual. Some of the priests who abused teenage boys were, however, likely to have been homosexual in orientation, which contributed to the confusion. Pedophilia, however, is a deeply rooted, terrible mental illness that afflicts some regardless of their sexual orientation.

Also surprising were the strong feelings expressed by a very small minority who seemed to believe that anyone even inclined toward a homosexual orientation could not possibly be a good priest, forgetting that all priests make a promise of celibacy, regardless of orientation. Those who speak with such certitude on this issue should review the Gospels, where our Lord speaks of the importance of loving one’s neighbors and not being judgmental. No one was excluded from his exhortation.

Conclusion

“So, Bishop – Where does this all lead?” you might ask. It’s a fair question.

First, we have to communicate more with you about what we are already doing to protect children in this diocese, but also what else we can and will do to ensure more education of children and adults and also more that can be done in terms of prevention.

Nothing is more important than our children. Nothing can be left undone to ensure the mothers and fathers in this diocese that everything that can be done is being done to protect children and vulnerable adults. My goal is the same as Kathleen McChesney’s: not one more case of abuse, ever, in this diocese.

This experience is going to give rise to a renewed commitment to making sure that our Church in this diocese is as good, and as progressive and energetic as it can be. Many of you offered good suggestions about involving more laity in the governance of the church, and while many are already involved, that doesn’t mean we should not have more. Many of you also said that the role of women in the Church had to increase, that we have a resource that the Church has never properly tapped, that women could do so much more than they do now.

And others of you went right to the heart of the hierarchical nature of the Church and its authoritarian structure and challenged me to be open to the notion of true sharing of authority with the laity. In my mind, all of this is open for discussion and will lead to a more vital Church that emerges from this terrible experience much stronger than it has been in centuries.

We all want the same thing: to ensure that children, youth and vulnerable adults are protected. With God’s help we will work together to achieve that goal! We all want the best Church possible, a vitalized, energized, dynamic Church that moves forward into the 21st century, confident that we are doing what Christ would want us to do.

Thank you all so much. Your response and your messages have helped me very much. While the primary focus of my efforts will continue to be in this diocese, we plan to use what we are learning from you to help at the national level to protect children and build a better Catholic Church in the United States.

Christ’s peace and blessings to each of you.


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