Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

The Bishop Writes

"The Paschal Mystery: Processing the tragedy of sexual abuse"

by Bishop William S. Skylstad

(From the April 8, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)

These have been difficult and painful days for the Catholic Church as we continue to process the tragedy of sexual abuse. We have had our own experience here in the Diocese of Spokane. We continue to deal with the follow-up to the settlement to which we agreed in the Chapter 11 process. The Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus also is experiencing their own painful journey as they move through their legal proceedings. But most recently, the biggest news concerning the sexual abuse crises in the Church has emerged from Europe, especially in countries like Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and the Vatican.

Even as we read or hear the news stories from across the Atlantic, we too feel hurt and ashamed about the profound tragedy. It is a powerful reality: We experience what it means to be a Church universal. Our Catholic family is interconnected. I suspect these present episodes will not be the end of terrible revelations about the issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. There is little doubt but that this problem will surface in other countries as well.

Sexual abuse is part of every culture, including our own in the United States. That reality should never be an excuse or distraction from our own painful situation within the Church. We are held to a higher standard. And we should be.

As paradoxical as it may sound, I am grateful that past abuse by clergy in our diocese has come to light. We have been devastated and ashamed. Once again, I express apology to the victims and ask for their forgiveness. They have been deeply hurt; some bear scars for the rest of their lives. Only the victims truly know the depth of this pain, hurt, and disillusionment. The breadth of the abuse and its terrible impact leave us aghast.

During their 2002 meeting in Dallas, the U.S. Catholic Bishops approved the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. That Charter, approved by the Holy See, became a road map for the Church to address this issue in our country. One of strongest parts of the Charter is zero tolerance for a priest or deacon who admits to or is found guilty of sexually abusing a minor. They cannot engage in public ministry. Even one such abuse is sufficient for permanent removal from ministry.

The Charterís directions have led to several significant changes in the Church in the United States. A National Review Board was established to oversee the Charterís implementation. Members of that board are laity with particular expertise and knowledge about this issue. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) also established an Office for the Protection of Children and Youth in the Church. Every diocese is to be audited regularly concerning the effectiveness of its implementation of the Charter.

A Review Board was to be established in every diocese to monitor the sexual abuse situation and to assist the dioceseís bishop in his responsibility of providing a safe environment for ministry. By the time the Charter was approved, some Review Boards were already in place. For example, the Spokane Dioceseís Review Board has been operational for over 20 years. Our board meets regularly.

Each diocese was to appoint a Victim Assistance Coordinator whose crucial role it is to reach out and listen to victims. Roberta Smith fills that role for our diocese. Itís a very important position and has been immensely helpful to the Review Board and to me personally.

Screening now takes place for all who work in the Church. Training concerning sexual harassment and knowledge about our Code of Conduct are expected for all who work for or volunteer in the Church. We train our children and youth about the danger signals of possible abuse and the need to report to authorities when abuse occurs. This overall effort has a direct impact on seminary formation, not only in the screening of candidates for priesthood, but in the formation of responsibility for setting appropriate boundaries and integrating sexuality.

Our knowledge about sexual abuse and how to deal with it has grown tremendously in recent years. Thirty years ago we didnít fully understand the depth of the illness, nor did we understand how to deal with it. I remember 50 years ago when I was first ordained. In those days, we didnít know much about alcoholism, either. There were no programs of therapy at that time. We have come to realize there is no cure for this illness. Those so afflicted live with the disease as a recovering alcoholic. The same is even more true for those who sexually abuse minors. Once we thought such a person could be cured. Now we know better.

We need to commend the media for bringing this tragedy of sexual abuse to light. We as Church (and a society) need to deal with this issue. Yes, there are instances of bias or hatred toward the Church. At times there have been inaccuracies. Sometimes a reporterís ideology rules the day. Sometimes there is downright nastiness in the reporting. But all of that should not distract us from the tremendous good the media has facilitated in bringing the truth to light. We need to be grateful.

I mentioned in the title the Paschal Mystery Ė the suffering, dying and resurrection of Jesus. We have just celebrated Holy Week, the Triduum, and Easter. There has been so much suffering surrounding the issue of sexual abuse. There has been a certain amount of death. The ivory tower image of Church is dying Ė and well it should. The same is true for us bishops and priests. We continue to need redemption. The center of the mystery is that real life comes through death.

The mystery of death continues in the Church, and in all families touched by sin and abuse. We may not understand the vastness of that dying. The victims of abuse have known this in their families and in their work. Some of the good institutions and missions of the Church are dying, or are going to die, because of this. There were some protestations early on that destroying good things was not in the agenda. But in Godís way, in mystery, nothing can be seen as eternally enduring except God. We are confused by the mystery of the Cross.

But there is also resurrection Ė for victims, for abusers, for families, for all sinners. I hope and pray that after the experience of this painful episode in our history, we as Church will be better, stronger, and renewed. We should never be distracted from our hope in the Resurrection. Like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we can at times be disillusioned, confused, even terribly disappointed. But this Stranger joined them along the way, heard their story, and broke open the Scriptures for them. Then they recognized the Lord in the breaking of the bread. They couldnít wait to get back to Jerusalem to tell the good news.

ďJerusalemĒ is our world. As the two disciples returned to Jerusalem to proclaim a message of hope, so must we bring that hope to our world today.

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