From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Bishop Skylstad’s reflections on 2002: ‘This is a unique moment ... we can’t ignore people’s collective wisdom’

by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register

(From the Jan. 16, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

While many people prepared to see in the new year of 2003, Bishop Skylstad spent a large part of his morning Dec. 31 being interviewed by local news media.

During the interview the bishop offered his reflections on the life of the Church and his ministry in the past year, and gave some indications of directions the Church was taking in the days to come.

Many of his comments were directed at the subject of sexual misconduct on the part of priests and his own commitment to protect children and vulnerable adults, now and in the future.

He admitted that as the news broke over the past year, here in Spokane as well as nationally, he was shocked over what he called the “pervasiveness” of the problem, particularly as events came to light in the Boston Archdiocese.

Despite the nearly constant barrage of bad news, however, Bishop Skylstad saw positive aspects of the turn of events. The situation allowed the Church to address what he called a “cultural silence” about sexual abuse and sexual misconduct, not only in the Church itself, but society at large as well.

“We preach justice and peace,” Bishop Skylstad said. “Justice must be served.”

Part of that service of justice, that dedication to justice, involves an ongoing, victim-oriented approach to the problem, he said. Dealing with the issue of sexual abuse is not a matter of protecting the church, he said; it means supporting and protecting the victims.

Dealing with the issue has become a top priority for the bishop, a focus of his own deep commitment.

That commitment has been evidenced by a number of initiatives on his part, including meetings with parish communities where abuse has taken place, and meeting with individual victims and their families, whenever they have been agreeable to such meetings.

He has met twice with priests of the diocese, and last month met with over 120 women Religious to discuss the issue, to hear their concerns and their ideas and insights into dealing with the issue.

In the past year the bishop reconstituted the diocese’s Review Board, made up largely of laity. That Board reviews policies and procedures and, where appropriate, makes recommendations. The Board also assesses allegations of sexual misconduct by church personnel. The Board deals not just with sexual abuse, but sexual misconduct by priests or any other diocesan personnel, clergy or laity.

In the prior incarnation of the Board, the Bishop of Spokane was a member. No more. Father Steve Dublinski, the diocese’s Vicar General, is the only priest who is a member of the Board.

Still, trust and credibility have been damaged, he admits. In the days ahead, the Church will be working “on a structure to deal with” a strongly focused effort to help heal the damage done in the past, so that the church can move forward.

Nationally, 2002 saw the appointment of former FBI official Kathleen McChesney as head of the U.S. bishops’ new Office for Child and Youth Protection.

Local ramifications of the situation continue to consume time and energy.

Even though some people have said to him, “I hope this is over soon,” he admitted that “We can’t let this drop. We must continue to reach out.”

The situation has offered some hard lessons to Church leadership.

He admitted that, unfortunately, “Bishops don’t always know everything” that is going on. Even when situations come to light, past advice from professional therapists, accepted by former bishops, was later found to be erroneous.

“Views (of sexual abuse) have changed,” said Bishop Skylstad. In the past, the Church “oftentimes didn’t understand the hurt and pain of victims, the long, lifetime impact of abuse.... We must err on the side of victims.”

The diocese continues to offer counseling to any victims abused in the Spokane Diocese by diocesan priests or personnel. Information is turned over to the police immediately. Anyone accused is immediately removed from ministry pending either an investigation or an admission of guilt.

And while reaching out to victims, supporting them, committing to them, he also reaches out to the ministers of the diocese - the priests, the women Religious, the laity, “to affirm the goodness of so many” who do so much good work for the Church, he said.

“This is a unique moment” in the history of the Church, he said. “We can’t ignore people’s collective wisdom.”

One way to discover that collective wisdom is through even greater encouragement of the participation of the laity in the life of the Church.

“Participation is life-giving,” he said, not only locally, but nationally as well. Vatican II calls for sensitivity to the gifts and voices of the people of the Church, he said.

Although there are already several advisory bodies in place in the structure of the diocese, as well as on the parish level, that still amounts to a relatively small number of people.

“How do we expand that participation?” he said.

One attempt has been the distribution of a video and questionnaire to all parishes of the diocese.

In the video presentation, the bishop and Judge Phil Thompson, the chairman of the Review Board, discuss the plans for the protection of children and vulnerable adults.

Parishes are asked to show the video and encourage parishioners to fill out and return a questionnaire regarding their insights, reflections and opinions on the matter. The materials have been distributed in both English and Spanish, and are available for viewing and downloading as well on the diocese’s web site.

Each family on the diocese’s mailing list also received a letter from the bishop, in both English and Spanish, along with a series of questions and answers on the subject of protecting children.

Ministry, life in the Church, must take place in am ambience of safety, for children, for vulnerable adults, said the bishop. “We must protect the children, assure their safety,” he said.

Although the past year has had its share of pain, there is still ample cause of hope. Greater involvement of the laity, especially the voices of mothers and other women, will help the Church as it discovers a new way of ministering with and among its people.

“We will be healthier for having done this,” said Bishop Skylstad. “We as Church need to deal with it. The situation causes us to look at our lives in society, look at the secrecy” of the past. “We must deal with it – with sexual abuse, anywhere in society.”

“We are a pilgrim people,” he said, a community of faith always moving, striving to go forward, to help people make their lives better. “The Spirit works through us,” he said.

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