My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
This past June 22 marked the ninth anniversary of my installation as bishop of our Diocese of Springfield in Illinois. That day was also the feast day of my patronal saints: St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. It was a special blessing to mark this occasion by visiting some of the historic places associated with these two great martyrs in their homeland of England.
I made this pilgrimage with Father Christopher House, who serves as chancellor and vicar judicial of our diocese and as rector of our Cathedral. We arrived in London on June 21. Our first stop was to celebrate Mass at the seminary in Chelsea, located on the grounds of the estate where St. Thomas More lived when he served as the Lord High Chancellor of England during the reign of King Henry VIII. On the feast day itself, June 22, we celebrated Mass at the altar of Ss. John Fisher and Thomas More in the Brompton Oratory in London.
Sunday, June 23, was the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. I celebrated Mass at the Oxford Oratory of St. Aloysius Gonzaga and participated in their Corpus Christi procession through the streets of Oxford. While in Oxford, I also had the opportunity to celebrate Mass at the Church of Saints Gregory and Augustine, which was the parish church of my favorite author, the late J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
The main reason for my visit to England was to deliver two lectures at the University of Oxford. I was invited by Professor Ryan Meade, a colleague of mine when we both taught at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. He now teaches at Oxford.
The first lecture, “Confronting the Myths and Realities of Clerical Sexual Abuse of Minors in the Catholic Church,” was delivered on June 24 at the Mathematical Institute of the University of Oxford. I wrote this talk as a way to share what I have learned from my experiences in handling allegations of clerical sexual misconduct with minors since I was appointed chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1992.
Among the myths that I confront and try to dispel are that sexual abuse of minors is a pervasive “Catholic problem,” that it is a “priest problem,” and that it is a “celibacy problem.” I show that other religious groups also struggle with this problem and call attention to the alarming number of cases of child sexual abuse that occur in families and in public schools. I do this not as an attempt to deflect attention from the bad news of abusive clergy, but rather to provide context for what is clearly a much broader threat to our young people and society, and one that we must come to terms with outside of the church, not just within.
I then examine some of the realities of dealing with the sexual abuse of minors by the clergy and by the hierarchy, describing some of our pioneering efforts in the Archdiocese of Chicago in the 1990s and how our thinking evolved in handling these cases, leading to the adoption of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the accompanying Essential Norms adopted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002. I also describe the measures recently adopted by Pope Francis and by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops last month to address these problems. It is my hope that measures such as these will help to bring effective solutions to confront the realities of the sexual abuse of minors both in the church and in society.
My second lecture was given as the opening presentation at the International Symposium on Privacy and Autonomy in Medical Law and Ethics, sponsored by the Anscombe Bioethics Centre at Blackfriars Hall in the University of Oxford, and was entitled, “Doing as I Please or Pleasing as I Do: Constructive and Destructive Autonomy in Relation to Conscience, Freedom and Obligation.”
Autonomy is constructive when a person comports himself or herself, or a state governs itself, in a way that serves the common good and not just self-interest. Autonomy is destructive when it becomes self-serving for hedonistic reasons rather than self-regulating for altruistic purposes. The worst expression of destructive autonomy is a state of lawless anarchy where everyone does as he or she pleases with no regard for the negative impact of their behavior on others.
Conscience means to share knowledge with someone else about what is right or wrong. It is to think with God. Conscience does not act in isolation, based on some sort of personal or individual intuition, disconnected from other people and from the truth. For a Catholic, a properly formed conscience means to share God’s knowledge and the church’s teaching about right or wrong.
I connect conscience to freedom and obligation by quoting Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, who said, “Conscience has rights because it has duties.” Similarly, in his homily at Baltimore during his 1995 visit to the United States, St. Pope John Paul II challenged all of us to a nobler notion of freedom when he said (echoing Lord Acton), that “freedom is not a matter of doing what we like, but having the right to do what we ought.”
The full text of both talks can be accessed online at www.dio.org.
Returning to London after my Oxford lectures, Father House, Professor Meade and I visited the cells of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, where they were imprisoned prior to their execution by beheading in 1535 at the order of King Henry VIII for refusing to accede to the Act of Supremacy, which rejected papal authority and declared the monarch to be the supreme head of the Church of England.
Father House and I concluded our pilgrimage by celebrating Mass at the Rochester Cathedral, where St. John Fisher served as bishop. In our prayers at these sites of Ss. John Fisher and Thomas More, we prayed for them to intercede for the clergy and faithful of our diocese, that we may live strong in our faith and be faithful in our lives.
May God give us this grace. Amen.