My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
Recent allegations against Archbishop (formerly Cardinal) Theodore McCarrick of sexual misconduct with minors, seminarians and priests have caused great shame, anger and even outrage throughout all levels of the church. As a bishop, I certainly share in those feelings of disgust that a fellow successor of the Apostles could engage in such sinful conduct. I also find it disgraceful that his proclivities were apparently known by some church authorities, yet they did nothing about it as he continued to ascend through the ranks of the hierarchy.
While a large part of the issue concerns how to address allegations against bishops involving the abuse of minors, there is also a concern about the structures that have enabled not just bishops but also other members of the clergy to avoid being held accountable for misconduct with other adults, other clergy, and seminarians. While recent efforts toward accountability focused on abuse of minors, there seems to be a growing outrage against what people perceive as a lack of action on the part of leadership to address violations of chastity by clergy with adults.
Despite these initial understandably emotional reactions, an effective response to this sad state of affairs cannot be driven by hysteria, but calls for calm, rational and responsible measures to correct the circumstances that have enabled such misconduct to occur and make sure that adequate safeguards are put in place to prevent this from happening again.
Such a response must include several components. First, we bishops of the United States must offer public prayers of repentance and acts of atonement for the sins of all bishops, priests and deacons. I have spoken with Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), suggesting that we have such a day of prayers of repentance and acts of atonement at our next meeting in November in Baltimore or no later than next June when we convene for our special assembly in California.
Second, new mechanisms must be adopted to facilitate the reporting of allegations involving bishops and then investigate and evaluate accusations independent of the structures of the individual dioceses and the USCCB. Specifically, there should be a lay investigator and an independent panel comprised primarily of lay people to review allegations against bishops and make recommendations to the Apostolic Nuncio, who serves as the pope’s representative in Washington, D.C., who would then forward the findings to the Holy See. This is necessary since bishops are appointed by the pope and are accountable to him, who alone has the power to remove a bishop.
This would be analogous to what was done to address allegations of sexual misconduct with minors against priests and deacons. When I was appointed chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1992, the first task I was given was to work with a committee to draft policies and procedures for handling allegations of clerical sexual misconduct with minors. The key features of this new system included the appointment of a full-time lay administrator and a nine-member Fitness Review Board, the majority of whom were lay people. We also instituted a toll-free hotline that went directly to the lay administrator. I was then appointed as the cardinal’s delegate to the Fitness Review Board, attending their meetings and serving for the next 10 years as liaison between the cardinal and the Review Board.
At the time, the review board concept was somewhat controversial, since some clergy objected that priests and deacons were accountable only to their bishop, not lay people. However, this objection was overcome by the fact that the final decision was always made by the diocesan bishop, who would be better informed through an independent review of the facts and the credibility of the allegations. Eventually, similar policies and the review board model were adopted by most dioceses and religious communities, strengthened nationally by the Charter for Protection of Children and Young People and the related Essential Norms that were adopted by the USCCB in 2002 with subsequent recognition by the Holy See.
Similarly, the accountability of bishops to the Holy Father is not compromised by an intermediary body that could independently review the facts and credibility of the allegations and make recommendations accordingly to the Apostolic Nuncio for further action with the proper authorities at the Vatican.
Here in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, I am firmly committed to provide a safe environment that will effectively protect against sexual abuse, especially against children, seminarians and vulnerable adults. Such abuse will not be tolerated and will be dealt with promptly when reported or discovered. In this regard, we have a nine-person Review Board, the majority of whom are lay people, who deal with allegations of clerical sexual misconduct with minors. Allegations of such misconduct may be made by calling the Diocese’s Child Abuse Reporting and Investigation number at (217) 321-1155. Individuals may also contact the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Child Abuse Hotline at 1(800)-25-ABUSE.
Allegations of financial misconduct or sexual misconduct with adults are handled by a separate group called the Special Panel for Clergy Misconduct, the majority of whom are also lay people and which is headed by William Roberts, formerly the U. S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois. The hotline to report financial misconduct or adult sexual misconduct committed by priests, deacons or lay employees in our diocese is 1 (866)-346-2003, or email to . These hotline calls and email messages go directly to the office of Mr. Roberts. If these measures are not sufficiently effective, I am open to new safeguards.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what is crucially needed is a profound spiritual renewal at all levels of the church that takes seriously the church’s teachings on chastity and sexual morality. I say all levels of the church because the sexual revolution of our secular world has obviously infected the church at all levels. We recently observed the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, which prophetically and accurately predicted the hazards of artificial birth control.
Yet polls show that the majority of Catholics continue to reject the church’s teaching on contraception. A 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found that only 13 percent of weekly Mass-going Catholics thought contraception was morally wrong. More and more couples cohabit before marriage or even without marriage. There are also Catholics who do not consider adultery and homosexual activity to be sinful. Clergy as well as lay people have far too easily rationalized why and how the church’s moral teachings on sexuality and chastity do not apply to them, resulting in the scandalous situation in which we now find ourselves.
The answer is for all of us to recognize that we are called to be saints and therefore to commit ourselves to take the church’s teachings seriously and pray that we may be able to make the sacrifices necessary to grow in holiness with the help of God’s grace.
May God give us this grace. Amen.