My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Earlier this month, six of my classmates who were ordained priests with me at Mundelein Seminary on May 10, 1978 drove down to Springfield to celebrate our 33rd anniversary of ordination. Joining us were the priests of the Cathedral along with Msgr. Carl Kemme, who was celebrating his 25th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood. Msgr. Kemme was also ordained on May 10, albeit a few years later.
At the end of this month on May 28, I will have the privilege of ordaining my first priest, Brian Alford, in our Cathedral. His ordination brings great joy and is a real blessing for our diocese. It also brings me back to the day of my ordination, when Cardinal John Patrick Cody ordained me and my 28 classmates for the Archdiocese of Chicago. I’ll never forget the thrill of giving my first blessing to my parents outside the main chapel of Mundelein.
Looking back, I never imagined at that time that I would someday be bishop of Springfield in Illinois. God is full of surprises! At the same time, I had no inkling of the scandals of the clerical sexual abuse of minors that would shake the church to her foundations just a few years later. I had never been abused by a priest, never been solicited by one, never even heard of such a thing. So I was just as shocked as anyone when I first heard of these scandals.
I also had no idea that someday I would be chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago and, as such, that I would serve for 10 years as the cardinal’s delegate to the Professional Review Board that dealt with allegations of clerical sexual misconduct with minors. It was this experience of dealing with such allegations that brought me face to face with Evil, and why I am now so devoted to imploring St. Michael the Archangel to defend us in battle to be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. I am grateful that the faithful of our diocese have responded so enthusiastically to saying the Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel after Mass.
Just a few days ago, the John Jay College for Criminal Justice released a study called, The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States 1950-2002.
The Causes and Context study found that there is no single “cause” of sexual abuse by priests. Most cases of abuse occurred in the period of 1965-1985, and most current reports are of abuse that took place more than 25 years ago. The chief trend that emerged was the rise of sexual abuse incidents in the 1960s and 1970s and sharp decline in the mid-1980s. Even most reports that were filed after 2002 referenced abuse in this time period.
Some might wonder that if victims tend to wait many years before reporting, isn’t the drop-off in 1985 just a function of that delay? The pattern of reporting by victims is such that, even as time marches on, newly reported claims still pertain mostly to allegations that occurred before 1985. In other words, the lag time between abuse and complaint is getting longer each year, as opposed to staying constant over time.
What caused the sexual abuse “crisis” in the Catholic Church? The study found that there was no single factor that led to an increase in the number of priests who abused minors from the 1960s through the mid-1980s. The study notes, “The rise in abuse cases in the 1960s and 1970s was influenced by social factors in American society generally. The increase in abusive behavior is consistent with the rise in other types of ‘deviant’ behavior, such as drug use and crime, as well as changes in social behavior, such as an increase in pre-marital sexual behavior and divorce.”
This was the dawning of the “sexual revolution.” Crimes against persons also increased in the period. These social influences intersected with vulnerabilities of some individual priests whose preparation for a life of celibacy was inadequate at that time.
Some critics blame celibacy, yet the study notes that “celibacy has been constant in the Catholic Church since the 11th century and could not account for the rise and subsequent decline in abuse cases from the 1960s through the 1980s.” The fact that the commitment to celibacy was constant before, during and after the crisis period suggests that celibacy was not a cause of abusive behavior. Additionally, most sex offenders in society are not celibate clergy. In fact, most are married or in a relationship with an adult. The study concludes that there is no evidence that priests abuse at higher rates than men in the general population or in other organizations.
The study states that “The Catholic Church has taken serious steps toward understanding and reducing the problem of sexual abuse of minors by priests.” The study also notes that improved seminary education in human formation coincided with the decline in sexual abuse by clergy over the years.
As your bishop, I am committed to ensure the immediate and appropriate response to any and all allegations of clerical sexual abuse of minors with the help of our Diocesan Review Board and our Diocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator, Ms. Patricia Kornfeld. Anyone with any concerns in this regard may contact Ms. Kornfeld at (217) 321-1155.
In my opinion, the Catholic Church has done more to address the issue of sexual abuse of minors than any other organization. I also believe that our Catholic schools are safer than anywhere else. The gym coach at a public high school sexually abused a close relative of mine, so I am aware from personal knowledge that such abuse occurs in public schools, although the media focus on the Catholic Church would have you erroneously believe that this is a Catholic problem. Sexual abuse of minors is not a Catholic problem, it is a social problem, and we must work diligently to ensure safe environments for children everywhere.
During this month of May dedicated to the Virgin Mary, may our Blessed Mother shield us with her protective mantle and keep us safe from the onslaughts of the Evil One.
May God give us this grace. Amen.