January 6, 2022 marked the twentieth anniversary of the Boston Globe’s groundbreaking story about the Archdiocese of Boston’s failure to protect children and attendant cover-up. While the scandal involving Catholic Church leadership and clergy abuse began in Boston, it quickly spread throughout the country like a wildfire resulting in numerous stories about failed leadership in dioceses across the country. These stories documented the searing reality of clergy abuse, including its pernicious effects on the lives of victim-survivors and the need for greater accountability in the Catholic Church. The Dallas Charter which was implemented twenty years ago this June was a positive step forward in ensuring safer environments in the Catholic Church and greater accountability for clergy who have abused minors.
To be sure, the implementation of the Dallas Charter was not the end of the story for the Catholic Church in the United States in terms of our struggle with accountability, transparency, and the need for greater healing for those who have been directly and peripherally harmed by abuse. As we have witnessed in the last few years in the wake of the Theodore McCarrick scandal, the ensuing Vatican report, and the numerous documented failures to protect children and foster accountability in Chile, France, Germany and elsewhere, the Catholic Church must embrace a path forward that is consistent with greater integrity, which seeks to put those who have been harmed first in charity and compassion rather than the preservation of institutional power and authority. This is the way of Christ, and it is the only true path forward for the Church.
… the Catholic Church must embrace a path forward that is consistent with greater integrity, which seeks to put those who have been harmed first in charity and compassion rather than the preservation of institutional power and authority.
Between the spring of 2019 and fall of 2021, I attended multiple conferences, consultations and colloquia on the clergy abuse crisis at various Catholic universities throughout the country. The degree of consensus among these gatherings was striking in terms of a closed clerical culture that continues to afflict the Church far too often, the seeds of which are deeply imbedded in the soil of the Church and ecclesial culture. Striking too is the lack of willingness among some in Church leadership in the United States to recognize this harmful culture and to take the necessary steps to transform it, toward a Catholic communion that can move from harm to healing.
I was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in the spring of 2002 at the height of the scandal in Boston and elsewhere. This was a fraught time for the Church in the United States. For my classmates and me (see, Bishop Williams’ article on the eve of his recent ordination) our priestly service has been tied to the clergy abuse scandal, including the resolute determination among us to turn the page toward greater institutional integrity and steps necessary for healing. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is one of a few dioceses in the country that can be considered a ground zero location in terms of the harm of clergy abuse. In late summer of 2013, I was appointed delegate for safe environment by Archbishop John Nienstedt, who resigned in June of 2015. My work as delegate during this challenging time in the archdiocese provided me a front row seat as to what had gone wrong, and steps needed to chart a new course. Today, the Archdiocese is shepherded by Archbishop Bernard Hebda who is exceedingly competent and humble – a good shepherd after the heart of Jesus. While more work needs to be done toward greater healing and health in our archdiocese, I am heartened indeed at the movement from harm to healing that has taken place in our local Church.
In an article that will be published later this week to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the St. Thomas Law Journal, I offer a case study of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and its movement from harm to healing. I offer this in good faith from my perspective as delegate for safe environment during that fraught time and now years later as the archdiocesan liaison for restorative justice and healing. Below, I include a memo that I wrote in early July on my last day as delegate to Bishop Lee Piche who was tasked with overseeing the Nienstedt investigation. Bishop Piche resigned along with Nienstedt in June of 2015. I cite my July 2014 memo in my article and thus needed a location where it could be referenced. Having been earlier released by the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office which brought criminal charges against the archdiocese in June of 2015, the memo has been in the public realm for years. The case study, soon to be published, is an attempt to learn from past failures in furtherance of greater ecclesial integrity. In the military, campaigns are documented with the same intent and result in AAR’s – After Action Reviews. It was not possible to write my article without providing a narrative, including describing personality dynamics and ecclesial culture that had become sources of harm.
I have found these last number of months that I have not had much time for blog writing, as I have taught and pastored in the midst of a global pandemic. Just the other night a law school friend said one of her favorite buttons is one that reads, “no one reads your blog.” I don’t think she was sending me a message as I don’t think she knows I have a blog. In early September of 2021, the University of St. Thomas School of Law launched a new Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing (IRJH). I serve as its founding director and Julie Craven as associate director. We have been heartened by the reception and enthusiasm that IRJH has received. While this project has also taken considerable time to launch, the positive energy and meaningful work that is carried by this effort is deeply gratifying.
I end with a link to a webinar that IRJH offered last month called Wisdom from the Wound: A Conversation with Victim-Survivors and Advocates. Just as the only true path forward for the Catholic Church is to follow the humble path of Jesus, so too this path includes listening and learning from the pain and wisdom of those who have been deeply harmed by the Church and those who accompany them on their journey.