A new direction for dealing with crimes of sexual abuse
The beautiful season of summer has arrived. It has taken a while, but here we are. I hope it means that you will have a chance to enjoy the beauty of Maine, its waters and mountains, during these months of long days and comfortable temperatures.
Last year, as we reached this point in the calendar, our summer was tarnished by the information we received of terrible accusations regarding the behavior of Theodore McCarrick, formerly the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, D.C. It was a dark time in the life of the Church. The allegations of sexual abuse of seminarians and young priests were devastating. There were many questions and not a lot of answers.
A year later, I think we have more positive news to offer. A new direction has opened. There will be important changes in the way we deal with these crimes of sexual abuse in the Church. That new direction is set by Pope Francis’ new document on sexual abuse and sexual misconduct. Called “You are the Light of the World,” it initiates a method of investigating cases of sexual abuse and misconduct.
In relation to the matter of Mr. McCarrick, after a trial in Church court, the accusations were found to be substantiated. He was convicted of crimes related to the sexual abuse of minors and adults. He is no longer a cleric. His trial completed, he was dismissed in February from the clerical state.
Because of the importance of this new document published by Pope Francis, I thought it might be helpful to highlight its more important points. The first thing I would note is the swiftness with which this document was published. It is an answer to the pleading of bishops, priests, and the people of the Church for an acknowledgement of the problem and a way forward. It was published on May 9. It became the law of the Church on June 1. It is the wish of the Holy Father that these universally adopted procedures be implemented quickly and effectively to “prevent and combat these crimes that betray the trust of the faithful.” I am confident they will be helpful to the Church as we move forward in addressing these challenges.
Pope Francis begins the document with the resolve that the “crimes of sexual abuse” can “never happen again.” He understands, however, that things need to change for that to happen. He asks, therefore, for a “continuous and profound conversion of hearts.” Conversion, however, needs to be strengthened by concrete and effective actions to assure a safe environment. As such, the pope has published procedures to be followed throughout the Church “to prevent and combat these crimes that betray the trust of the faithful.” Pope Francis was clear that the responsibility for overseeing these procedures “falls, above all, on the successors of the apostles, the bishops.” As part of this responsibility, bishops will themselves be held accountable under the authority of this document if they commit any of the crimes listed in the document or fail to properly address such crimes when reported to them. In addition to bishops, the provisions of the document also apply to priests, deacons, and all religious.
The document expands the scope of concern beyond the sexual abuse of minors to include sexual misconduct with vulnerable persons, sexual acts compelled through the abuse of authority, child pornography, and any coverup of such crimes. “Vulnerable persons” are those who lack the full freedom to assent to a sexual act. In order to bring these crimes to light, the document calls for the establishment of easily accessible reporting systems, timeliness and thoroughness of investigations, and whistleblower protection for those making allegations. Acknowledging the harm that comes from such misconduct and abuse, the document also sets clear standards for the pastoral support of victims and their families.
In investigating complaints of such crimes against bishops, the document relies on the position of the metropolitan archbishop to oversee the process. In our case, that would be the Archbishop of Boston since the Diocese of Portland is within the Province of Boston. In conducting such investigations, the bishops of the province will be working with Cardinal Seán O’Malley to provide names of competent and qualified laypersons who can assist him in conducting the investigation. Pope Francis makes room in the document for the active involvement of the laity. It is the clear resolve of the bishops of the United States that such collaboration is positive and necessary.
This document is new. It will take time to implement it fully. In this diocese, we will be implementing a third-party reporting system which will allow people to report the kind of criminal behavior confronted in this document. I will also be meeting with the other bishops of the Boston Province to determine how we will implement reporting in relation to ourselves as bishops. We are reminded that these evils have obscured the face of the Church, but these new measures will put stronger protections in place against those who harm others and anyone complicit with their actions.
As we look with hope toward the future, I ask for your continuing prayers that the Lord Jesus will aid us in maintaining a safe environment in our Church here in Maine through our vigilance and commitment to the safety of all.
[Read Pope Francis' "You are the Light of the World."]