As U.S. bishops gather in Baltimore this week, the leaders of Missouri’s four Roman Catholic dioceses have released a letter calling for immediate action to address the clergy sexual abuse crisis.
The move came soon after the Vatican urged bishops to delay votes during their fall general assembly on key proposals designed to address the sex abuse scandal.
“There is no more critical issue facing the Church today in the United States than the clergy sexual abuse crisis,” says the letter, sent by the Missouri Province of Bishops to Bishop Timothy Doherty of the Diocese of Lafayette in Indiana. Doherty is the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People.
The letter was dated Oct. 6, but wasn’t released until Monday after Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the bishops’ conference, announced that the Vatican had asked U.S. bishops not to vote on two proposals dealing with priest sex abuse. Pope Francis is convening a summit on child protection in February with bishops from around the world.
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The proposals would have established a new bishops’ code of conduct and the creation of a special team to investigate complaints against bishops.
The surprise announcement about delaying the vote created a stir on the opening day of the bishops’ conference. And on Tuesday, several bishops urged their colleagues to take some sort of action despite the Vatican’s request.
In their letter, the Missouri bishops expressed support for some of the measures proposed after DiNardo met with Pope Francis in September but said they feared the measures “will not be enough in their substance or timeliness to meet the demands that this pastoral crisis presents.”
“We are heartbroken over the abuse of power which is at the center of the sexual abuse scandal of our Church,” the letter said, adding that addressing the issue requires “transparency, accountability and genuine reform in the way in which the Church handles issues of the abuse of power by the hierarchy.”
“We must keep at the forefront the survivors of the horrendous evil that was perpetrated against children, minors and seminarians, who suffered greatly and whose faith in the Church, in many cases, has been destroyed. A culture of silence and cover-up by the hierarchy has brought the Church to this moment of crisis.”
The bishops said there was a growing expectation among the clergy and parishioners that the general assembly “will provide the opportunity for our country’s bishops to respond decisively to the most critical issue facing our Church today which is impeding other vital elements of the Church’s mission.”
In a statement released along with their letter, the Missouri bishops said they supported the creation of a third-party hotline for complaints of sexual abuse by a bishop and the development of policies that would place restrictions on bishops who have been removed or resigned over sexual abuse allegations.
The bishops also supported a full investigation into Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, whom Pope Francis removed as a cardinal in July after an allegation that he groped a teenage altar boy in the 1970s was deemed credible. After that, others reported that they had been abused or sexually harassed by McCarrick as adult seminarians and young priests.
“The McCarrick scandal has shaken not only the confidence of Catholics, but also of others who look to our Church for moral guidance,” the Missouri bishops’ statement said. “It is our moral obligation to acknowledge the negative consequences of a pastoral strategy of silence and inaction in the face of such a horrific scandal that is so widely known.”
Those signing the document were Bishop James V. Johnston, of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph; Archbishop Robert J. Carlson and Auxiliary Bishop Mark S. Rivituso, of the Archdiocese of St. Louis; Bishop W. Shawn McKnight, of the Diocese of Jefferson City; and Bishop Edward M. Rice, of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau.
The priest sex abuse issue erupted in August when a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a report finding that church leaders had covered up sexual abuse by hundreds of priests over seven decades.
Since then, a federal criminal case has been opened in Philadelphia, and attorneys general in several other states, including Missouri, also have launched investigations.
The need for those investigations has become even more crucial in light of the Vatican’s action this week, a victims’ advocacy group said Tuesday.
“Independent investigations by law enforcement are the only way to get to the bottom of institutional sexual abuse scandals,” said the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Of the 19 states that have begun investigations, SNAP said, at least six will have new attorneys general as a result of the Nov. 6 general election.
“SNAP is pleading with those newly elected officials to not let these investigations fall by the wayside.”