To even casual observers of recent news about the Catholic Church, it’s clear that a new day has dawned.
Finally, after decades of stalling, denials and civil lawsuits, Catholic dioceses seem to recognize their accountability for the criminal behavior of pedophile priests.
Consider the case of retired Bishop Joseph Hart. The former prelate of Cheyenne, Wyo., now 86 years old, could face criminal charges under what the current bishop of Cheyenne has deemed credible and substantiated accusations of sexual abuse.
News of the case traveled ahead of the headlines to Kansas City, where Hart was ordained in 1956. Many believe that is where he first groomed young boys for sexual abuse in the parishes where he served until 1976.
The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph readily restated that Hart had previously been accused of abusing 10 people, which led to multimillion-dollar settlements involving allegations against him and other Kansas City priests, some now deceased.
Across the state line, the archbishop of Kansas City in Kansas announced in May that a priest, John H. Wisner, has been defrocked for allegedly sexually abusing three men now in their 40s, a punitive step that previously was almost unheard of and requires a sign-off from the Vatican.
The archdiocese was criticized for not publicizing the move against Wisner more widely and earlier. However, it has subsequently become clear that the archdiocese went to great lengths in pressing for the defrocking. And in recent years it has beefed up the office that handles such allegations to mirror the stellar team on the Missouri side of the Greater Kansas City area, all without fanfare.
In June, the scandals reached deep into church hierarchy. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, was removed from ministry duties after findings that he'd been credibly accused of sexually abusing a teenager decades ago. Church officials also admitted that McCarrick, 87, had been previously accused by others, some of whom had agreed to be silenced by settlements.
Even more hope can be derived from off-the-record conversations I and other reporters have had, not to mention the hierarchy’s new attitude toward reporters and others who are seeking answers about clerical abuse.
Diocesan spokespeople return calls right away, even at late hours. And they reply with full statements, not evasive replies that deflect the seriousness of the accusations.
That never used to happen.
They have engaged outside investigators who have gone to great lengths to substantiate or disprove allegations. Some of the people who have been contacted are the same people who years ago were shoved aside by previous Catholic officials, their suspicions and concerns downplayed or dismissed outright.
For accused priests, this is definitely a new era. Before, they could take comfort in knowing the church would likely shield them from ever having to take responsibility. Victims were not to be believed. (Wisner, Hart and McCarrick have denied the allegations against them.)
Dioceses are demonstrating that they understand the gravity of the sins of pedophile priests. This is hard-won progress. And it has been possible only because victims have continued to step forward and tell their stories — and far too often to retell and retell them because they weren’t previously believed.
The honesty and openness that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops promised way back in 2002 is finally materializing.
It’s often said that sexual abuse survivors, those who were attacked as children, are never whole again. The comment isn’t intended to be condescending, nor is it made from a place of pity. It simply acknowledges the deep wound that such abuse inflicts, damaging victims’ ability to trust, to form healthy relationships and even to believe in a loving God.
All of this is why the statements — and, more importantly, the actions — that are occurring deserve recognition. Note this statement issued by Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr. of the Diocese of Kansas City–St. Joseph as it reacted to the news out of Wyoming about Hart: “If you were harmed by Bishop Hart or any other person who has worked or volunteered for the diocese, no matter how long ago, the diocese wants to provide care and healing resources to you and your family.”
One single phrase — “no matter how long ago” — conveys a new and long overdue attitude. Phone numbers were given, and blessedly, those calls will be answered.