Friday, March 11, 2016 - Updated: 6:00 am
Anyone who has played the game of Trivial Pursuit might be faced with identifying the quote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” For any student of literature, one will immediately recognize it as coming from the pen of Charles Dickens in his great work, “A Tale of Two Cities.”
In my own prayer over the last couple of weeks, Dickens’ quote has repeatedly come back to my mind and soul: “It (is) the best of times, it (is) the worst of times.”
What about my prayer has led me to that reflection? We have been painfully reminded once again of one of the very serious and recurring wounds of our society and our church: the sexual abuse of minors. The awarding of “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards ceremony to “Spotlight,” the grand jury report about one of our neighboring dioceses, and continued stories in our news about school teachers and others who have crossed the line make this issue ever new and ever painful.
Allow me to share a very profound memory. Back in 1988, I served as administrative secretary to the diocesan bishop. During his earliest days as our bishop in 1988, Bishop Donald Wuerl received allegations that three priests had sexually abused minors. Stories about that abuse became the top story in all of our local newspapers and on television news for weeks on end. We became painfully aware of a tragedy that would eventually play out as a national disgrace.
In a very early response to the allegations, I accompanied Bishop Wuerl to the home of a victim’s family. I will never forget the visit. I will never forget seeing and hearing the searing victim’s pain and feeling the heartbreak of parents. That horror and grief has stayed with me over all of these years. It has made me ever so aware of how much we, not only as the church but as a society, must do everything that we can do to prevent sexual abuse. This is not just a problem for the church. This is an issue for every setting where adults interact with children.
Over 28 years, I have learned a great deal about sexual abuse, especially of minors. I trust you have as well. Studies show that the greatest incidence of sexual abuse of minors takes place in the home and oftentimes from their parents and other members of their family. As it has happened in the church, so it has happened in schools, in locker rooms of college facilities, pediatricians’ offices and many other settings where a person “in whom much trust was placed” betrayed that trust in shocking ways. And sadly, in all too many cases, the first reaction of adults who learned of these crimes was to protect other adults at the expense of children.
Confront this evil
In the Diocese of Pittsburgh, we pledged never to give way to such misplaced, distorted “protection.” Bishop Wuerl promised never to permit a priest who had molested a minor to remain in ministry, and I have kept that promise. We have also sought to detect and prevent abuse through background checks and training programs for all of our clergy — myself included — as well as all employees and any volunteer who might encounter a child in the course of that service. As the Church of Pittsburgh, we have made continual changes and improvements as we have learned more about abuse and its effect on victims. We have raised the bar. We will continue to do more as we continually re-evaluate our programs and policies. But all of us in our society must find a way to come together to confront this evil.
As a bishop, I am profoundly upset when I see cases where some brother bishops have failed to remove priests whom they knew had molested minors.
Beyond that, I feel the personal and spiritual pain of knowing that some priests who made the same promises I did to serve God have engaged in acts so twisted that they have driven people away from Jesus and the church.
At the same time, I also feel very badly for our faithful priests who suffer as well. The estimated 4 percent of priests who have brought harm to children have also damaged the lives and ministries of the many, many good and faithful priests who give their lives to protect the flock. Sometimes these good men are subject to verbal or written attacks from people who seem to think that when one priest commits a crime, all are guilty.
As Catholics we should be grateful to the journalists and government officials who sought out wrongdoing when the church failed to, and brought it to light. Movies such as “Spotlight” and documents such as the grand jury report are not attacks on the church. They are evidence of a society that seeks to right wrongs.
We need to be aware of the people around us who may be victims and survivors of sexual abuse, whether in the context of the church or any setting. We need to understand that this is an assault on their very being, their sense of identity, their sense of self-worth. Even though we cannot feel what they feel, we need to offer compassion, a listening ear and our prayers of support as they seek healing.
And we need to be aware that our priests are also suffering in a special way as they hear these reports, feeling shame for what some of their brothers have done and fearing rejection because they wear the same collar. They also need our prayers and support.
In a couple of weeks, we will be spiritually engaged in Holy Week. The high drama of what happened in the waning hours of Jesus’ life will be realities that we will observe ritually in all of our churches.
On Holy Thursday morning, I will gather together with all of our priests at the cathedral for what we call the chrism Mass. In addition to the privilege afforded me as bishop of the diocese to bless the oils that will be used in all of our churches, I will join with my brother priests to recommit ourselves in our service to you, the faithful of the Church of Pittsburgh and beyond.
As we approach Holy Week, might I ask you to do two things?
First, above all, never forget to pray for the victims of child sexual abuse. We cannot undo what they suffered, but we can support them in healing. Every painful revelation we have heard is also a sign that God is shining a light into the darkness and cleansing our church for the mission ahead.
Second, in the midst of a very difficult time, please remember our priests and myself in your prayers. We need them. We need them so that we do not become discouraged by the news stories around us. In your own small way, please reach out to your priests and share with them your gratitude for who they are and what they do. Encourage our priests.
Yes, Charles Dickens was right. “It (is) the best of times, it (is) the worst of times.”
May we as the Church of Pittsburgh learn something valuable from the “worst of times” by doing all that we can through prayer and thoughtful actions to make them “the best of times.”