Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
Many bishops are now facing the reality that journalists know well: the vast majority of priests and seminarians, past and present, who experienced or saw adult sexual abuse by powerful clerics, were cowed into suffering in silence. The #MeToo seminarians and priests who have now come forward, amid the McCarrick scandal and coverup, have only just begun to open these bishops’ eyes to the horrific damage sexual predators and their enablers in chanceries, seminaries and the episcopate, have done to priestly formation and vocations.
Bishop James Checchio of Metuchen, New Jersey, joins a newly forming line of U.S. Catholic bishops who want independent specialists — outside their diocesan apparatus — to investigate #MeToo allegations. Bishop Checchio, who arrived in Metuchen two years ago, was previously rector for the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He is a successor to Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, who the bishop of Metuchen from 1982 to 1986, and revealed in June that diocesan records showed Archbishop McCarrick had sexually abused three adults, resulting in two settlements.
In a column for The Catholic Spirit, Bishop Checchio reiterated his commitment to fight the abuse of minors, but turned his attention to fighting the sexual predation on priests and seminarians. His brother bishop, Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, New York, had condemned “spiritual fathers” who prey on their sons as nothing short of “incestuous,” and Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Forth, Texas, said laicization should be on the table for Archbishop McCarrick, and the enablers in the Church who allowed him to prey on minors, adults, and his own spiritual sons, must be found and punished.
Bishop Checchio said the Church needed to eliminate “the fear of retribution” so any priests, current and former seminarians, and other adults, can report their sexual abuse. He identified the reporting structure needed to be independent, and announced he was forming a team of senior advisors to address these abuses. He states in his column:
“I am also working to address how we can ensure that similar abuses, especially of seminarians or young priests, would not happen again, particularly by those in positions of authority over them. I have begun to bring together a senior team of advisors to examine reporting processes. Clearly, the safety of an independent reporting structure that allows for anyone to bring an allegation forward without the fear of retribution of any kind is needed. Accountability on all levels helps to ensure that a healthy, wholesome environment prevails to form and train our future priests. I know that I do not have to reiterate to the people of this Diocese that proper priestly formation is central to renewal in the life of the Church.”
Predators thrive in environments where their prey cannot cry out for help and warn the others. What is true for predators and prey in nature is true of sexual predators in the Church, whether homosexual or heterosexual, who thrive in the silence of their victims. As the global Catholic #MeToo movement shows, these enablers of adult sexual abuse exist at every level of the Church’s institutional structures. Bishop Checchio apparently is deeply concerned that such an environment may exist in his diocese, and must be ferreted out, with the help of an “independent reporting structure,” because the very future of the Church is on the line.
What is also key here is that Bishop Checchio describes Archbishop McCarrick’s sexual misconduct involving priests and seminarians as “abuse.” Not “improprieties,” or other similar language.
According to the American Psychological Association’s website, sexual abuse “is unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent. Most victims and perpetrators know each other. Immediate reactions to sexual abuse include shock, fear or disbelief. Long-term symptoms include anxiety, fear or post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Bishop Checchio’s language choice eliminates any blurred lines between acts that are morally evil, yet involve consensual sex of free parties — such as a bishop and another bishop, or a priest and another priest — and morally evil acts of sexual abuse where consent is either violated (such as sexual harassment and sexual assault) or impossible to truly grant, such as a bishop and a nun, or a pastor and a seminarian working in the parish, or a counselor and his patient.
Bishop Checchio appears to recognize that a priest or seminarian is de facto a “vulnerable adult” per the Dallas Charter, and therefore not in a position to give actual sexual consent, when it comes to a person who wields authority over him.
Seminarians and priests have told the Register the fear of retribution for coming forward is real, because diocesan and other Church officials have an enormous amount of power over their lives and well-being. Some of the men the Register talked with have a great filial love and affection for their bishop — but they are afraid of retribution, since the current structures in the diocese allow officials who have the trust and reliance of the bishop to punish whistleblowers in the Church’s employ, discredit their reputations, and effectively bury their #MeToo allegations, enabling sexual violators advance into priesthood and their own lives to be made miserable. If they have not experienced it personally, they have seen it happen to others.
Bishop Checchio has proposed a solution to a problem. But his following words remind Catholics that true bishops aim to form priests to show people the Good Shepherd — they are not lambs to be sacrificed to wolves.
“In the Diocese of Metuchen, we are seeing a new springtime with men studying for the priesthood. We are blessed with the most seminarians we have had in 25 years. They are good men, striving to make over their hearts like the Good Shepherd’s own caring heart. Of course, years ago it might have been relatively easy to enter the seminary, and receive the accolades of family, parish and society at large for deciding to become a priest. That is not the case now. Our young men seek to join in this life of service to God and His people at a time when it would be easy to ignore the call and choose another path. Yet, they choose to listen to the quiet call of the Lord, asking them to “follow me” just as our Lord asked the apostles two thousand years ago. I thank God for them, as I thank God as well for you, who support these dedicated young men in their response to God's call in these challenging times.”
Read the bishop’s full column here.