Bishop Caggiano: Youth Synod Bishops Must Address Sex-Abuse Crisis

Connecticut shepherd said recent disclosures of sexual scandals in the Church have eroded trust around the world.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass in St. Peter's Square for the opening of the Synod of Bishops Oct. 3.
Pope Francis celebrates Mass in St. Peter's Square for the opening of the Synod of Bishops Oct. 3. (photo: CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, said Thursday that the Church must discuss its sexual-abuse crisis if it is to gain the trust of young people.

During his Oct. 4 speech at the 2018 Synod of Bishops, he said that the Church must “continue to directly address the issue of the sexual abuse of minors and youth by clerics in many regions of the world.”

“It is a both a crime and a sin that has undermined the confidence and trust that young people must have in the Church’s leaders and the Church as an institution, so that they may again trust their priests and bishops to exercise true spiritual fatherhood, serve as adult figures in their lives, and as authentic mentors of faith.”

The bishop offered his commentary while referring to a section of the synod’s working document, the instrumentum laboris, that directly addressed a decline in trust among young people in social, political and cultural institutions, including the Church.

An online survey conducted by synod organizers in advance of this month’s meeting of bishops found that less than 20% of young respondents believe that their lives can meaningfully impact the public life of their countries.  

“The lack of reliable leadership, at different levels, both in the civil and ecclesial domain, is strongly decried by young people. A particularly evident weakness is due to the spread of corruption. Institutions should care about the common good, and when someone is able to bend them to serve their particular interests, their credibility is dramatically eroded,” the instrumentum laboris recounts.

The bishop said that recent disclosures of sexual scandals in the Church have eroded trust around the world. The answer, he said, is that the synod bishops “must continue to face courageously and honestly the betrayal of young people by clerics to whom they were entrusted.”

Bishop Caggiano referred to fallout from revelations this summer that Archbishop Theodore McCarrick had been credibly abused of serially sexually abusing a teenage boy in the 1970s, was subsequently reported to have serially sexually abused one other teenager, and to have sexually coerced and assaulted seminarians and young priests during his decades as a bishop.

Subsequent to those revelations, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report detailing decades of clerical sexual abuse in that state, an investigation was launched into sexual misconduct on the part of a former West Virginia bishop, and a former Vatican ambassador to the United States released a letter accusing high-ranking Churchmen, including Pope Francis, of negligence in their response to allegations of sexual misconduct. (Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò has since  released a second letter.)

The backdrop for those events is a set of questions raised this year about a Chilean sexual-abuse crisis, in which Pope Francis is alleged not to have addressed a 2015 letter from the victim of a sexually abusive priest, who claimed that a bishop supported by Francis had been complicit in acts of sexual abuse.

Addressing that constellation of crises, Bishop Caggiano said: “This sin must never again be found in our midst. Only in this way can the youth of the world believe our synodal call to offer them reassurance, comfort, hope and belonging.”

The bishop’s remarks are noteworthy because the 2018 youth synod has been criticized by some bishops, including attendees, who say that the topic of the meeting should have been shifted to address primarily clerical sexual immorality or that it should have been postponed.

Caggiano, named Bishop of Bridgeport in 2013, is chairman of the USCCB’s Subcommittee on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a member of the U.S. bishops’ conference Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.

A longtime promoter of U.S. participation in the Church’s World Youth Day events, he is well-known for his involvement in youth ministry and served a term as episcopal adviser to the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry. He attended Yale University before beginning seminary studies, and he later earned a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University.
Bishop Caggiano’s intervention also made mention of “the role that technology now plays in the development of young people.”

The bishop said the synod’s working document “rightly identified the key phenomenon that visual images play as the prime medium through which young people understand reality,” adding that “it does not fully explore, nor take advantage of, the formative power that technology now exercises upon the full development of young people.”

He suggested that technology has fostered a cultural shift, which includes disposition toward creativity and collaboration among young people, and he urged that the synod “investigate further these fundamental changes now experienced by young people so that the pastoral initiatives we embrace can be as comprehensive as possible.”

In particular, the bishop suggested that “it is the path of beauty that must be better explored for the sake of evangelization and catechesis.”

“In my experience with young people, the questions that haunt them are not simply intellectual ones. They are first and foremost affective questions (i.e., “questions of the heart”) that ask about their self-worth, the reasonableness of hope, the ability to commit to another and to be loved in return.”

To answer these questions, Bishop Caggiano said bishops “must unlock the power of beauty, which touches and captures the heart, precisely by utilizing the many opportunities now afforded by digital communication and social media to accompany young people to experience beauty in service of the Gospel.”

The bishop said that sacred liturgy, especially, should be offered “as a celebration of the beautiful, the transcendent, with an engagement of the affective senses.”

He concluded: “Let us work to capture the heart of all believers to encounter a God who does not promise a sterile life, but a life that is itself beautiful, rich in meaning, that invites one’s heart to dare to believe that this earthly life is worth living and worth fighting for in light of an eternal life where the restlessness of the heart will find its final rest in the salvation that alone comes from Christ Jesus the Lord.”