'Promise to Protect and Pledge to Heal'

Conference discusses necessary changes following clergy sex-abuse scandal.

(photo: Shutterstock)

MILWAUKEE (CNS) — Much more remains to be done to “turn around the culture of an institution” that allowed thousands of children to be abused by priests in the Archdiocese of Dublin, the head of the archdiocese told an international conference on the clergy sex-abuse scandal April 4.

Opening the two-day conference at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin was harsh in his assessment of most of the priest abusers he had met since becoming archbishop of Dublin in 2004.

Other conference speakers included Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People, as well as a group of abuse victims, priests and various experts.

“I can honestly say that with perhaps two exceptions, I have not encountered a real and unconditional admission of guilt and responsibility on the part of priest offenders in my diocese,” Archbishop Martin said. “Survivors have repeatedly told me that one of the greatest insults and hurts they have experienced is to see the lack of real remorse on the part of offenders even when they plead guilty in court.”

The Irish archbishop said a Feb. 20 “liturgy of lament and repentance” at the Dublin cathedral “was a truly restorative moment” for many abuse survivors, who “felt that they had encountered in it a Church which was beginning to identify with their hurt and their journey.”

“But there are so many survivors who have not yet had that experience of being surrounded by a Church in lament, rather than a Church still wanting to be in charge,” he added.

The Dublin leader said the Church must analyze whether “the culture of clericalism” might have “somehow facilitated disastrous abusive behavior to continue for so long” and must repent for the “false understanding of mercy and human nature” that allow offenders to continue to abuse children.

“Serial sexual abusers manipulatively weaved their way in and out of the net of mercy for years, when what they really needed was that they be firmly blocked in their path,” he said.

Archbishop Martin also urged greater attention to seminary formation and warned against accepting candidates for priesthood who “may be looking not to serve, but for some form of personal security or status which priesthood may seem to offer them.”

He said he planned to require all future priests to “carry out some part of their formation together with laypeople so that they can establish mature relationships with men and women and do not develop any sense of their priesthood giving them a special social position.”

“There are signs of renewed clericalism which may even at times be ably veiled behind appeals for deeper spirituality or for more orthodox theological positions,” he said.

Bishop Cupich called the Marquette conference a “much-needed effort to bring healing in what is a historically challenging but also decisive moment for our Church.”

He did not directly mention the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which now has placed 26 priests on administrative leave pending an investigation into abuse allegations made against them.

But he referred to “recent developments” that “unfortunately demonstrate only too painfully” what happens when Church leaders do not fully understand “the horror” of what has been done to innocent children and “forget that healing is the first imperative.”

He also spoke of the Church at large needing more than ever to “keep fresh and internalize” the insights learned in 2002, when the U.S. bishops adopted the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” at their Dallas meeting.

“We are seeing what some are referring to as charter fatigue emerging in our communities,” he said, referring specifically to the work involved in implementing safe-environment programs. He said some pastors and directors of religious-education programs are “becoming frustrated,” while others are “convinced that the crisis has passed.”

In the midst of these emerging attitudes, he said the bishops’ leadership is “needed now more than ever to address these concerns and give new vitality to our promise to protect and our pledge to heal.”

Bishop Cupich gave particular thanks to the group of abuse victims who addressed the conference, saying: “They remind us that the starting point for everything we are supposed to be doing in addressing the harm done in the clergy sex-abuse scandal is healing.”

“We should not underestimate the institutional inertia that has to be overcome if we are to lead in a way that heals,” he said.

Children must always come first, the bishop said, and they “should be the real motivation for keeping our promise to protect and pledge to heal.”