In recent weeks our attention has turned again to the issue of sexual abuse of minors by priests. Although the renewed focus on this issue is largely due to cases of priest abusers that were not dealt with appropriately in the past, it gives me the occasion, as a pastor and a teacher of faith and morals to express my profound sorrow for this breach of trust. Parents and young people have, in the past, tended to trust priests as much as or more than anyone else in their lives. When that trust is betrayed, the disillusionment alienates them from the priest, and from everything that he represents.
The wound inflicted by sexual abuse cuts deeper than a physical wound. The wound caused by abuse is invisible and often rendered almost inaccessible through an unholy alliance whereby victims are convinced that they must protect the abuser by their silence. Wounds such as these damage children to the very core of their being and their fundamental self-identity. For the victims of sexual abuse, the pain and suffering is not, and may never be, over.
As a Church, we must and are attempting to reach out pastorally and sensitively to victims. The pastoral care for the sexual abuse victims and their families consists of, above all, compassion, justice and healing of the grave injury inflicted upon them.
Our own diocesan policy and protocol is simple and straightforward. When we become aware of an allegation of sexual abuse by a priest or diocesan employee, a referral is made to the Diocesan Sexual Assault Committee. Membership includes two diocesan priests, a civil lawyer, a psychologist, a social worker, and community representatives and takes into account gender balance and clinical experience. The chair of the committee is a layperson, who is not a paid employee of the Diocese. The professionals selected have experience and expertise in the area of sexual misconduct and reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of the larger community. The committee also liaises with a psychiatrist and a canon lawyer when necessary.
A couple of members of the Committee immediately interview the victim, and perhaps, the parents, or others who have a close relationship with the alleged victim. Then the priest or diocesan employee is interviewed and an immediate conclusion is drawn about the veracity of the allegation. There have been false allegations. Generally, however, when an allegation surfaces, we tend to credit it and take immediate action. Whenever the allegation involves a minor, the matter is reported in accordance with the Alberta Child Welfare Act, section 3,1-6. Transparency is the operative stance in dealing with law enforcement officials.
If there is substance to the allegation, the priest is placed on administrative leave, sent for an psychological assessment and treatment. Victims are also offered counselling support. In the past we did not have the clarity that we have now in regard to the extraordinary difficulty of rehabilitating anyone with pedophilic or ephebephilic tendencies. We have learnt from harsh experience that we cannot put parishioners, particularly children, at risk. There is no greater priority than ensuring the protection of children. A pedophile or an ephebephile cannot be given a pastoral assignment. A much more complicated situation arises when dealing with a priest whose sexual transgression resulted from psychosexual immaturity, lowered inhibitions due to alcohol abuse or a one-time lapse in judgment. Such a person does not fit the criteria for pedophiles or ephebephiles, nor are they in any way predatory. Nevertheless, despite psychotherapeutic treatment and a healthy prognosis, given our current cultural and ecclesial reality, it would also appear that such a person cannot be given a pastoral assignment.
In view of the phenomenon of abuse, there is a much more extensive vocational screening procedure involved in the selection of candidates for priesthood, including a battery of psychological tests. The program of formation has been revised and individuated. Human formation counsellors have been added to seminary formation teams. A variety of workshops on sexuality, celibacy, boundary issues and professional responsibilities have been mandated as pre-service and in-service programs.
While we have much for which we need to be forgiven, and much to learn, we are making significant progress.
I have also been drawn to meditate and pray about what a vocation to ordained ministry is all about. It "is essentially a call to holiness in the form which derives from the sacrament of Orders. Holiness is intimacy with God, it is the imitation of Christ, who was poor, chaste and humble; it is unreserved love for souls and a giving of oneself on their behalf and for their true good; it is love for the Church which is holy and wants us to be holy, because this is the mission that Christ entrusted to her" [Pastores Dabo Vobis, 33].
Jesus calls the Apostles "to be his companions" [Mk 3,14] in a privileged intimacy [cf Lk 8,1-2; 22,28]. Not only does he share with them the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven [cf Mt 13,16-18], but He expects a surpassing faithfulness from them, consonant with the Apostolic ministry to which He calls them. He demands a more rigorous poverty from them [cf Mt 19,22-23], the humility of a servant who becomes the last of all [cf Mt 20,25-27].
He asks of them faith in the powers they received [cf Mt 17,19-21], prayer and fasting as effective tools of apostolate [cf Mk 9,29] and unselfishness: "You received without pay, give without pay" [Mt 10,8]. From them He expects prudence together with simplicity and moral rectitude [cf Mt 10,26-28] and abandonment to Divine Providence [cf Lk 9,1-3; 19,22-23]. They must also be aware of the responsibilities they assume, as they are administrators of the Sacraments established by the Master and labourers in His vineyard [cf Lk 12,43-48].
I am saddened that the crimes of a few have cast a shadow over the grace-filled and necessary work that the overwhelming majority of priests do day-in-and day-out for society and the Church. As bishop, I have no hesitation in saying that God has blessed me with brothers and co-workers in the priesthood who get up every morning to give their lives in full service to the Church as witnesses to Jesus Christ in our midst.
☩ Frederick Henry