A Catholic Response to Sexual Abuse: Confession, Contrition, Resolve

My brother Bishops, My brothers and sisters in Christ,

The Catholic Church in the United States is in a very grave crisis, perhaps the gravest we have faced. This crisis is not about a lack of faith in God. In fact, those Catholics who live their faith actively day-by-day will tell you that their faith in God is not in jeopardy; it has indeed been tested by this crisis, but it is very much intact. The crisis, in truth, is about a profound loss of confidence by the faithful in our leadership as shepherds, because of our failures in addressing the crime of the sexual abuse of children and young people by priests and Church personnel. What we are facing is not a breakdown in belief, but a rupture in our relationship as Bishops with the faithful. And this breakdown is understandable. We did not go far enough to ensure that every child and minor was safe from sexual abuse. Rightfully, the faithful are questioning why we failed to take the necessary steps.

The unity for which the Lord prayed fervently for his disciples and his Church on the night before he died - a unity that sadly has been broken too often in our history as a Church - is in serious danger of being fractured again; this time within our beloved Church in the United States.

These are times that cry out for a genuine reconciliation within the Church in our country; not a reconciliation that merely binds a wound so that we can move forward together in some hobbled kind of fashion. What we need is a reconciliation that heals: one that brings us together to address this issue in a way that ensures that it will not happen again; one that begins with a love of the Truth that is Jesus Christ; one that embraces fully and honestly the authentic elements of the Sacrament of Penance as we celebrate it in the Catholic tradition. Only by truthful confession, heartfelt contrition, and firm purpose of amendment can we hope to receive the generous mercy of God and the forgiveness of our brothers and sisters.

The Penance that is necessary here is not the obligation of the Church at large in the United States, but the responsibility of the Bishops ourselves. Both "what we have done" and "what we have failed to do" contributed to the sexual abuse of children and young people by clergy and Church personnel. Moreover, our God-given duty as shepherds of the Lord's people holds us responsible and accountable to God and to the Church for the spiritual and moral health of all of God's children, especially those who are weak and most vulnerable. It is we who need to confess; and so we do.

We are the ones, whether through ignorance or lack of vigilance, or - God forbid - with knowledge, who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry and reassigned them to communities where they continued to abuse.

We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests to the authorities, because the law did not require this.

We are the ones who worried more about the possibility of scandal than in bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse.

And we are the ones who, at times, responded to victims and their families as adversaries and not as suffering members of the Church.

Our confession is matched by a heartfelt contrition.

To the victim-survivors, I want to say this. If we Bishops have learned anything, it is how devastating are the effects of sexual abuse on the children and young people who suffer it. Even the passage of many years does not wipe away the memory of these terrible crimes. And so often, beyond the wounds inflicted on the memory, a person's whole personality also shows the results of these violations of innocence. Those of us who have not experienced sexual abuse in our childhood can never fully understand what it has done to you. But I promise you this: we Bishops will make every effort to take on your perspective, to see the world and the Church through your eyes, and to look at our own actions over the last decade from your point of view.

More importantly, in my own name and in the name of all of the Bishops, I express the most profound apology to each of you who have suffered sexual abuse by a priest or another official of the Church. I am deeply and will be forever sorry for the harm you have suffered. We ask your forgiveness.

To the parents and families of the victim-survivors, I want to say this. God has blessed the bond between a husband and wife in the Church as a Sacrament, as a real sign of his abiding presence in your marriage. The fullest blessing that God can give you in your marriage is the gift of children. In the act of parenting, you become partners with God in the creation of new life, and your family becomes a "domestic church" where your children first hear the Gospel of the Lord Jesus. You have a great responsibility. But how can we Bishops dare to look you parents in the eye and tell you that your children are your greatest treasure if we do not also treasure, love and protect them. I promise you this: Following the example of the Lord Jesus, today we Bishops recommit ourselves to placing the protection of your children first, and I am confident that the work we will do together over the next few days here in Dallas and every day thereafter will confirm that promise with solid action to provide for the safety of your children in the Church.