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Crisis In The Church

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton
Talk Given in Montreal
May 25, 2002

Thank you very, very much. Your words of introduction are a bit exaggerated, but they still sound pretty good, and make me feel good. I really do thank you and thank all of you for being here today on the occasion of this award, and also for this presentation. I didn’t exactly offer to give it; I was kind of pressed to give it. At first I was hesitant to speak about the crisis in the Church. But as I thought about it, I thought I probably really do need to in a public way, express some of my own convictions about this current crisis. So, at this point, I am very happy to make this presentation, and thank the Sisters of Charity of Montreal for inviting me here today.

In speaking about the crisis in the Church, I know that we all share many emotions. We feel together a sense of shock. What has been happening the last few months seems almost beyond belief. And also, a profound sadness. In a very personal way, I was deeply saddened by the news yesterday that Archbishop Weakland was forced to resign. And the sadness that we feel for all of the victims. But ultimately, I think we also in a deep way, feel a sense of hope. Some people might say that their faith is shaken by what is happening in the Church. But in a deeper way, our faith really isn’t shaken. We do have a very strong conviction in the truth of the words that Jesus proclaimed and were part of our Sunday Gospel just a week ago, “I am with you all days, I am with you always.” And we know that, in the midst of all the crisis that we are experiencing, that Jesus is still with us. We have a much deeper awareness of how very, very human our Church is. But our faith is in Jesus not in the human institution of the Church.

As I speak to you today, I speak from various perspectives. First of all, the perspective of being a member of the Catholic Conference of Bishops, and therefore as one who has some responsibility for resolving the crisis. Also, I speak from the perspective of one who has had personal contact with victims, and who has come to understand the deep sense of hurt, betrayal, and anger that these victims feel. And also, I speak as one who, as any priest or bishop in the United States, feels somewhat vulnerable because allegations could be made against any one of us; similar to what happened to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. And so, in the midst of this crisis, I am trying to understand all of these various perspectives and search out what needs to be the response of each of us and the whole Church.

The crisis is described in the media almost exclusively as a “sex” scandal, a “sex” crisis. And it certainly is that. It is of major proportions. We have not previously experienced anything like it in the Catholic Church in the United States. But if we are really going to understand this crisis, and if we’re going to find the right way to bring about a resolution of it, to restore credibility to the Church, to bring healing to the victims, to curtail insofar as humanly possible any further incidents of sexual abuse, then we have to see this crisis not just as a sex scandal, but as a crisis of leadership within the Catholic Church…a crisis that revolves around the leadership of the Catholic bishops. In many contacts that I’ve had throughout the country, conversations that I’ve had with various people, it has become more and more clear to me that what upsets people most of all is the failure of the bishops to provide the leadership that our Church needs, and the people of the Church have a right to.

I have received letters from people around the country, and a couple of these letters bring out so clearly the failure of leadership. One person who wrote to me from Virginia Beach, VA says, Not since the Protestant Reformation has the Church come under such criticism and veered on the precipice of destruction. And just as in the Reformation the Church has brought much of the problem on Herself. There has not been one day in the last three weeks that the Church has not been skewered by columnists, letters to the editor, or has a news article about the shameful way the hierarchy is performing. I know you realize that the laity are not as enraged by the fact that there are priests who are pedophiles, as much as the collusion in covering up and protecting the criminals disguised as men of God. I have just sent the Cardinals and Bishop Gregory letters denouncing the actions of the hierarchy, and asking them to dig deep into their hearts for the humility, humanity and compassion of Christ. I see only one way to salvage any piece of the Catholic Church at this point, and that is for the hierarchy, the bishops to collectively repent, ask for forgiveness and vow never to allow this kind of thing to happen again. But my fear is that they will not be able to bend their knees to that, and so will cause the wholesale ‘slaughter’ of the Church.”

That may seem like a very harsh statement, and yet it is the kind of feeling that I discovered is not uncommon among many people.

Another letter, I’ll just read a short excerpt, from a married couple, both of whom have been administrators within the institution of the Church -- one in a social service agency; the other the principal of a Catholic school. And they write to me, “It is imperative that when you go Dallas, that you demand of yourself and of your fellow bishops to develop policies that are pro-active and thorough. We need to put this scandal completely to rest for the safety of all. We also need to rebuild the trust that has been lost through these many years of cover up and omission in handling the tragedies.”

A third letter comes from a victim. She addressed the whole Conference of Bishops: “I don’t have at my immediate disposal a pulpit, or the media resources you do. But I nevertheless feel I must respond to your publicly issued statement following your meetings in Rome. How bittersweet your Easter reference to the Good Shepherd seemed to any victim survivor who reads your statement. I know it is for me. It reminds me of my early youth where innocence was untarnished and my prayers were simple. I believed that the Good Shepherd heard my voice and smiled on one so filled with zeal. You raised the question of voice. It is appropriate that you wonder if yours has become the voice of strangers. Every victim has asked similar questions as they grapple with the aftermath of some very un-Shepherd like events. Our question of voice has been - have we been silenced forever? And if we have not, who will hear?” Further on in the letter her anger and bitterness erupts: “I call no human Shepherd. I call no human my pastor. That would imply that I have a minute desire left within me to be led. I do not. I would rather put on my snowshoes and trudge on alone through a freshly fallen bed of new possibilities, than to allow myself to be subordinated to the position of lamb to the slaughter again. Any shepherd of mine would have stood in harm’s way during the recent summit in Rome, and not allowed the whining about the good priests being victims to become so loud as to overshadow the condolences that are owed to those abused.”

Again, it may seem to be a rather harsh judgment about the bishops and their failure of leadership. And yet, as I have reflected more and more on this crisis, I am convinced that this is what the fundamental problem really is -- a failure of leadership within our Church.

And the leadership failure has resulted in the bishops not responding adequately to the actions of perpetrators, to the deplorable, and even criminal conduct of priests in our midst. And even more deplorable has been what has taken place sometimes -- a kind of cover-up. Bishops allowing perpetrators to remain within our midst and moving them from one place to another. And settlements that have been made in secret without the Catholic people knowing what the resources that they have contributed to the Church are being used for. Sometimes letters written by bishops to perpetrator-priests encouraging them, and no letters, no meetings taking place with victims. There certainly has been a lack of care for the victims in many, many instances. This is a clear lack of leadership in our Church. Some of it perhaps due to ignorance many years ago. But that ignorance was overcome when we in the Catholic Conference of Bishops were fully informed about the nature of the problems we were dealing with and how intractable many of these problems are. And yet the cover-ups and the collusion and the lack of response to the victims went on.

But it’s not only that kind of immediate failure of leadership that concerns me. There has been a deeper and more profound kind of failure on the part of the Catholic bishops in the United States and perhaps in other parts of the world in allowing a situation to develop where such a large number of priests seem so susceptible of becoming perpetrators of these kinds of crimes.

Over 30 years ago, the Catholic Bishops of the United States authorized a five-part study of the priesthood in the United States. We paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for this study. It was completed, most of it, by 1971. The study included a historical study of the US priesthood, a spirituality study, a theological study of what the US priesthood means in a post-Vatican II Church in the United States. And then even more pertinent to our current problems, there was a very thorough sociological study and an equally thorough psychological study of the US priesthood. I can remember very clearly the meeting we held in 1971 when the chief authors of the sociological and psychological studies made a presentation to the Catholic bishops. That psychological study should have been an exceptionally helpful eye opener for the Catholic bishops. It categorized, from a psychological development perspective, what the priesthood in the United States looked like. At one end of the spectrum are maldeveloped priests. And according to the study, there were about 7 or 8% of the priests in the United States who were seriously maldeveloped. Then there was a very large category -- 65-66% of the priests in the United States who were described as underdeveloped. And then another category of about 13-14% or so that were developing persons. At the other end of the spectrum about 7 or 8% of priests who would be termed developed persons. It’s important to grasp what that study revealed. It was saying that we had in our midst some priests who were severely handicapped from a psychological point of view; they were maldeveloped persons capable of inflicting great harm on people they were supposed to be ministering to. And there was this very large number of priests who would be considered underdeveloped. And what that means from a psychological perspective was that a person in his upper 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, whatever chronological age, would be psychologically developed only to the point of adolescence, not psychologically mature persons.

There would be varying degrees of underdevelopment, of course. The problem is very clear: a person is chronologically an adult but is psychologically, affectively, and emotionally still a teenager. Obviously, such people will often be involved in inappropriate relationships. And if that relationship includes a sexual component the problem becomes sinful and criminal.

In my judgment a major failure was the refusal on the part of the bishops to follow up on these studies. I think I understand one of the reasons there was no follow-up. This was a time when many priests were leaving the Church, or, at least, leaving the priesthood. And almost certainly, if we had implemented programs that would have helped men who were underdeveloped to become developed persons, many would have understood that they had entered the seminary during teenage years; they had been ordained without full human personal development, and had made a life choice when they really weren’t ready to make such a choice. As they became fully developed persons they would sometimes make a different choice and leave the priesthood. And so it would have been dangerous in one sense for the bishops to develop programs that would have enabled people to move on in their development. We would have risked, I am sure, losing quite a number. But we would have had a much stronger priesthood in the sense that we would have had priests who were psychologically developed, capable of mature relationships, able to minister, able to live a healthy, celibate lifestyle. But by failing to follow-up on the study, by failing to bring priests to the point of full human development, we allowed a situation where many priests are chronologically a certain age, and psychologically a much younger age. This was a disaster waiting to happen. A person who is psychologically an adolescent and hasn’t really integrated his sexuality fully into his personhood, whether homosexual or heterosexual, would feel more comfortable in relationships with younger people, with teenagers, or even in the case of the pedophile, toward very young children.

All of this, I think, represents a very serious failure of leadership on the part of the Catholic bishops of the United States. We failed the priests when we failed to encourage full human development. But we were afraid to move forward; we were afraid to really take leadership and do what needed to be done.

Now that the disaster is upon us, the whole Church in the United States must respond to this crisis of leadership and the crisis of the sex scandal flowing from it. I suggest that there are five very important steps we must take.

The very first thing that needs to be done is what was demanded with such clarity in the first letter I read today. The bishops, as the leaders in the Church, must accept responsibility for what has happened. It is a failure on the part of the bishops more than anyone else in the Church. And that means that bishops must begin to say, “I made a mistake”, not “Mistakes have been made.” Bishops must be willing to say, “I have made this mistake, and if this mistake is of such serious consequence that I should resign, I will resign.” And I would suggest that the bishops ought to make such a statement, and allow the people of the diocese to make the final determination, whether they resign or not. That would be a very daring thing to do, and it would take great courage to do it. And yet I am convinced that we will not have credibility as bishops until we get to the point where we can with courage say, “I made a mistake and if that mistake warrants my resignation, I offer it. And if the people wish to accept it, I will resign.” Now, I don’t have great confidence that when we meet in Dallas in a couple of weeks, that this will happen. But I pray that it might because until the bishops really accept their responsibility, our people are not going to have much confidence in our leadership.

The second thing that needs to be done -- there has to be a kind of clearing of the deck. We can’t go on and on in a situation where you never know from one day to the next where a new scandal is going to erupt. Every bishop must make public all settlements that have been entered into. The people of the Church have a right to know if their money has been used to make settlements. Obviously, priests or bishops who have been involved must be removed from ministry -- and helped to overcome their problems. It will require a great amount of courage and humility for us to be willing to put out in the open all that has happened. But only this kind of transparency will bring some sense of finality and restore some credibility to the bishops.

The third thing that would need to be done, I think, is that we ought to establish a national fund for compensation to the victims, especially to pay for the therapy that for many, has been required for a very long time. I am confident that if we were to establish such a national fund many people in our Church would willingly support it to help those who have been victimized.

Fourth, we do need to develop some kind of uniform policy for dealing with allegations, and for actual instances of abuse. In order to be fully just in this regard, there has to be real concern about allegations not being accepted always at face value. There must be some searching out to be sure that there is substance to the allegation before a priest is summarily removed. But once there is substantiation, the perpetrators have to be dealt with immediately, justly and adequately to assure justice for all concerned. I do not support the “zero tolerance” approach in every instance. In those instances where the perpetrator of an act of abuse against a child is truly a pedophile, zero tolerance is just and seems to be the only possibility. The best scientific knowledge right now indicates that a genuine pedophile, a person who is sexually attracted to children below the age of puberty, is not able to achieve a cure. Such persons must not be allowed to continue in ministry even in some limited form. No matter what type of limited ministry was permitted to them, they would still function as public persons in the church and would always be able to have access to children.

However, when you move away from those who are true pedophiles to people who are underdeveloped and who perhaps could achieve further development and further integration of a healthy sexuality into their life, such priests could be given a chance for therapy, and for programs of personal development. If they achieved sufficient development, attested to by professional therapists, I believe they could be allowed to minister once more. This would have to be with complete openness with the people where they were assigned and under careful monitoring. We have to understand that some of those priests are in the situation they are because we have failed them in the past. They should have the opportunity to grow, to mature, to become a psychologically fully developed person.

As a means of preventing further abuses, I would suggest that we bring back the Kennedy study; ask Dr. Kennedy to update it if necessary, then begin programs of development within our seminaries, to start with so that we do not ordain underdeveloped persons as we obviously have in the past. Also every diocese should begin to develop human growth programs for the priests, deacons, and bishops. I am confident that our Catholic people would readily support such programs and would be willing to use our resources to do it.

As part of such a program of bringing about healthy human development, we must deal with the question of homosexuality in the priesthood. We must deal with the fact that we live in a culture that is seriously homophobic. Some of the responses to the scandal have included attacks against homosexual priests and seminarians. We must further the steps we took in our pastoral letter, “Always Our Children” to overcome the homophobia within our culture and within the Church. We must be a truly welcoming community for homosexual people. But we must also include in our human development programs elements which would enable every priest, seminarian and bishop to come to a clear awareness of his sexual orientation and a healthy acceptance of it. “Always Our Children” pointed out that homosexuals are a gift to the Church, and we should not marginalize them and push them aside. Well, if we meant what we wrote in that pastoral letter, then certainly homosexuals should be welcomed in the priesthood. But they must, just as heterosexual priests, integrate their sexuality within an honest, authentic lifestyle as a celibate person.

My fifth suggestion regarding the crisis of leadership in the Church concerns, perhaps, the most fundamental change of all. We must improve in a major way how the Church identifies and calls priests to be bishops/leaders.

Most important of all, there must be an open process. This means every adult member of the Church should have an opportunity to know how it is done and to participate in the process in some significant way.

At the present time there are criteria for naming bishops which have never been made known to the whole community. It is my conviction that these criteria eliminate priests who would be most qualified to be leaders. Others may not agree with this, but I believe a public discussion of the issue would be most fruitful. Let the whole community determine what qualities they expect in their leaders.

An open process and a participatory process would require that people who are to be considered for bishop would be nominated by the people and that the names and resumes of those who accepted nomination would be made public. A special committee representative of the whole diocese would be given the responsibility to narrow down the list of candidates to a number desired by the Holy See and only those names would be forwarded to Rome.

A process such as this would be much closer to the way bishops were named in the early Church. It would also be more consistent with the way we name other leaders in our society and would provide us with more genuine leaders.

I understand that this five part proposal would be very difficult to agree on. It would be an extraordinary challenge for our bishops and our Church to accept. But I am convinced that if we make this kind of a policy and move in this direction that we will restore to our Church a priesthood that will be able to function in a way that will bring great energy and life to our Church.

I hope that all of us will join in a spirit of prayer and a continued spirit of hope and trust that God will lead us in the direction we must go; that the bishops of our Church will fulfill the leadership role that has been entrusted to them; and that we will finally resolve this crisis and move forward as a very vibrant Church in the United States once more.

Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
Copyright (c) 2002 National Catholic Reporter
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