LINCOLN (SNR) – Bishop James Conley led a holy hour of reparation at the Cathedral of the Risen Christ in Lincoln Sept. 14, the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.
The purpose of the holy hour was to pray for the victims of sexual abuse, and for their healing.
Over the past several weeks, Bishop Conley has met with several parishes, groups and organizations to discuss recent serious issues in the Church and in the Diocese of Lincoln. During these meetings, the bishop said, many people ask similar questions. The following questions are those the bishop has most frequently heard, and wished to share with the people of the diocese.
Q. Are my kids safe? What steps are you taking to make sure?
I promise to do all in my power to ensure that the parishes, schools, and institutions of the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln are safe places. This is an absolute necessity. In order for our institutions to be welcoming communities that reflect the charity, compassion, and witness of Jesus Christ, people must first and foremost feel safe in them.
As a priest and as bishop, both in Denver and here, I have been dedicated to the protection of minors, young adults and all people. In 2002, the USCCB promulgated the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. My work to implement the Charter has been one of the central parts of my service to the Lord and to the faithful in the Diocese of Lincoln. In 2016, I resumed participation in the USCCB’s annual audit on implementation of the Charter.
In February 2016, I hired Seth Odgaard as Safe Environment Coordinator to oversee safe environment programming, training, education, and policy development, and enhance accountability across the diocese.
Under our current safe environment policies, priests, employees and volunteers who work with children are background-checked, and receive safe environment training to learn how to spot and report potential abuse. Critically, when the diocese receives allegations of childhood sexual abuse, those allegations are reported to law enforcement.
In late 2017, I asked Seth and my senior leadership to review our safe environment policies and to update them as best practices have evolved. While that work over the last year greatly advanced our safe environment program, in light of recent events, I have once again tasked Seth and senior leadership with reviewing our policies. This review, which will include input from the lay faithful and the task force I am assembling, will focus on establishing clear standards for ministerial behavior and boundaries.
These standards will re-enforce the expected standard of conduct within the diocese, and give all priests, employees, volunteers and children within the diocese a better tool for identifying and reporting misconduct.
The goal of this renewed effort is to ensure that our diocese has state-of-the-art policies and practices for protecting against childhood sexual abuse.
Finally, I am also actively seeking to hire a Victim Assistance Coordinator to provide for immediate support and pastoral outreach for persons who report that they were sexually abused as minors by church personnel. This position includes meeting personally with victims who contact the diocese, acknowledging the accusation, providing a compassionate and timely response, and informing them of available assistance.
Q. How can the faithful help to assure that children in the Diocese are safe?
Even if we have the best policies and practices, because we live in a fallen world, there is no absolute guarantee of safety in any society, family, or institution.
While creating a culture of “zero tolerance” starts with me, I ask all of the faithful of the Diocese of Lincoln to be vigilant in helping keep our diocese safe, especially in the protection of young people.
It is important for all the faithful to know that if they suspect child sexual abuse by a teacher, a neighbor, a family member, or an employee or priest of the Diocese of Lincoln, they can and should report it to law enforcement.
If the diocese receives a report or information concerning suspect child sexual abuse, it will report that information to law enforcement. Law enforcement agencies are the best, most objective independent investigators. The Diocese of Lincoln appreciates the work that they do and pledges its support to all efforts to stop criminal behavior by predators.
But reporting does not need to be limited to suspected crimes. To ensure we are all doing our part to promote a safe place for our children, I want people to have an avenue to report things that make them uncomfortable, including suspected “grooming” or interactions between adults and children that they believe are inappropriate. On August 29, I announced an anonymous hotline (1-844-527-0596) and website (under construction) from the nationally known company NAVEX Global to assist persons in making reports of misconduct in the Diocese of Lincoln.
This hotline is not a substitute or alternative to calling law enforcement. The new hotline allows for all kinds of concerns and complaints – of sexual misconduct, boundary violations, suspicious behavior, financial impropriety or any other potential wrongs – to be brought out into the open.
For those events that law enforcement declines to investigate, the NAVEX service will direct complaints to the appropriate diocesan administrators – and ultimately to me.
Q. In August, there were several cases of misconduct reported in the media and by the Diocese of Lincoln. What can you tell us about these cases?
First, I want to be clear that where crimes are suspected, we have been cooperating with law enforcement. As part of that cooperation, we are letting them do their job first.
Candidly, this simply means we need to stay out of the way. It also means that we must refrain from any public comment, to avoid compromising an investigation in any way, and to ensure that the accused are also afforded the presumption of innocence.
In addition to these recent cases, the Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson has initiated his own statewide investigation of all three Catholic dioceses in Nebraska. As part of that investigation, the Attorney General has requested my cooperation and documents from the Diocese of Lincoln. We have made clear that we will cooperate in the investigation. Not only will we cooperate with law enforcement, we welcome being held accountable.
Finally, I am equally committed to finding out the truth in any allegation of abuse in the Diocese of Lincoln. Once the Attorney General and local law enforcement have completed their investigations, the Diocese of Lincoln will conduct its own investigations to determine if those accused are suitable for ministry.
Q. Under the Charter, you are required to use a review board to provide advice when there is an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor. Does the review board help you decide when a matter must be reported to law enforcement?
The review board serves an important role: it is a consulting body that advises me on the assessment of allegations of sexual abuse of minors and in my determination as to whether a priest or deacon accused of abuse is suitable for ministry.
It is also important for people to know what the review board is not. It is not an alternative to law enforcement, or replacement for any criminal legal proceeding. Whenever there is an allegation of childhood sexual abuse, it is reported to law enforcement first.
Q. Does the review board really provide you, as the bishop, with an objective assessment?
The purpose of the review board is to seek the truth of situations brought before them, and to give me honest, objective counsel in responding to each case. The members of the review board are of the highest level of integrity and I value their impartial and profession opinion in reviewing these cases.
The review board has one member who is a diocesan priest, but to assure independence, the Charter requires that the majority of its members are to be lay persons not employed by the diocese. It also must have at least one member who has expertise in the treatment of sexual abuse of minors. I not only value their objective assessment, but require it.
Q. How can people be assured that allegations of sexual abuse of minors are reported to law enforcement and not buried?
While I certainly want the faithful in Lincoln to trust that I will make the right decisions, given the recent events locally and the horrifying grand jury report in Pennsylvania, I know that their trust has been fractured—deeply so.
Until that trust is earned back, there are several steps that we have taken and will be taking to give confidence that actual and suspected childhood sexual abuse is reported.
For example, our safe environment programs include training on Nebraska mandatory reporting laws. As I noted earlier, the Diocese of Lincoln is participating in USCCB’s annual audit on the implementation of the Charter. The audit is conducted by an independent outside firm, and reviews our curriculum for training adults and children in abuse prevention and reporting, information on how parishes are reviewed and audited for compliance, and reports on any accusations of childhood sexual abuse that were made and their credibility.
Finally, as I recently wrote about in my weekly column, I am assembling a task force to look at how these issues were handled in the past, and provide assurances to the faithful in the Diocese of Lincoln that there are no priests in active ministry with credible allegations of sexual abuse of minors.
Q. You recently announced changes to your senior staff. Why did you make the changes?
I made changes in my senior staff given the seriousness of recent events and my own assessment that we need to break from the past. Given the scope of the sexual abuse crisis in this country and nationally—not just within the Catholic Church, but across all of society—I need staff who will ensure that I receive good, honest, and proficient advice going forward.
While I certainly valued the hard work of former staff members, a change was necessary if we are going to move forward toward healing and restoration.
Q. Many in your new leadership have been involved in leadership the past. Do you think they are up to the task?
Let me say that my decisions are my own and I take responsibility for them. I am up for the task, and have chosen to surround myself with a senior staff that is, too. I have assembled advisors whom I believe to be of sound judgment, and will tell me what they really think, even if that means telling me “no.”
I recently announced Msgr. Mark Huber as vicar general. Msgr. Huber served as chancellor under Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz and has been the judicial vicar of the Diocese of Lincoln since 2008. The majority of his work as judicial vicar has been presiding over the marriage tribunal. The priests of the diocese have written me in recent weeks attesting to the calm, objective character of Msgr. Huber, along with his significant competency in canon law.
I have also appointed Father Christopher Goodwin as vicar for clergy. Father Goodwin will be my liaison to my priests. Father Goodwin has outside experience as he has worked as a secretary in the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C. since 2014. He has the respect of the priests of the diocese and will take the role very seriously.
I should also add that I often consult priests and lay experts in various fields in order to inform my decisions.
Q. You said the Evil One wants to divide us over this issue. Are you saying this is the work of the devil? Are you saying if we just pray, these problems will just go away?
The Evil One wants to divide us in any way possible. He did this from the very beginning with our first parents and was successful in dividing them between themselves and God. Sin produces division within one’s own heart. Recent events have sadly divided friends, family and clergy from one another. This division is not merely the work of the devil, but also the work of human hearts. As the shepherd of this diocese, I must do all that I can to repair this division.
However, as I have said in the past, as your bishop, I am called to do more than pray and fast. I must take tangible steps to build a culture of purity, integrity and accountability – a culture that, starting with me, puts the safety and holiness of children and families above any other interest or need. I have taken these steps, and I will continue to do so.
We should never underestimate the power of prayer. I am edified to hear that throughout the Diocese of Lincoln, the faithful have turned to prayer in these difficult times. Holy hours throughout the Diocese of Lincoln have been offered for victims of abuse, especially abuse by the clergy.