By Bishop James Conley
This week we celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints on Nov. 1 and the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, or All Souls Day on Nov. 2. On All Saints Day we celebrate the saints, who let the victory of Christ touch the very depths of their souls. And on All Souls Day we pray for those who will see the Heavenly Father, but whose souls are in need of further purification. Through our prayers, Our Lord allows us to assist our brothers and sisters in Christ.
While this time in the Liturgical Year turns our attention to the reality of the communion of saints—the saints in heaven, the faithful on earth and the souls in purgatory—my attention is focused in particular on all of us on earth striving to be better Christian disciples. In my own personal reflection and prayers this week, I reflect on God’s divine providence and how the Lord has called me to serve the Diocese of Lincoln as its shepherd during this time where serious issues have arisen in the universal Church and in our own Diocese. I reflect on the simple truth that as the shepherd of the diocese, it is my duty is to build up greater unity, trust and charity in the diocese to the best of my ability. To create a place and a culture where we all can be better Christian disciples.
In my column on August 17, I announced that I was seeking an outside review of safe environment procedures, the recent allegations of sexual misconduct against priests of the diocese, and the handling of those allegations by my staff and me. It became clear to me at the beginning of this crisis that these serious matters had to be examined thoroughly by a competent and independent task force.
I am pleased to announce that the task force has been assembled and began its work earlier this month. The members of this task force are Richard Herink of St. Peter parish in Lincoln, Mari Lane Gewecke of St. Peter parish in Lincoln, William Mickle of St. Joseph parish in Lincoln, and Susan Wilkinson of St. Michael parish in Lincoln. I have chosen this extraordinary group because I believe that they will be honest, objective and independent. While they are well-known and reputable members of the Church locally, they are also well respected in the business and legal community across Nebraska. Each member has demonstrated great leadership and integrity to reach their own personal and professional successes in life. Collectively, they possess a wide-range of talents, which they have used in service to the community in a variety of ways—and will now use in service to this task force and the diocese.
As part of its scope, I have asked that the task force review any prior allegations of sexual abuse of a minor and any allegations of non-consensual contact with an adult based on an abuse of power, and the diocese’s response to these allegations. I have not limited the review to allegations made against clergy within the diocese, although it will certainly cover those allegations. Rather, the task force is free to examine allegations against all diocesan personnel and how those allegations were handled. In addition, the task force will review existing diocesan policies and practices in response to allegations of sexual abuse of a minor and non-consensual contact with an adult. The task force is asked to propose specific changes in all of these policies, practices, and programs to ensure that the Diocese of Lincoln is operating under best practices.
I have given the task force the discretion and authority to learn about each alleged victim and accused priest; to review the diocese’s files and information on the alleged victims and accused diocesan personnel; to collect additional necessary information through interviews of past and/or current diocesan personnel. Most importantly, the task force will exercise that discretion freely and independent from me and my senior staff.
I have asked the task force to present to me a report of their findings and recommendations—the exact form of which is up to the task force. I have made available additional diocesan resources to ensure the task force has the tools it needs to complete the job. The task force will make all reasonable efforts to complete its work by January 31, 2019, but will serve until the task is complete. Please understand that I have asked the task force members not to make any public statements while their work is ongoing.
To be clear, the work of this task force is focused internally to ensure that the Diocese and anyone credibly accused is held accountable to the faithful in the community. It does not take the place of the work of law enforcement. As I have stated in the past, if the diocese receives a report or information concerning suspected child sexual abuse, it will report that information to law enforcement for investigation. The task force will not interfere with the Attorney General’s investigation, or any other law enforcement investigation.
This task force is also distinct and independent from the diocesan review board. Each diocese is required to have a review board according to the “Essential Norms,” which serve as particular law for the United States enacted by the Holy See in conjunction with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The review board serves an important role: it is a permanent, consultative 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.
I am well aware of the healing that must take place in the Diocese. I have received many letters and emails during the past three months that express the pain that many are in because of this crisis. Due to my schedule during the past few months I, regrettably, have not been able to respond to each of these letters. I thank everyone for their correspondence, even if it included criticism of me or the Diocese of Lincoln.
After my listening sessions in parishes throughout the Diocese of Lincoln, I have met with victims of sexual abuse by priests in historic cases. I have expressed to them my apologies for what was done to them, and for any inadequate response from the Church in the past. I offered to provide them necessary counseling and support from the Diocese or other independent providers. I pledged to them my commitment to ensure that the institutions of the Diocese of Lincoln are indeed safe places to hear and respond to the Word of God. From this experience, I have personally witnessed the courage it takes to come forward as an abuse victim, and the healing that can occur through a direct and open dialogue in a one-on-one setting. While I understand that not all victims want or would benefit from similar meetings, I am open to meeting with any victim of clergy abuse who is looking for a path to healing.
In order for the Diocese to move forward and heal from our current crisis—both nationally and locally—we must acknowledge what has taken place in the past, learn from any mistakes, and set a clear direction for the future. My hope and prayer is that this task force is an instrumental step towards healing.