By Bishop James Conley
St. Augustine, the great 5th century theologian and Bishop of Hippo, famously said, Ecclesia semper reformanda est, “the Church is always reforming herself.”
Jesus gives himself, the Eternal Word made flesh, to the Church, his Bride. Thus, as the Body of Christ, the Church receives the entire Deposit of Faith, the fullness of Divine Revelation.
Jesus does not change; eternal truth does not change; Divine Revelation does not change.
However, the Church is made up of sinners, of weak human beings—and we must change. The Church reforms herself, not to become something different, but rather, to become who she truly is.
Jesus established the Church for the salvation of souls. That is who she truly is. The Church reforms herself in order to save more souls. As a bishop I have been tasked to shepherd the people of the Diocese of Lincoln, and I must do all in my power to guide them on the path of holiness.
As I mentioned in my column last week, the scandal of clerical sexual abuse and priestly misconduct has caused great pain that has been felt throughout the entire Catholic Church. I know that this scandal continues to cause great pain among the lay faithful of the Diocese of Lincoln, and it will take time to heal from this pain.
Along with my brother bishops, I recently traveled to Baltimore to the annual Fall Meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to address this current crisis that is causing so much pain, and to bring about reform.
In June 2002, at the Summer Meeting of the USCCB, the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was adopted for the United States and later ratified by the Holy See under the Essential Norms. The Charter consisted of a comprehensive set of procedures for addressing allegations of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. It directed action in regard to the creation of a safe environment for children, healing and reconciliation of victims and survivors, making a prompt and effective response to allegations, cooperating with civil authorities, disciplining offenders, and in the prevention of future acts of abuse.
After the Charter was adopted, bishops throughout the United States completed safe environment training and received background checks. But, due to complication with canon law, bishops were not bound by the Charter. This reality had to be addressed.
In view of the recent crisis, there was great hope going into this Baltimore meeting that true reform would take place in order to hold bishops accountable to the same standards applied to priests in the Charter.
Going into the meeting, there was a proposal for a new code of conduct for bishops, and for the creation of a new lay-led body to investigate episcopal misconduct, malfeasance or corruption. Allegations deemed credible would be sent to the proper authorities, including those in Rome.
To my astonishment, and to the shock of my brother bishops, on November 12, in his opening address to the bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the USCCB, announced that the Holy See had requested that the United States bishops not vote on these two key proposals.
Instead, we were told to wait until after a special meeting of the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences called by Pope Francis for February. There were audible gasps by bishops in the hall when this announcement was made. Many bishops spoke publicly about their frustration in our inability to adopt new norms to strengthen the accountability of bishops.
I share in the frustration of many of my brother bishops regarding the rationale and timing of this intervention by the Holy See. The Church in the United States has been traumatized during the past few months due to this crisis, and there was great anticipation that this meeting in Baltimore would bring some resolution and direction through reform. The bishops desperately wanted to act, but were abruptly blocked from acting.
Despite the lack of resolution at the Baltimore meeting, there was absolute unanimity among the bishops about the severity of the abuse crisis in the United States and the need to hold priests and bishops accountable. We all agree that this is necessary in protecting young people, in restoring trust, and in bringing about reform in the Church.
Most of the first day was spent in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. During this time of prayer, we listened to testimonies from those who have been abused by priests. It was heart-wrenching to hear of the shame that victims carry with them throughout their lives. Oftentimes, the abuse robbed them of their innocence, trust, and faith. We must put victims first. For too long, the Church’s initial reaction was often to protect the institution.
This is why I have put in place a system in the Diocese of Lincoln designed to help victims of abuse by persons associated with the Church. If you are a survivor of such abuse who did not receive support in the past, please come forward now to receive the love, care and support you need and deserve.
We are preparing for an on-site audit this week by the USCCB to ensure that our safe environment policies and procedures are in compliance with the Charter. A data collection audit takes place yearly, and independent auditors visit dioceses for a more thorough review every three years. I look forward to the recommendations to strengthen and enhance our practices.
I was encouraged by the words of Cardinal DiNardo in his address on the final day of our meetings in Baltimore. He said, “We leave this place committed to taking the strongest possible actions at the earliest possible moment… But our hope for true and deep reform ultimately lies in more than excellent systems, as essential as these are. It requires holiness: the deeply held conviction of the truths of the Gospel, and the eager readiness to be transformed by those truths in all aspects of life.”
There are necessary, legitimate reforms that must take place so to ensure that our institutions are safe places. 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. And as we witness these necessary reforms in the Church so that she may become who she truly is, we are reminded that as disciples of Jesus, we must constantly be reforming to become who we were meant to be.