Most dioceses have already released the names of abusers. Most express deep sorrow and care for victims/survivors and promise to increase transparency into their processes. But what about when the current crisis passes? What is our long-term approach?
We can’t escape the fact that these sins and crimes are wounds to the Body of Christ. Therefore, let Christ be our guide. Even the resurrected Christ had visible wounds. We risk repeating the mistakes of the past if we forget them. It is true that a diocese can’t fulfill its mission by constantly being in crisis mode. However, going back to past practices doesn’t seem wise—or even possible.
Think about how communities and cultures move on after a crisis of this scale. How has Germany addressed its Nazi past, or the United States addressed the stain of slavery, or South Africa addressed apartheid? Likewise, how does the Church move into a long-term strategy of addressing this deep wound to the Body of Christ?
Among diocesan leaders and communicators from across the country, some ideas have surfaced for ways individual dioceses, and dioceses collectively, could begin to look down the road at a strategy. Following are a few of those ideas.
1. Annual Mass of healing and reparation: The Holy See or the USCCB could establish a new feast day or dedicate an existing one, such as the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows or the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, for the healing of those hurt by the Church and the reparation of sins of those in authority in the Church. This has been brought up before, but it’s time for it to happen.
2. Annual audit: Whether the USCCB beefs up the Charter or not, every diocese should commit to an annual audit and publish an accounting of compliance, naming and providing the status of all clergy who have abused children, and disclosing what the financial cost has been. There should be either an external lay group or lay review board preparing annual reports of compliance in the same way we routinely have financial audits reported. These annual audits for every diocese would need to be verifiable and public. When the next crisis comes, we can point to these efforts. As happened in the aftermath of South Africa’s apartheid policy, we also must face the facts about what has gone wrong in the Church and set up systems for accountability.
3. Memorial, prayer garden or monument: Each diocese might create a place for people to go, pray, remember and heal. Let this place be a sign, so that we do not forget or repeat our past sins. Like Germany’s Holocaust museums, monuments and memorials, we, too, must find meaningful ways to remember our painful past.
4. Catechetical content: We need to help future generations understand our past so that it is never repeated. We should teach how our Catholic faith views sin and the need to protect innocent people. Use the scandal, the Charter and these new efforts as an example. We need a long-term approach to this scandal, similar to the way we teach American history. We celebrate American democracy and capitalism in our history classes, but we also teach students about the dark periods of our past—such as slavery and the mistreatment of indigenous peoples. This is critical to walk in the light of truth.
5. Communications: We should make it easy for people to see the scope of our response. Every diocese would benefit from consolidating into one place a single complete response webpage for policies, audits, prayer and healing resources. Content Evangelist’s report shows that 74 dioceses already have sites like this in place. These online resources would include statements from diocesan leaders about clergy sexual abuse of minors, the Charter, any new document on clergy chastity or bishop accountability, policies on the vetting of clergy, human resources policies, and any other resources to account for the past and convey that we have learned from our sins. We should share the witness stories of victims and cover the annual Mass of healing and reparation.
In the meantime, how do diocesan communicators practically move forward?
First, we have to employ the best of Catholic journalism to help the Church be transparent and truthful in order to re-establish credibility with the faithful. Yes, we need to report the news. Catholic communicators have an obligation to ask bishops, attorneys and chancery officials the hard questions. They have a duty to verify that facts are indeed facts. The truth is always of God and is never something to fear.
Second, we can’t stop being Church. When crisis erupts again, as we know it will, communicators should not counsel Church leaders to cancel events or circle the wagons. We can’t step away from our mission. We are Christians because of Christ, not because of policies or Church leaders. Now, more than ever, the faithful need witness stories about why Christ matters in each of our lives. Christian witness is still valid and needed now more than ever.