In addition to bishops and diocesan leaders responding to the current crisis, we also need to develop a good 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. And yet, we can’t fulfill our mission by constantly being in crisis mode. Therefore, it’s time to take the long view also.
Taking the long view is not easy in a crisis like this. Bishops are being asked questions from local media and angry faithful. Did these crimes happen here? What is the status of clergymen who have been accused? Are our parishes and schools safe? What did our bishops know and what did they do about it? Do Church leaders say one thing to the faithful and look the other way when clergy sin? How has our diocese responded to victims? How much has all this cost?
The scope of public outrage is daunting. Some think nothing has changed since the crisis broke in Boston in 2002 and that all Church leaders are corrupt. On the other extreme, some people have never heard of the Charter and are shocked that anything happened in their dioceses — those terrible things happened in Boston or Pennsylvania, not here, right? Others are leaving the faith, and some are pledging to cease financial support until the Church is cleaned up.
How do we move to healing and wholeness on an ongoing, long-term basis, in order to reconcile our past and build a new and better future when we can see more crises lie ahead?
We know more documents like the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report will be released. It is probable they will contain details of unspeakable evil. Beloved leaders will be brought to account. Will there be another McCarrick situation? Will the Church ever get cleaned up? As long as sin continues to be present in our world, scandal will befall the Church, because human beings fail and sin. We will need to respond. We will need good policy and good crisis communications. However, if we do not also develop an effective long-term approach, we will never stop being in crisis mode.
In my work, I meet with lots of bishops and diocesan communications leaders. Lately, I am asking clients to consider what we need for the long haul. I think we need a nationwide, maybe even Church-wide, long-term approach. What do I mean? Think about how communities and cultures move on after a crisis of this scale. As Germany needed to address its Nazi past or the United States needed to address the stain of slavery, or South Africa addressed apartheid, how does the Church move into a long-term strategy of addressing this deep wound to the Body of Christ?
In my conversations with diocesan leaders and communicators from all across the country, some ideas have surfaced for ways individual dioceses, and dioceses collectively, could begin to look down the road at a strategy. Here are a few of those ideas:
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 the Church. This has been brought up before, but it’s time for it to happen.
Annual audit: A revised USCCB Charter could be beefed up so that every diocese will commit to 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.
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 a way to meaningfully remember our painful past.
Catechetical content: We need to help future generations understand our past so that it is never repeated. We should teach about 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 — like slavery and the mistreatment of indigenous peoples.This is critical to walk in the light of truth.
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 online resource for policies, audits, prayer and healing resources. The Diocese of Erie, Archdiocese of Detroit, Archdiocese of Denver and several others have something like this already 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, bishop accountability, policies on the vetting of clergy, human resource 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 Church leaders and diocesan communicators practically move forward?
Our publishing clients are wondering how to present diocesan content for their digital and print diocesan media — not in the long-term, but tomorrow and next week. How much should we focus on the crisis vs. doing the regular work of the Church, promoting events, and executing our normal content plans? Does our content strategy need to move away from content focused on evangelization, faith formation and witness stories and shift toward reporting news?
We are advising diocesan clients to do two things:
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.
Second, we can’t stop being Church. We 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.
Put simply, Christian witness means focusing on Jesus Christ. That is our ultimate strategy. Only the Lord will find a way forward. Only he will truly heal the wounds of victims, bring eternal justice to perpetrators and forgive sins. Only Jesus bears the wounds that every one of us has placed on the Body of Christ through our sins. He is the reason we are Catholic. He is our redeemer and he will never forsake his bride, the Church. He will show us the way. This is why we are his followers.