Friday, February 01, 2019

In Texas – And Beyond – The "Reckoning" Continues

Eight months into the US church's latest round of abuse crisis, January's final hours brought yet another sharp curve, but one whose proactive nature on a broad scale makes it unique even at this point.

Reflecting their long-standing habit of close collaboration in pastoral activity beyond the standard teaming up on public policy, the bishops of Texas' 15 dioceses released their lists of clerics credibly accused of abuse of minors in unison late yesterday, the sum total of which offers an unusually sprawling chronicle of the scandals that spans nearly seven decades.

All told, the disclosures named nearly 300 accused priests and religious who've served in the Lone Star state since 1950. For context, here it bears recalling that last August's grand-jury report on six of Pennsylvania's eight Latin-church dioceses relayed a figure of over 300 accused clergy, while a preliminary report in December from the Illinois Attorney General alleged a history of some 500 accused clerics who've gone unnamed (vs. fewer than 200 publicly identified to date) as part of a fresh probe in the Pennsylvania inquiry's wake.

As previously reported, the top prosecutors of at least 14 states and the District of Columbia have launched statewide investigations since the Pennsylvania report – and, of course, the US Department of Justice has opened a far more consequential inquest, currently limited to Pennsylvania but likely to spread across at least part of the wider country.

In that light, the Texas disclosure is in a class by itself not merely given the staggering scale involved, but that the move was made by the bishops on their own volition instead of as an attempt to get ahead of a civil inquest already in progress. (To be sure, though scores of US dioceses have released similar lists over the last six months, the only similar statewide reveal came in Pennsylvania in the weeks ahead of the grand-jury's findings.)

Sprawling as the Texas effort has been – and at least some staffs were working late into Wednesday night to meet the deadline – the process toward Thursday's release has been more challenging than meets the eye.

On one front, the exceptional growth of the Texas church over the time period at hand (which has seen Catholics become the state's largest religious body) has raised a significant amount of jurisdictional issues. As Catholic News Service cited, no fewer than nine of the 15 dioceses were established from 1950 to 2000, a reality which could see one priest having served in two or three different local churches without ever leaving the territory for which he was originally ordained; relatedly, a newer diocese could have a cleric with an allegation which was handled by the prior diocese and thus isn't part of local institutional memory. What's more, Texas' longtime status as mission territory due to a historically sparse Catholic presence until recent times yielded a considerably greater reliance on religious priests, which necessarily requires the involvement of their respective superiors both in the handling of abuse cases and the disclosure of the identities of the accused.

Yet in particular, the coordination that marked the release conspicuously did not extend to the standards and processes employed by the dioceses. While several of the Chanceries employed outside counsel or consulting firms to review their files, others charted internally-picked "special commissions" or called on their already-existing review boards to conduct the task.

And above all, the compilation of the lists has again underscored the dilemma baked into the Dallas Charter – the definition (or lack thereof) of a "credible" allegation, which in its specifics essentially remains a determination by each bishop. On that aspect, according to Whispers ops apprised of the four-month process, an attempt among the Texas prelates to agree to a common standard of "credible" came to an impasse as the lists were being prepared, as did a push for a universal method of reporting which, among other things, would've cited when a diocese first became aware of the respective allegation(s). Albeit obliquely, the disparities of method are reflected in the finished products.

Among the group, the largest bloc released – 57 – came from San Antonio, reflecting that archdiocese's historic place as the seat of Texas Catholicism both in terms of population and, until 2004, the state's sole metropolitan entity. Of those named, nearly half were religious.

In Houston, meanwhile, the upstart archdiocese that's rapidly become home to 1.7 million Catholics in the US' fourth-largest city published the names of 25 diocesan clerics and 13 religious.

Of the former, two cases remain under investigation, the internal handling of which saw Cardinal Daniel DiNardo ambushed by a CBS News crew as he presided over November's USCCB meeting in Baltimore, then prompted a county prosecutor's extraordinary raid of his Chancery two weeks later that stretched over some 12 hours, seeing 50 agents swoop in as a throng of local and national media hovered outside. (To date, no further developments from that search have emerged.)

In a local statement released prior to the lists, DiNardo – speaking not in his national capacity, but as de facto head of the Texas bench – said that among the reasons behind the decision to publish was so "anyone with any additional information about any abuse of a minor that may have taken place... [would] notify the civil authorities immediately."

With an eye to this month's "extraordinary Synod" on abuse in Rome – at which, as conference president, he'll be the sole representative of the US bishops – the cardinal said that he intended to reiterate "my firm conviction that the time for action and accountability at all levels of the church cannot wait."

While most of the Texas dioceses simply issued their lists with a printed introduction from the bishop, for a sampling of how things played out on the ground, Bishop Ed Burns of Dallas – a former chair of the USCCB's safe environment arm – held a full briefing on making the release from his 1.4 million-member church:

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Speaking of Big D, yesterday brought a separate, unrelated disclosure from Louisiana's capital church in Baton Rouge of 37 accused clerics (a third of them religious).

In making the announcement, however, Bishop Mike Duca – a Dallas native and onetime rector of Holy Trinity Seminary there – offered an especially potent reflection, not merely on the importance of the release itself, but of the ongoing change and conversion which the exercise is supposed to represent.

(Emphases original):
Some have asked why must we do this. As I said in my [prior] letter, the fact that this wound will not heal tells us that we must continue to bring everything into the light. This is not easy. I have listened to some victims share their stories, and there are no words to express the depth of sadness and shame that was experienced in our Church and is part of OUR diocesan history. It is hard to lay this list out for all to see, but real renewal and healing cannot take place until we acknowledge the truth of our past.

This list reflects the lives of real people and a path of pain and suffering that affects most deeply the persons who are victims of abuse, but also the friends and family that journey with them and the innocent family members of the priests who are accused. Each name represents a unique case. Some only had one victim and others abuse gouged a wide path of pain in the lives of many victims. In some cases the victims were male and in others female. But there is one thing, most importantly, they have in common, they all have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor or minors....

In the process of creating this list of names I have heard from some, and even felt this myself in the beginning, that once this is done we can move beyond the crisis mode and get back to normal. But I have come to see quite clearly that in this thinking there is already a return to an old standard to once again “sweep it under the carpet.” This list is not the end but an attempt to open the door on child sexual abuse that none of us want to open. In every case of abuse on this list I am sure that the victim was told, “don't tell anyone.” They heard this from their abuser, but also from the church, sometimes overtly, “Okay, we will take care of Father and you just keep this a secret,” or they felt an unspoken institutionally expressed rule of the Church that, you just are not supposed to talk about these things. Unfortunately, to keep the status quo the victims of abuse must bear the pain for others’ peace of mind and must do this alone.

My hope is that this list is a concrete sign that we do want to talk about this. Hopefully a victim of abuse will see a name on this list and say, that's me, and this will give them the courage to go to a trusted friend, counselor, family member or come talk to me and share their story and no longer bear the pain alone. We must be willing to share their pain, admit our part in this tragedy so that we can help ease their burden and be for the victims of sexual abuse a support and not a barrier on the path to healing. So this list is not the final piece of “dealing with this” but rather I see it as a beginning step in a foundational change in our Church’s way of acting that will renew all the programs we have in place to protect our children with a focus on the healing of the victims of abuse rather than the protection of the status quo.
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Lastly for now, the singular case which plunged the Stateside church into the current crisis-cycle is soon to see its denouement.

Seven months since now-Archbishop Theodore McCarrick was initially removed from ministry following a substantiated report of abuse (followed quickly by a second allegation), a lead Whispers op relays that the onetime cardinal – already stripped of his red hat by Pope Francis – will be dismissed from the clerical state by the Holy See within days.

By any measure, that outcome would've been unthinkable a year ago.... In many ways, it still is.

Though a handful of other bishops have been laicized over the last half-decade following canonical convictions for abusing minors or possessing child pornography, the penalty hasn't yet been levied on an American prelate. Yet even more, in any context, never has a "prince of the church" been removed from the priesthood altogether.

Clearly, terms like "unprecedented" and "watershed" can easily be overemployed or misused in moments like these.

In this singular case, however, to say they apply is the height of understatement.