April 13, 2002
Good morning, and thank you very much for your presence here today. I have a brief statement, which I will make available to you, and then I will be happy to take your questions.
Bishop William Skylstad, the Conference's Vice President, and Monsignor William Fay, our General Secretary, have joined me this week for our semi-annual meetings with the offices of the Holy See. These meetings help keep the Holy See informed about our activities as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and they provide a sense of mutual support between the center of our Church and the local churches represented in our Conference. The specific content of these semi-annual meetings has been confidential and will remain so. I can say, however, that there was considerable discussion about the current crisis in the United States surrounding the sexual abuse of children and young people by clergy. We came away from these conversations with a strong sense of the Holy See's desire to listen and to support our efforts to respond effectively to the concerns we share with our people. Both the Holy Father and the Officials of the Congregations and Councils that we visited showed a high level of understanding of the difficulties that the Church in the United States is facing as we seek to address this tragedy. In particular, the Holy Father communicated directly both his gratitude for the many ways in which the Church in the United States has been of assistance to the Holy See and his personal desire to be of assistance to us at this difficult moment. Before I take your questions, I want to say several things about the current situation in the United States:
1) We bishops share the distress of our people. For anyone to be harmed by a priest, especially a child to whom so many of the Church's ministries are devoted, is a complete contradiction to everything the Church is called to be and is. Protecting children and eliminating abuse are goals on which we Catholics and all of society can and must be united.
2) At the encouragement of our Conference, the dioceses in the United States have for the last decade developed and implemented policies which have resulted in the removal of priests whose psychological condition made them unfit for ministry. Positively, we have seen virtually all the dioceses adopt programs which encourage greater awareness of the scourge of sexual abuse and provide means to prevent it.
3) There has been a lot of attention to those cases in which a priest was reassigned to ministry after having abused a child. We see now that many of those decisions were tragic, and there is a very high reluctance on the part of the Bishops today to continue that practice. It is also important to remember that when those priests were reassigned, it was, almost universally, after a treatment and a prognosis that he posed no danger to anyone. In a decade of discussion, I have never heard Bishops discuss the possibility of a return to ministry by a priest without also expressing the conviction that it must be done without endangering children and young people.
4) As I said in Washington after the meeting of the Conference's Administrative Committee, the Bishops are committed to re-examining our policies and strengthening and improving them so that there be will no question about our goal of protecting our children and youth to the fullest extent humanly possible. Such steps are actively under discussion now and they will be the main item on the agenda of our June General Meeting. Unfortunately, no set of policies or procedures or protocols can ever protect us completely from depravity. These steps will need to be matched by a thorough and constant vigilance if we are to eradicate this heinous crime from within the Church and society. A principal part of our efforts will be to develop that kind of vigilance, not only for ourselves, but for our society, and we hope that there will be many who join us in this effort.
5) As we look forward to stronger policies and a safer environment for our children, we Bishops will always have the deepest regret for the those who were abused and who must live with that pain all their lives. No apology can undo that, yet we must never cease to remember them, reach out to them, and ask their forgiveness. Thank you. I will be happy to take your questions now.