OMAHA, Neb. (CNS) — Bishops need help restoring trust and healing wounds felt by the faithful by the clergy sexual abuse scandal, and people who work in the Church to assist victims and create safe environments for children can be key partners, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People said Aug. 13.

Despite efforts over the last decade by bishops and others in the Church to atone for wrongs done and take swift action when abuse is reported, many Catholics “remain hurt, angry, cynical and confused,” Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Ill., told more than 100 people at the National Safe Environment and Victim Assistance Coordinators Leadership Conference in Omaha.

For example, recent cases in Philadelphia and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., have brought “widespread indictment” of the Church despite the unique and localized nature of those incidents, Bishop Conlon said.

In Philadelphia, a 2011 grand jury report on alleged child sexual abuse cases in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia led to Msgr. William Lynn’s June felony conviction of endangering the welfare of a child for his role in assigning priests. He was the first high-ranking Catholic clergyman in the United States to be sentenced and convicted of a crime associated with the handling of priests accused of child sexual abuse, though he himself faced no charge of abuse.

In Kansas City, Bishop Robert W. Finn has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failing to report suspected child sexual abuse in the case of a priest charged with possessing child pornography.

Both of those cases are “unique in character and distinctively local and even though neither has played out fully,” they have prompted “widespread indictment that ‘the Church’ and ‘the bishops’ have failed to keep their commitments,” Bishop Conlon said.

One reason for such an indictment, he said, is “we are beyond the realm of carefully constructed reason. We are in the realm of trauma.”

“That is why it is so difficult for the bishops to be the lead agents of healing and restoring trust,” Bishop Conlon said. “It is clear certainly to me, that we are greatly weakened and in need of assistance.”

Safe environment and victim assistance coordinators carrying out duties called for by the bishops’ 2002 “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” are good candidates to assist bishops as they strive to make the Church safe for children and young people and overcome mistrust and anger, the bishop said.

“You are the fresh faces,” he said. “Most of you are lay members of the Christian faithful, with secular credentials and without so much built-in conflict of interest. As such, you are in a position to bring new credibility and energy to the critical task of healing the wounds and rebuilding trust.”

It is a long-term project that includes day-to-day tasks such as contacting victim survivors, arranging counseling programs, scheduling training sessions, giving talks and filling out forms, Bishop Conlon said.

But to go further in helping close the “wound that seeps and throbs in the body of Christ,” safe environment and victim assistance coordinators might work to become extensions of their bishop, “who very much wants to bring healing to the Church, but surely like me, finds himself disqualified,” he said.

That could include talking and praying with the bishop about the issue and helping discern with “him how you might strengthen his work of healing and restoring trust,” Bishop Conlon said.

Prayer was an important part of the Aug. 12-16 conference, which also included sessions on such topics as canon law applied to the charter, pornography, sexual addiction and prevention strategies. Hosted by the Archdiocese of Omaha and the Diocese of Grand Island, the conference offered Mass or prayer time each day, and the Aug. 13 session ended with Bishop Conlon leading a prayer service marking the 10th anniversary of the charter.

At the prayer service, participants in the conference — from about 80 dioceses in 40 states — each held a rose that represented 150 of the estimated 15,000 victim survivors of clergy sexual abuse. A “litany for healing” was recited and the roses were placed in two vases, which remained throughout the conference as reminders of why the group had gathered.

The conference, similar to gatherings held over the past several years in Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and other cities, provides “a safe and sacred place for people in this ministry to learn more about how we can help people, and to make certain we are centered in our faith,” said Mary Beth Hanus, manager of the Omaha Archdiocese’s victim outreach and prevention efforts.

Elizabeth Heidt, outreach coordinator in the Grand Island Diocese’s office of child protection, said the conference was an important time for people to share information, ideas and spiritual support.

“It’s what we’re about as Catholics and Christians, to make certain children are in right relationships and they are being treated with dignity and respect,” she said.


Ruff is news editor of the Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Omaha.