BALTIMORE (CNS) — As the U.S. bishops have developed their response to the renewed clergy sexual abuse crisis over the last year, Bishop Steven R. Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyoming, has reflected long and hard on what that response should entail.
He realized that along with new policies and procedures designed to head off any potential abuse in the future and investigate allegations of past abuses, the bishops had just as much need to focus on being pastors who must renew the spiritual covenant with the people of God.
“Some people really feel that the covenant’s been betrayed,” he told Catholic News Service June 12. “People feel like their pastors have not been pastors.”
Bishop Biegler reflected on that covenant during his homily at morning Mass for the bishops early June 12, the second day of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ spring general assembly in Baltimore.
Similar thoughts have been expressed in his comments and questions on the floor of the past two bishops’ assemblies in which he has focused on the pastoral work that lies ahead for all bishops.
During his homily, he cited a passage from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, one of the readings for the day: “Rather, our qualification comes from God, who has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.”
“I said policies are ‘letter,'” he recalled of his homily and tying St. Paul’s words to the work of bishops. “And if we just keep writing new policies … we need good policies, we need them. But it has to be more than policies. At the end of the day it has to be good people.”
Bishop Biegler said the work of bishops is to build relationships as well: relationship not just with diocesan staff, consultants and attorneys, but with parishioners as well as with those who have been abused by clergy.
Pope Francis’ recent “motu proprio” — “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” (“You are the light of the world”) — sets the path, he said. “Francis,” he explained, “used these three adjectives in ‘Vos Estis.’ He said we need to shine with virtue, integrity and holiness.”
To illustrate his point, he met with a sexual abuse survivor on Good Friday. He described the man as being “on a journey of growth and healing.”
“He said, ‘There are always going to be bad guys, but the important thing is that institutions can be trusted to do the right thing.’ My sense is he was more hurt by institutions that didn’t do the right thing.”
In talking with other abuse survivors, he said, he has learned that it is important for bishops to tend to their needs as pastors and help establish the church as a place of trust where all survivors can turn to as a place for healing.
As Bishop Biegler preached at Mass, the Cheyenne Diocese released the names of 11 clergy with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable persons for whom the diocese had files and who were in active ministry from 1950 to the present.
The list included retired Bishop Joseph H. Hart of Cheyenne. Bishop Biegler said in a one-line reference in the listing that Bishop Hart will face a Vatican trial for allegations that he sexually abused several minors years ago.
Bishop Biegler, 60, who became the bishop of Cheyenne in June 2017, continued restrictions that had been placed on the public ministry of Bishop Hart because of the results of a new investigation into previous abuse allegations made against the now 87-year-old prelate.
He said he sent the findings of that investigation to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with copies to the Congregation for Bishops, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver, the metropolitan for the region, and Archbishop Christopher Pierre, papal nuncio to the U.S., about a year ago.
The Vatican’s decision to move ahead with a trial for Bishop Hart was shared recently, Bishop Biegler said.
The bishop of Cheyenne returned to his primary concern: that bishops and all clergy become good pastors.
“If we don’t have good pastors, he said, “we’re always going to have to write new policies.”
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