By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia

Throughout the month of April, there has been a special feature added to our usual link on our Archdiocesan web site concerning Sexual Assault Awareness and Child Abuse Prevention Month, and this week I would like to highlight this awareness in this column.

Lest we forget
In some older communities, we often see plaques or boards with the names of those who served in the Armed Forces and those who died in the service of their country. On those plaques we sometimes see the heading: “Lest we forget.” The idea, of course, is to keep before our minds something which is very important and which we may not always think about. We might say that although we continue to see messages such as these, the present-day form of this concept is what is called awareness. Weeks, days and months are given over to heighten awareness of various issues and concerns, so that they can remain before the eyes and minds of the people.

We are just concluding a month which highlights one of the grave issues of our time: sexual assault and child abuse. Our own Archdiocesan web site has highlighted this within our regular and extensive Victim Assistance and Safe Environment Program coverage, and I do so, as I have in the past, this week as well.

First we begin with self-awareness. For over 1,500 years, the Church has prayed in the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I): “to us also your sinful servants,” and in the Confiteor: “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”

In 2005, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote the following reflection for the outdoor Stations of the Cross held at the Colosseum on Good Friday, and broadcast throughout the world: “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to Him! Lord, Your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side. The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray You time and time again, after all our lofty words and grand gestures. Have mercy on Your Church; within her too, Adam continues to fall. When we fall, we drag You down to earth, and Satan laughs, for he hopes that you will not be able to rise from that fall; he hopes that being dragged down in the fall of Your Church, You will remain prostrate and overpowered. But You will rise again. You stood up, You arose and You can also raise us up. Save and sanctify Your Church. Save and sanctify us all.”

Awareness leads to compassion
Our own awareness humbles us in asking pardon and forgiveness, first of all, to the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of any priest, religious or Church staff member. We also seek forgiveness for what may have been a well-intentioned desire to prevent scandal by not publicly acknowledging incidents.

As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his “Letter to the Catholics of Ireland:” “It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel. At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope…. I know some of you find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred.” (19 March 2010). As I quote this letter of our Holy Father, I also urge you to read it in its entirety. It is very beautiful, very pastoral and very clear.

In light of this awareness, as well as in accord with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People of the Bishops of the United States, dioceses throughout the United States have initiated and carried out extensive programs to ensure the safety of children in our parishes and institutions. In our own Archdiocese alone, from September 2003 through February 2010, the Safe Environment Program has presented 1,170 training sessions, and has trained a total of 67,295 adults. All adults, who are involved in ministry and service to children, must attend the Safe Environment training. This would include all priests, deacons, school administrators, faculty, school support staff, class aides, school volunteers, directors of Religious Education, catechists, youth ministers, athletic coaches, music ministers and the staff of after-school programs. Likewise, background checks and safety clearances are required for these same inspaniduals. Also last year we trained 111,063 students in the Archdiocese in personal safety lessons to help prevent sexual abuse. The lessons include a reminder of two important things: children have a right to say “no” to anyone who does something that makes them uncomfortable, and that they need to tell an adult whom they trust about the incident. Whenever we receive a report of child abuse it is reported to the authorities immediately.

The victims of child sexual abuse live each day with the effects of this terrible sin. Having freely acknowledged, and continuing to acknowledge guilt and wrongdoing wherever it is found, we continue to seek ways to provide support to survivors of sexual abuse by our clergy. The Bishops’ Charter mandates and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia provides long-term counseling to survivors and their loved ones, in conjunction with substance abuse treatment, rehabilitation and recovery services. Support groups and financial assistance are provided to assist survivors in their journey toward stability and safety. We remain committed to providing these services for as long as they are needed. I urge anyone who was abused in the past to contact our Victim Assistance Coordinators who can help begin the healing process.

I have met with victims just as the Holy Father has met with victims here in the United States and most recently during his visit to Malta. Emotional and spiritual healing is only possible if we are able to talk openly about the issue and I remain committed to meeting with victims and family members toward that end.

Enduring suffering
After meeting and speaking with victims and their families, I am aware of the long-lasting effects of sexual abuse. The resurgence of news coverage concerning sexual abuse causes further pain. Every time there is a report of abuse it not only re-injures the victims, our parishioners are shaken by each disclosure, and it erodes the true image of the priesthood. I ask God to sustain all the many faithful priests in their dedicated ministry of serving the people so generously.

In the Archdiocese of Philadelphia we remain committed to confronting all forms of sexual abuse and assault – a scourge for society and the Church where it has caused such intense suffering. We must never forget the victims who have been harmed so terribly and we will continue to listen to them. We remain dedicated to strengthening programs of prevention. We believe that the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has the power to bring healing, reconciliation and peace.

29 April 2010