WASHINGTON (CNS) — A Chilean survivor of clergy sexual abuse pleaded for Catholic Church leaders to follow the example of a Wyoming bishop who continues to seek justice and answers for other survivors.
Juan Carlos Cruz expressed support for the work of Bishop Steven R. Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyoming, during a panel discussion at Georgetown University Nov. 4, saying the prelate’s efforts to resolve questions surrounding a retired predecessor’s alleged abuse demonstrates that someone within the church cares enough to raise up the needs of survivors.
“For so long, we have seen nobody doing anything,” Cruz said during the program sponsored by the university’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.
Cruz and other survivors have led a decade-long effort to hold Chilean bishops and cardinals accountable for committing abuse or covering up reports of abuse. He and two other survivors were invited to the Vatican by Pope Francis in 2018 to discuss their experience.
After hearing their accounts, the pope reversed his blanket support of the Chilean church hierarchy, offering an apology for the harms caused and assigning top Vatican officials to investigate reports of clergy abuse and their subsequent cover-up in Chile.
Cruz, now a United States citizen, said he does not feel courageous for speaking out. “But I feel this will help me heal,” he said.
In the round-robin discussion, Bishop Biegler explained how he decided to start a new investigation “to continue the fact-finding” of previous abuse allegations against retired Bishop Joseph H. Hart after talking with lay leaders in the diocese soon after he was ordained and installed in Cheyenne in 2017.
“We really had widespread conversations. Sometimes they informed me I should not do something, which was good advice. At the end of the day, we came to this determination this case is a big problem. It’s neither settled for the bishop, the diocese nor the victims with any clarity. … It was unsettled. It was a cloud,” he said.
The bishop cited the second paragraph of Pope Francis’ “motu proprio” — “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” (“You are the light of the world”) — as an important guide for bishops in their ministry.
That paragraph in the document released in May calls for a “profound conversion of hearts” to prevent future abuse and cover-ups from occurring and stresses “we must continue to learn from the bitter lessons of the past, looking with hope towards the future.”
Acknowledging that the U.S. Catholic Church has “come a long way” in its response to abuse survivors, he said much more needs to be done to understand the “broken trust” that widely remains and undertake steps to rebuild that trust.
“I would say the thing we need to work on is conversion,” he said.
The conversation that emerged revolved around steps that remain to be taken to ensure that concerns about clergy abuse are being addressed and that the voices of laypeople are heard in the effort to renew the U.S. Catholic Church.
Panelist Christopher White, a journalist at the online news site Crux, said it remains to be seen how well the pope’s “motu proprio” will be carried out worldwide. While some bishops conferences, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have taken steps to implement protocols under it, others globally have not, he said.
“The thing we have to remember is the church is undergoing this learning process,” he said. “All these things that are learned along the way should be kept in mind so they can be further refined.”
During her opening remarks, Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, urged church leaders to better understand the “collateral damage” caused by the abuse crisis that has seen people — women in particular — question the actions of clergy in regard to children even when no abuse occurred.
Women, whom McGuire described as “the center of the church,” have felt betrayed by clergy as the crisis has unfolded, she said, adding that such betrayal “is the worst collateral damage.”
McGuire invited Catholic clergy to welcome the voices of laypeople in parish life to address all endeavors of the church, including developing a more thorough response to abuse.
In answer to questions by audience members, McGuire indicated the concerns they raised pointed to “the abuse of power” by church leaders, whether it was in the commission of sexual abuse or the direction of church ministries.
She urged laypeople to step up and bring their voices into the sanctuaries of churches to accomplish the justice on behalf of all who have been abused or ignored in the church.
“We are church,” McGuire said. “One of the things I think that we need to understand is that we have power. … We need to be advocates for the healthy rules of life, the social justice teachings of the church.
“And we need to be advocates for the church that we want to be. Not the church we have right now, which is broken, but the church that we collectively as the people of the church see in the future.”
As part of the program, the initiative released a report on its two-day gathering in June of more than 50 lay leaders to discuss lessons learned from the sexual abuse crisis. That gathering, which initiative director John Carr called a national convening, brought together university professors, directors of Catholic-related organizations, communications and journalism professionals, clergy and women religious.
The report offered 10 “strategic directions” for the church to follow: putting abuse survivors at the center of its response; addressing clericalism; holding leaders accountable and insisting on transparency; focusing on seminary formation; promoting and reflecting diversity in the church; stressing the Gospel mission while building unity; welcoming new leaders; encouraging collaboration among ministries; building partnerships and stronger collaboration among clergy and laity; and being “both humble and bold.”
Carr and Kim Daniels, the initiative’s associate director, said in the report’s introduction that the convening was “an effort to answer this call to leadership in these challenging times” in an effort to “renew our church through a return to mission for our wounded family of faith in our divided nation.”
The full report, ” Lay Leadership for a Wounded Church and Divided Nation: Lessons, Directions and Paths Forward,” is available online here.
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