Friends, I’ve been praying and thinking quite a lot about what I actually want our bishops to do. I thought I’d share my thoughts with you. I’ll be mailing them to my bishop (and, in some form, to several other bishops). Feel free to adapt my words and use them in your own letter-writing, or to find excellent templates at The Siena Project. Your bishop’s address can be found here.
You know why I’m writing. It’s the same reason everybody’s been writing. Priests abused children and adults, bishops coerced seminarians into unspeakable acts, and everybody seemed to know. And nobody seemed to care.
I don’t know what you knew. Perhaps your conscience is entirely clear. Perhaps you removed every abusive priest from ministry, chastised and reported abusive and negligent bishops, and wrote the Holy Father when you heard rumors. Perhaps you have been an exemplary priest and a saintly bishop. If so, I thank you. With fierce, desperate gratitude, I thank you.
But perhaps not. If you have been a part of this vile infection plaguing our church, even just through looking the other way, I beg you to confess your sins–not only sacramentally but publicly. You may be judged harshly by those you failed to shepherd; you will be judged more harshly by the Shepherd who appointed you if you continue to abandon your flock.
I can’t know which is the case, but I choose to believe you are who you say you are: a lover of God and servant of his people. And I’m sure that you feel lost and confused and exhausted right now. Believe me, I’m praying for you. Your PR department recommends polished statements and your people demand that heads roll, regardless of whether or not the possessors of those heads have been proven guilty. I can’t imagine how hard it is to be a bishop right now. And perhaps more demands from your people just add to that weight. But in the hope that you are genuinely seeking to bring healing to this broken Church, I’d like to offer some suggestions of practical things to do right now–this week. Come November, I’ll have more thoughts about what the USCCB as a whole ought to do. But today, I offer these thoughts for your prayerful consideration:
- Begin by inviting a full investigation by the state’s attorney general and encourage all other bishops to do the same. Open all the files, whatever they contain. All of this will come out in the next ten years–if we deal with it all at once, the Church in America may survive. If we drag it out, we continue to torment survivors, endanger children, and abdicate any moral authority we still retain. The condemnation of wicked men could never cause such scandal as our secrecy has.
Work to extend statutes of limitations such that justice can be wrought in this world as well as the next.
Meet personally with survivors and their families. Meet on their terms: where they want, when they want, with whom they want. Allow media if they prefer, but do not make this a photo opp.
Host town hall meetings throughout the diocese. Listen. Apologize. Don’t defend.
- Publicly ask the Holy Father to invite an investigation of what Vatican officials (including the Holy Father) knew about McCarrick and when. We have had enough of silence. Now is a time for fathers to answer their confused and frightened children, not to stand by impassively as the family self-destructs. I do not want Pope Francis to resign. I want him to lead the way in transparency and (if necessary) repentance.
- Establish a policy of surveying seminarians semi-annually about their experience of and concerns about seminary life. Visiting the seminaries you send your men to is essential, though it alone is not enough. Make it clear that those reporting sexual misconduct or the abuse of authority will always be granted a meeting directly with you. Their concerns will not go unheard.
Commit yourself personally to public acts of penance and reparation. Bishop Reed in Boston has taken the lead on this, engaging in an act of prayer and fasting that has stunned the Catholic world. Ask the Lord how you can take a stand, showing survivors and all the wounded faithful that you will fight for us, that you will sacrifice yourself for love of Christ and for love of us.
- Call on the clergy of your diocese to return to the practice of Friday abstinence. Encourage them to undertake other acts of penance and reparation on behalf of their fallen brother priests and for the healing of the Church. Remind them that they became priests for the salvation of souls and that no good thing comes without effort. The demons attacking our church will be cast out only through prayer and fasting.
- Exhort all priests of the diocese to offer a Mass of Reparation every Friday between now and Christmas. (The Solemnity of the Exaltation of the Cross and the Feast of All Souls are, of course, universal feasts that cannot be replaced by votive Masses, though both are particularly connected to this cause as well. It is, I believe, in your power to remove all obstacles to celebrating a Mass of Reparation for every other Friday between now and Christmas.)
- Ask every parish to recite the St. Michael prayer following each Mass (before the closing hymn on Sundays) for the purification of the Church and her protection from all evil influences.
- Continue preaching on this and asking your clergy to do the same. Not every homily needs to be an apology on behalf of the clergy, but too many Catholics have heard nothing at all and feel abandoned. Just mention that this is a hard time in the Church, that you’re sorry for those who have suffered, and that Jesus loves us in our pain–we just need to know that you aren’t pretending that this is business as usual.
- Finally, Your Excellency, if there is anything at all in your past that, if exposed, would force you to resign, skip the drama. Resign now. Tell us everything and retire to a life of penance. Owning up to your sins, begging forgiveness, and doing public penance may just get you canonized one day. Diverting blame and keeping your head down may earn you a place in hell. Catholics are in the habit of forgiving repentant sinners. This isn’t a hard choice.
You will, I hope, forgive my forwardness. But my Church is under attack and you, Excellency, have been clothed in armor and given a sword to defend her. I may pray and fast (and I do), I may call for reform, I may stand before thousands and point them back to Christ in the midst of this chaos they long to run from, but only you can be our shepherd.
Thank you for the gift of your priesthood and for the courage and wisdom with which you lead our local Church. I pledge to pray for you daily by name as you seek to be faithful in carrying out the work of the Spirit.
Yours in Christ through Mary,